BRUSSELS – In a quiet house in the upscale neighborhood of Uccle, a huge and horrifying mass of anti-Semitic hate material sits arranged in cardboard boxes on long shelves.
This private collection, one of the largest in the world, belongs to Arthur Langerman. It features thousands of posters, paintings, cartoons, postcards and other visual materials on a single subject: a profound hatred of the Jews.
Langerman himself, a tall and pleasant man who looks younger than his 76 years, lives in a large home nearby. He is in the diamond trade and is considered one of the world’s experts on colored gems.
He has also tried his hand at translation and has produced French versions (from the original Yiddish) of some of Shalom Aleichem’s finest works. His anti-Semitism collection, however, remains the subject that preoccupies him.
He felt enormous satisfaction last year when the Caen Memorial Museum, which commemorates the Allied landing on D-Day, held an exhibition of anti-Jewish Nazi propaganda drawn from his own collection; it was visited by 150,000 people. In conjunction with the exhibition, the French publisher Fayard produced a catalog showcasing Langerman’s collection and anti-Semitic images from 1886 onward that helped lead to the Holocaust.
No part of the collection has ever been shown in Israel. Several years ago, when Langerman began thinking about the future, he approached a number of organizations in Israel and offered them his unique historical treasure. No one got back to him, he says. In fact, no one bothered to even find out what it was all about. As a result, he contacted the German Center for Research on Anti-Semitism, which immediately leaped at the chance, found the money and hired a team of researchers to work on the collection. Now, Langerman says, the mayor of Berlin is looking for a suitable building to turn into a museum and house the collection.
There’s no doubt that Langerman’s life story provides the key to understanding his extraordinary mission, one in which he has invested many years and a great deal of money.
In his kitchen, which looks out onto a green garden and gray skies, he recalls his parents Salomon and Zysla, who immigrated to Antwerp from Poland – he worked in the fur trade; she was a milliner – and married in 1941. Arthur was born the following year.
“When I was about a year-and-a-half old, in March 1944, men from the German Gestapo came to our home and took my parents,” he recalls. “Thanks to the efforts of Belgium’s Queen Elisabeth and other eminent Belgians, ‘agreements’ were made with the occupying Nazi authorities not to send babies to the concentration camps with their parents – because these were, as the Germans claimed, ‘work camps.’”
The lives of hundreds of Jewish infants were saved, including Arthur, and they were all sent to a specially organized orphanage in a Brussels suburb.
Three years ago, French television made a film about Langerman, “The Collector,” and researchers found the wartime orphanage in the suburb of Etterbeek. Arthur and the film crew went there, rang the doorbell and found a shocked homeowner who hadn’t known anything about the history of where she lived.
María Isabel – who was born in Spain and had been living in Belgium for more than 30 years, working at the European Union – was so moved by the story that she decided to devote most of her subsequent free time to locating “her” babies, as she calls them in a conversation with Haaretz.
Isabel combed through archives, finding details, photos and names. She made phone calls to various people around the world – and has already found a dozen of the survivors, in Israel, Belgium and the United States. She puts them in touch with one another and tells them about the first years of their lives – a time that is a black hole for many of them. “I don’t have the right to live in this house if I don’t do what I am doing,” she says.
Arthur Langerman’s father never came back. His mother survived Birkenau and returned to Belgium. “She hardly spoke at all,” Langerman recounts. “Like others at the time, she was ashamed that she had remained alive – so I didn’t know much about what had happened there. We lived in Antwerp, I went to school, I was active in [Jewish youth movement] Hashomer Hatzair and at a relatively early age I started to work, helping to support the family. I learned diamond polishing. I worked for one of the diamond merchants in the city, I learned everything possible and I decided to be an independent. I got lucky and in the 1980s, when I specialized in colored diamonds, I did good business and became one of the biggest international experts in the field.”
Virulent hatred of Jews
In 1961, the Eichmann trial began in Israel. Langerman, not yet 20, was fascinated by what was happening and hungrily devoured all of the testimonies, following the accumulation of evidence, even memorized the prosecutor’s words. And the words had a profound effect.
“I had always been the collecting type. I had various collections, comics and other things. But since that trial I dropped everything else and focused on collecting the materials that made up the propaganda machine of hatred against the Jews.”
Langerman explains that although Israelis know a lot about the Holocaust, they know far less about anti-Semitism. “And after all, it was anti-Semitism that made the Holocaust possible,” he says. “By means of this, for generations they prepared the population of Europe, in nearly every country, for the day the Holocaust began to slaughter Jews. The anti-Semitic propaganda turned the Jews into parasites, insects, inhuman beasts – and therefore made it possible to destroy them. That’s how it was possible to reach 6 million.
“My collection teaches how they did this; that’s where its chilling power lies,” he continues. “We are talking about the pre-television era. The visual materials that influenced the masses were posters in the streets, illustrations in books, cartoons in newspapers, photographs – and postcards. Yes, postcards, which were so common. I have thousands of postcards that people sent to one another from vacation destinations, ‘Regards to Auntie and Uncle,’ family news – and on the other side, disgusting anti-Semitic illustrations. The bulk of anti-Semitic visual materials is from the mid-19th century on, and this is also the time of the largest part of my collection.”
I ask Langerman how he acquired such an extensive collection. After all, this is a sensitive market and merchants are presumably suspicious – and there are even laws in Germany prohibiting the sale of Nazi “souvenirs.”
“When I started out more than 50 years ago, people related to this differently,” says Langerman. “Many didn’t even know what they had in the piles of paper, newspapers and booklets at the flea markets and antiques fairs. I combed through stands, searched and purchased things. When I heard about attic clear outs, I showed up. I found treasures in the area that interested me. Over time, merchants came to know what I was looking for and felt uncomfortable, concealing their wares behind other things – but it’s just trading. You pay and the merchandise changes hands.
“That’s also how, 20 years ago, I purchased from a merchant who was clearing out an attic in Nuremberg hundreds of cartoons by Fips [the pen-name of Philipp Rupprecht], the notorious chief cartoonist at Der Stürmer, the organ of the Nazi Party. I don’t think the seller had a clue about what was in his possession,” says Langerman.
“This Fips interests me. He was soaked to the very marrow of his bones in virulent hatred of Jews. After the war, they put him on trial. He got 10 years and was released. He died in 1975. A little while ago, I managed to locate his youngest son, who is now 83, and got in touch with him – he didn’t know who I am – to find out if he had any of his father’s materials. He told me he had nothing.”
Langerman says the internet has made the whole process easier. “It’s easy to search, it’s easy to get to special things – and the sellers are less suspicious. It’s anonymous. You order, you send the money and you get it delivered,” he says. “In recent years, about 15 people in various places – go-betweens who keep an eye out for my interests in the field – have been looking out for me.”
Interest from Berlin
In recent years, Langerman has started to worry about his collection’s fate. His two children – a daughter who pursued art studies and is now managing a large part of his diamond business; a son who is a professor of mathematics and an algorithms expert – aren’t particularly interested in the subject. He shows me his correspondence with Yad Vashem four years ago (“Thank you for your correspondence. The official from our International Relations Division will contact you.”) To this day, no one has got in touch.
Langerman made a video about his collection and sent it to the collections department at the National Library of Israel, in Jerusalem. A reply came: “This is wonderful. Thank you very much,” but nothing further happened. He also tried to interest the Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot, also to no avail.
As a result, in the future anyone in Israel with an interest in the collection will have to travel to Berlin to see it. “My inquiries have shown that the only country currently interested in the study of anti-Semitism in a serious way is Germany. The Center for Research on Anti-Semitism has shown enthusiastic, cooperation, and I assume that our two-year negotiations will bear fruit in the near future. And then, the collection – with my name attached to it – will be transferred to them for display and research.”
Berlin City Council is looking for a suitable place, and at the moment the most serious option is a building not far from Humboldt University. “Yes, in Berlin,” says Langerman in a somber tone. “It’s paradoxical, but that’s the reality.”