So here’s how the visit to “WW II and NYC” started for me.
A block away from the impressive New-York Historical Society Museum building, I wasn’t expecting to see actor Michael Douglas. But there he was hurriedly walking towards his Central Park West apartment. I was to later learn that Mr. Douglas starred in a film inspired by author Susan Isaacs--a movie about World War II called “Shining Through,”--which also featured actor Liam Neeson. The voice of Mr. Neeson greeted me in a four-star welcoming film that beautifully sets the stage for your visit to this newly renovated museum. It was all an impressive set-up for the not-to-be-missed exhibition titled “WW II & NYC” now on display through the end of May at the NY Historical Society Museum located at 170 Central Park West off 77th Street.
The chilling exhibition mesmerizes you with its well choreographed presentation focusing on how the population in and around the New York metropolitan area took an active role in helping the war effort and the troops during the war year period of the late 1930s through 1945. The exhibition’s publicity material highlights the famous Alfred Eisenstaedt Time-Life photograph of the sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square.
A letter from Albert Einstein, written from his Long Island home, warns President Roosevelt about the scientific breakthroughs that in Einstein’s words could lead to “extremely powerful bombs.”
You’ll note how Theodor (Dr. Seuss) Geisel, utilizing his artistic and verbal talents, ridiculed the America First Committee for taking an unfortunate hands off stance on the Nazis. Mr. Geisel’s popular political cartoons appeared in a so-called left wing newspaper called PM that editorialized for intervention.
There’s a display of Jewish religious material, including a kit that was given to the troops. In the kit, you’ll see a Passover Haggadah, a Jewish calendar for “soldiers and sailors,” and a book of “Jewish Thoughts.” Also, some of the rations including M&M’s which were developed because the candy coated chocolate wouldn’t melt in your hands in the combat zone heat.
Speaking of the troops, there is an original sign on display with the words “Send a Salami to your Boy in the Army.” Anyone who has been to Katz’ Delicatessen on Houston Street has noticed the sign that still hangs near the entrance. The Katz owner
originally hung this sign to encourage New Yorkers to mail the all-beef salamis as a Kosher alternative for Jewish servicemen who tried to avoid pork.
You’ll hear a recording of the World War I era patriotic song “God Bless America.” Written by Jewish composer Irving Berlin. the legendary song was performed by the powerful voice of Kate Smith. You’ll learn she sang the song that was to become her signature performance on November 11th, 1938--two days after Kristallnacht, the well-coordinated attack on Jews and their businesses that took place throughout Germany and Austria.
There’s the narrated story of combat cameraman Philip Schultz, who talks about his wartime experiences as he “crawled on his belly through Europe”. He was there with his camera on D-Day, for the liberation of the Dachau Concentration Camp and at Potsdam where the world leaders met in 1945 as well as at the Nazi war crime trials in Nuremberg.
Take note also of the fascinating story of a real Jewish spy. Her name was Florence Mendheim and she collected items in 1933 why spying on the Nazi group Friends of the New Germany. As she had blond hair and blue eyes, she easily blended into the group--helping maintain her cover as a Nazi sympathizer who went under the name “Gertrude Meuller.” She used secret codes to report her findings to Rabbi Cohen of the American Jewish Congress and others. Her story reminded me of Michael Douglas’ role in the aforementioned movie where he was involved in coordinating espionage activities.
First person accounts help give this powerful exhibition its emotional strength. For example, you’ll learn about Sidney Diamond, a First Lieutenant in the Army who left his high school sweetheart Estelle to enlist. She saved the 525 letters she received from her fiancé who never returned home. Then there’s Dr. Philip Freiman, a US Army Chaplin who tended to the medical needs of Italian prisoners of war. While overseas, his wife lived with her family in Borough Park, Brooklyn.
From presenting grainy black and white films to exhibiting posters, newspaper articles, radio broadcasts, pictures, maps, music, paintings and first-person accounts, the Museum delivers an eyewitness first hand look at memories of the war and the home front, commemorating the almost 900,000 New Yorkers who served. This is the story of a war and the city that came together working non-stop to help. The powerful memories will stay with you long after you leave Central Park West and head back home from the city that never sleeps, even way back then.