Florence Mendheim, future spy, was born in Chicago but grew up in the Bronx. Her parents, Max and Bettie, had come from Germany in the 1880s and still had family there. In Berlin, the Mendheims were store owners, and their name appeared prominently on the signs over the doors. Florence had seen them when she was nine, on a family trip to Germany. Her mother’s people, the Kroners, lived in Berlin as well. Florence’s Aunt Hulda Kroner had visited the Mendheims in New York, and many letters went back and forth. The family ties between the Bronx and Berlin were strong.
By 1930, the Mendheims were living on West 163rd Street. Max was out of work, but Florence, 31, was a librarian at the New York Public Library. Her brothers, Jesse and Arthur, both had jobs. Together, they supported the family and paid the $135 monthly rent. The Mendheims, like roughly half of the Bronx, were Jewish. From the letters coming from German relatives, the news on the radio and in the newspapers, and things they heard in the neighborhood and at the synagogue, they knew early on that Jews in Germany were being targeted by a rising party called Nazis.
There were even Nazis in New York—right in the Bronx, beginning in 1922. In the spring of 1933, when Hitler became Führer, Berlin authorized a new American Nazi organization. The Friends of the New Germany, headquartered in the German neighborhood of Yorkville, gave Nazis a noticeable presence in the city. It also encouraged patriotic displays toward the fatherland. Swastikas appeared in store windows around East 86th Street, and some people greeted each other with stiff-armed Heils.
Jewish organizations, shocked by this development, went on the offensive. Rabbi J. X. Cohen at the American Jewish Congress decided to send spies into the Friends of the New Germany. When he asked for volunteers who were not Jewish-looking, Florence Mendheim, fair and blue-eyed, stepped forward. She was given a fake address on West 64th Street, a Nazi party pin, and a name that sounded unquestionably Aryan: Gertrüd Müller. She also had a code name, KQX, which she was to use in her contacts with Rabbi Cohen. She begged him to keep her real name secret, because she worried that her prominent Mendheim relatives in Berlin would suffer for her actions.
Florence told her brother Arthur that she was worried for herself, too. But “Gertrüd” began going to the Friends’ meetings in Yorkville, her Nazi pin secured to her blouse. She filed secret reports to Rabbi Cohen and to the New York City Police Alien Squad, passing along what she learned as she tried to win the Friends’ trust. In a report in mid-June, she mentioned an upcoming meeting at the Schwabenhalle in Brooklyn, and asked for a “goyischlooking Jew” to go with her.
As it happens, she goes to the meeting alone. She brings along a police whistle, and takes public transportation to a completely unfamiliar area of Brooklyn. When she enters the Schwabenhalle, a few people recognize her and nod as she takes her seat. She is impressed by the orderly meeting. The Nazis speak, and they allow a group of German communists to take the floor and even to criticize Hitler. No one interrupts or calls out, but the Nazis then rebut the communists point by point. The meeting ends with three Heils for Hitler, and something she doesn’t expect: an offer of a ride home from Emil Paulsen, the man known as the local Führer. She is not sure she is safe, as a woman or a Jew. But she gets in the back seat of the car, with Paulsen on one side and Harry Procht, the Friends’ money man, on the other. The car is driven by Paulsen’s brother, whose girlfriend sits next to him. The girlfriend is in a cranky mood, and this proves an ongoing distraction to the men in the car.
Florence Mendheim is not a trained spy. When she hears details she thinks are important, she must try to remember them without looking as though she’s remembering. She must not look suspicious. She tries to ask questions that seem like innocent requests from a patriotic German eager to understand the wonders of Nazism. She uses the girlfriend’s moody outbursts to show herself as sweet and trustworthy. She listens for names, addresses, details, plans, which later she will write in her report. Sometimes she gets nothing but an indulgent smile for her questions, and she wonders if they suspect. She wonders why Paulsen tells her he’s worried, but won’t say why.
They stop at the Café Hindenburg on East 85th Street, in Yorkville, where they meet up with other Nazis. It’s a big group now. Florence eats only kosher food, so “Gertrüd” asks for coffee, nothing more. Others order cake, beer. She knows that two of the men find her attractive, and she makes use of it. She tells one he is a great speaker, an American Goebbels. He smiles, flattered: Goebbels is the firebrand of the movement in Germany. She asks for a copy of a propaganda manual she has heard about, but is told it doesn’t exist.
At around 2 am, the group leaves the café and stands on the sidewalk saying good night. They shake hands all around, smiling and repeating to each other, “Sterbt ein Jude.” “Let a Jew die.” It goes through her like a knife blade—later, in her report, she will call them “young, stupid, masochistic and sadistic devils.” But standing with them on the sidewalk, she can’t let them know how their words cut. She walks to the car with the Paulsens and the girlfriend, and they drive toward the West Side. She realizes they are taking her “home” to her fake address, and she tenses: she doesn’t know where the house is. It will look as though she can’t point out her own home, and it will give her away. By some miracle, Paulsen’s brother stops on the corner. She gets out, says her good-byes, and walks as naturally as she can down West 64th Street, looking for the building where she is supposed to live. She doesn’t know if they are watching her. She goes into the unlocked hallway, sees and takes a letter addressed to Gertrüd Müller from the Friends of the New Germany. She stands in the dim space for ten minutes, to give the Paulsen car plenty of time to leave the neighborhood. Then she hurries to the subway. It is after 3 am when she walks into her Bronx apartment, where her family is wide-awake and worried.
The following day, Florence Mendheim began her long report to Rabbi Cohen with these words: “There are
moments experienced in this business of living when the greatest reality is to be found in the most unreal, hazardous setting. It appears that in order to live at all one must live dangerously.” She went on living dangerously for about a year, attending Nazi meetings, working as a typist in the Friends’ office, and filing her reports to Rabbi Cohen as KQX. At some point the Nazis discovered her ruse. They strung her along for a while, but by March 1936, “Gertrüd Müller” had evaporated and someone else was undercover reporting to Rabbi Cohen. Florence Mendheim went on with her life, serving as the secretary of the Committee for Arab-Jewish Understanding from 1936 to 1940. All of her German relatives died in the Holocaust.
Source: Florence Mendheim [Gertrüd Müller], reports dated June 15–16, 1933 and June 25, 1933. Leo Baeck Institute, Center for Jewish History, The Papers of the Mendheim Family, Series III, Box 5, Folder 13.
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