German Museum Acquires 15,000 Artifacts Documenting the History of Anti-Semitism

Holocaust survivor Wolfgang Haney collected the items over three decades

museum exterior with glass walls
The museum acquired the collection in recognition of its historical significance—and to keep the objects from circulating elsewhere. Courtesy of the Deutsches Historisches Museum

The German Historical Museum in Berlin has acquired a huge archive of artifacts that trace the history of anti-Semitism in Europe across two centuries. Holocaust survivor Wolfgang Haney collected the 15,000 objects in the three decades preceding his death in 2017, reports German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel.

“It is important to the [museum] to deal with the past and present of anti-Semitism in a more meaningful way than before,” says Raphael Gross, president of the German Historical Museum Foundation, as quoted by Kate Brown of Artnet News.

At a time of rising anti-Semitic attacks in Germany, he adds, the objects will help visitors “gain a deeper understanding of how anti-Semitic attitudes, images and hate propaganda have shaped everyday life in Germany and other European countries since the middle of the 19th century.”

In addition to preserving the objects for their historical significance, the museum acquired the archive to keep it from being traded elsewhere. (Just last week, an Israeli court halted the sale of a set of needles purportedly used to tattoo inmates at Auschwitz; as Thomas Grove reports for the Wall Street Journal, critics argued that the items should be housed in a museum rather than sold as private property to an unknown buyer.)

Old Maid cards with antisemitic caricatures
The objects in the collection span two centuries of European history. Courtesy of the Deutsches Historisches Museum

Haney was born in Berlin in 1924 to a Catholic father and Jewish mother. He was forced to leave high school because of his Jewish background, and his house was bombed and destroyed in 1943. His mother escaped the Holocaust by hiding in the woods outside Berlin, but many other members of the family perished.

“My uncle, my aunt, the whole of our family was sent to Litzmannstadt (Lodz), then to Auschwitz. No one came back,” Haney told Widen the Circle in 2015, when the nonprofit group, which seeks to “combat prejudice by fostering a shared understanding of the past,” awarded him the Obermayer German Jewish History Award for Distinguished Service.

Haney himself escaped deportation due to his father’s connections. After the war, he worked as an engineer in Berlin, helping to rebuild the war-torn city. Decades later, in retirement, he began traveling the country, collecting objects related to anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, including letters sent from concentration camps, anti-Semitic caricatures, Jewish ration cards, stamps and photographs.

“My desire and goal is to inform the German population, especially the youth, and explain that what the Nazis [did] was an unimaginable disaster for Germany,” Haney told Widen the Circle. “It’s very important that they know what happened. In earlier years, the Germans said that they did it and they [acknowledged that the Holocaust] was very bad. But now, slowly, the anti-Semitism is beginning again.”

Haney spent more than $1 million on the collection, which has appeared in exhibitions at museums and educational institutions in the past, notes ARTnews’ Shanti Escalante-De Mattei. In 2006, he received the Berlin Order of Merit, the highest honor given by the city.

album containing  antisemitic caricatures
Haney collected postcards, advertisements and other objects related to anti-Semitism.  Courtesy of the Deutsches Historisches Museum

The collection includes posters related to the Dreyfus Affair, an 1894 scandal in which Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish artillery captain in the French army, was falsely accused of spying for Germany. It also contains advertisements for the 1940 Nazi propaganda film Jud Süss.

Per the Art Newspaper’s Catherine Hickley, the museum says it’s addressing ethical questions about some of the newly acquired items, including personal documents of Holocaust victims. It plans to transfer these artifacts to the Arolsen Archives, which preserve material related to the victims of Nazi persecution. 

Haney’s collection also includes scraps of Torah scrolls looted from Eastern European synagogues by German soldiers and used as packing paper. The museum is working with the Claims Conference to determine what to do with the fragments. It’s also consulting with the Berlin Center for Antisemitism Research regarding anti-Semitic images and figurines in the collection.

“The Haney Collection contains historically unique testimonies that show National Socialist’s oppression and crimes against humanity and the gradual escalation of the racist terror system,” says Monika Grütters, Germany’s minister of state for culture, in a statement quoted by the Art Newspaper. “The collection is such a valuable bundle for research into anti-Semitism, which is currently challenging us again.”

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