“The Poisonous Mushroom” by Ernst Heimer
At the dawn of Adolf Hitler’s rule, not everyone immediately assented to the antisemitism that he was attempting to perpetuate – barely anyone ever heard of it in the first place. Some Germans – especially the intellectuals – who disagreed with the Fuhrer, fled their motherland out of fear of accountability to any future crimes he might make. This caused division; Hitler wanted unity. To reach that goal, a strategy was devised: if they wanted to make Germans hate Jews, they have to “start them young.” Written by Ernst Heimer with illustrations by Philipp Rupprecht, Der Giftpilz – “The Poisonous Mushroom” in English – is one among other works of children’s literature created as an attempt to indoctrinate German children with antisemitic beliefs at an early age. It was published in 1938 by Julius Streicher, a pro-Nazi publisher who founded the tenaciously anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer.
The children’s book, as a whole, consists of 17 short stories, with each containing a “moral.” Given the utterly discriminating and resentful tone of the stories, one would not be mistaken in thinking that the Germans thought of them as parables. All of the stories depict a gross oversimplification and exaggeration of Jews as a whole. As its target demographic was German children, the language of the book is anecdotal in structure and straightforward in substance – so dastardly and outrageously straightforward, at that. Bluntly, the young German readers are met with The imagery and figures of speech which permeate in children’s books, so as to stimulate their imaginative faculties, are all but present in the book. Ironically, as the Germans attempt to reach an enclosed understanding of everything else, they also reach an enclosed understanding of themselves. It is a side effect of the mission to indoctrinate children, and imaginative thinking can only serve as a hurdle to that; thus, it becomes simplistic, just as the goal of the entire endeavor: make German children hate Jews.
Above is the first line of the first short story of the book. Already, it exudes resentment towards Jews, expressed bluntly and unabashedly – the resounding tone of the entire book. The first short story expands upon a metaphor of the poisonous mushroom: therein lies great difficulty distinguishing edible mushrooms from poisonous mushrooms, just as there is difficulty distinguishing good people from bad people. The bad people – the poisonous mushrooms – are the Jews, and great caution must be exercised. To the same effect, the short story attempts to teach German children spread awareness among non-Jews that Jews are “as dangerous as poisonous mushrooms” – the most dangerous ones in existence, for they cause the greatest evils and they are everywhere.
This metaphor sets the precedent with which the next short stories follow suit. Primarily, the short stories touch upon gross generalizations of Jews: they are pure evil, conniving, Christ-hating, and money-loving. “Inge’s visit to a Jewish doctor,” for example, depicts the events of the visit of a German child, Inge, to the doctor. Despite her own reservations of going because of the doctor being Jewish, she went to him out of obedience to her mother, who believes that he is good. After hearing horrifying sounds of fear and pain from another child, Inge escapes and returns to her mother, who believes then that Jewish doctors are evil. At large, this is an attempt to kill the old notions of Jews that are neutral at best, and to instill the notions that they are, by nature, “evil.”
One of the last stories of the book, “Are there decent Jews?” puts the nail in the coffin for the Jews. The titular question, potentially, is one that can be spawned by the natural curiosity of children. The story is summed as thus: a Jew boasts his own people to be the most decent of all. He gets called out for lying, then he runs away as an object of laughter. Strategically, the story is a direct counter to possible concessions. As German children are led to hate Jews in every regard, they are also led to never be able to like them in any regard. The end goal of the story, and the final step to instilling anti-Semitism in children, is to etch this into their minds: never are Jews legible to any benefit of the doubt; never is it possible to have any point of reconciliation with Jews; never can Jews be decent. Jews are evil without the shadow of a doubt; Jews are irredeemable – Jews are “Devils.”
The Jew he is, known to us all
As murderer of the peoples and polluter of the races,
The terror of children in every country!
He wants to ruin the youth.
He wants all peoples to die.
Have nothing to do with a Jew
Then you’ll be happy and gay!
By and large, anti-Semitism was not the only goal of “The Poisonous Mushroom.” The last story of the book, “Without Solving the Jewish Question, No Salvation for Mankind,” contains overtones of German “nationalism,” instilling in the hearts of German children the idea that Germans have a salvific destiny: to save the world from the “Devils.” Jews are a prime evil to the world, and only Germans can save it from them. As a whole, the book does this to great effect: the order of the stories is orchestrated in such a way that leads to this proclamation. By the time that children read the last story, they would have already absorbed sentiments of anti-Semitism, culminating into a sense of love and glory for Germany. The grave consequence of this: to espouse “nationalism” is to love one’s own country, and to love one’s own country is to bear hatred for another people. In a word, nationalism is hatred.
On paper, “The Poisonous Mushroom” would have been effective in instilling notions of anti-Semitism and some sense of German “nationalism” in the minds of children. It seems that Streicher published this with utmost confidence in the longevity and triumph of Nazi Germany, envisioning a future population fuming with hatred towards the Jews. History shows he never realized this dream and, by execution in 1946, died along with it. Nevertheless, “The Poisonous Mushroom” is a shining example of the power and severity of literature when it is politically fueled. It is hoped that this book may serve to demonstrate that the freedom of expression, underlying all works literature, comes with a degree of responsibility. Directed towards good, literature can drive people to progress; towards evil, it can drive people to their darkest selves.