More than 50 years ago, Arthur Langerman saw an antisemitic drawing for the first time. It was on sale at an auction. Shocked and intrigued, the young Belgian man bought the item. It was to become the first piece in an odd, vast collection of antisemitic objects.
“I was appalled and wanted to understand why anyone would waste their time and talent making such an evil thing. That’s why I started buying the objects. I thought they would help me understand antisemitism and the Holocaust,” he said.
Mr Langerman, born in Antwerp in 1942, lost almost all of his family in the Shoah. His mother was his only relative who survived, and she could not talk about what she had experienced.
“My parents were arrested by the Gestapo and deported in 1944 when I was one and a half. My father never returned. I’ve never known any of my grandparents, aunts or cousins. About 30 of them were killed. Imagine how traumatising that is. People mourn when they lose one relative and I lost almost all of mine,” said Mr Langerman. “I quickly understood that talking about it was too painful for my mother and I never asked her any questions.”
Mr Langerman only learned what happened only at the age of 19 when he followed the Adolf Eichmann trial.
“I kept wondering why Jews had been treated this way. Why were they hated so much?” said Mr Langerman.
His collection grew over the years and he now owns more than 7,000 objects, which still horrify him.
“The collection is very shocking and difficult to look at and what strikes me most is how people got used to that violent antisemitism. How they felt it was normal. Take, for example, one of my antisemitic postcards. On one side there’s a horrible drawing full of hatred and on the other the person sending the message is asking someone to water his plants.
“In every country, specific aspects of antisemitism were developed. In the UK, for example, Jews were made fun of, treated as vile merchants who refuse to serve in the army. In France, intellectuals like Emile Zola, who defended Jews, were also vilified.
“I think that the Germans had brainwashed people for such a long time that the population no longer felt Jews were human. For them Jews were like insects. That’s why they felt they could massacre them, smash babies into walls, throw them into fires,” said Mr Langerman.
Mr Langerman had been criticised by friends for collecting the images and he kept what he calls his “obsession” private. But the recent wave of antisemitism in Europe pushed him to show the work. A total of 120 posters, books, postcards and other objects are exhibited at the French Caen Memorial.
“More than three years ago I was in Antwerp and I heard in a protest involving radicals of all kinds the slogan ‘death to Jews’. I realised everything can start all over again. That waswhen I understood the documents I have gathered should be examined in a proper foundation dedicated to the study of antiemitism. When I saw a girl crying in my exhibition I felt that I had managed to pass on to her some crucial information.
“Of course today antisemitism isn’t at the same level as it was in the 1930s, but it took the Germans a long time to get to that level of violent propaganda. Today, I feel we’re at the beginning of a process. People are just as ignorant and they believe what they hear. The media always mixes up for example the notion of ‘Jews’ and ‘Israelis’.”
One reason Mr Langerman’s collection is so big is that he refuses to sell any of the objects.
“I’ve received offers but I refuse to make a dollar, this is the Shoah and I’m not going to earn anything from it. I also want to keep these sickening objects off the market.”