Sparr's Antiques and Militaria is a tiny store made smaller by the antiques overwhelming its shelves. Located on Broadway in Astoria, Sparr’s is crowded with old military uniforms hanging from the racks and mannequins lining the perimeter.
Deeper inside, tiny sewing boxes and propaganda magazines sit beside antique knives. But, like so many other military antique stores, in the back right corner of the store, there's a display from a time in history many would rather not think about. Original Nazi memorabilia — armbands, uniform hats, knives and a folded bright red Nazi flag — waits, ready to be purchased.
“It's just kind of shocking to see something like that in New York,” said Sabrina Kostusiak, an Astoria resident. “You kind of forget that these people are out there after being so comfortable in your bubble for so long. It was jarring to walk into a space and immediately feel unsafe.”
But Kostusiak had stumbled into a scenario many others across the country have before, and like them, she asked the question that military antique collectors have spent years answering for people outside the collecting community: why is this here?
Nazi antiques aren’t abnormal or an act of hate, according to experts in the collecting community.
Bill Combs, business manager for the Ohio Valley Military Society, the nation's largest collector organization for military collectibles, said that, while to an outsider it seems absurd, having Third Reich antiques is normal and actually makes up a majority of the collecting hobby.
“That doesn't make him a white supremacist. That doesn't make him a Nazi. That doesn't make his customers that. That makes them collectors,” Combs said.
The Anti-Defamation League said that it’s context that keeps buying and selling these items from being an act of hate. Rachel Grinspan, Associate Regional Director of the ADL NY/NJ Region, said that it is legal and an act of free speech to buy and sell these antiques, but the items must be authentic and displayed with care and context.
Sparr's Antiques & Militaria has been on Broadway since 1946 when an American WWII vet opened it after the war. That vet’s son, Oliver Sparr, still owns the place.
Sparr, who has worked in his father’s store his whole life, greets customers and perusers with a smile. He said the last thing he wants is to upset people.
"We won... it's not like that,” he said. “We’ve got everything, American, Japanese and the Germans…”
The items that line the shelves are tokens from veterans, he said. To him, they’re moments from history. Nothing more. He says that while WWII memorabilia makes up 50 percent of what he sells, he doesn’t sell to white supremacists, he sells to collectors.
“This is the only store in NYC that deals with authentic militaria. They do not sell ‘made in Taiwan’ reproduction ‘surplus’ like most stores do,” wrote one reviewer online. “Prices are very reasonable and business is always conducted with the highest levels of honesty and integrity. If you're looking for authentic war souvenirs, this place is a must.”
According to Combs, Third Reich memorabilia makes up 65 percent of the collecting community because of the sheer scale of World War II, how recent it was, and the number of artifacts brought back. WWII had some of the most souvenir hunting, according to the US Army website.
“As we all understand, the Germans were the bad guys in World War II and very much the bad guys. Nobody's trying to make excuses for the National Socialism here,” Combs said.
Combs said that these items aren’t for white supremacists.
“They'll go buy a nylon Nazi flag made in China because they cost 15 bucks. Real one costs $300, $400,” he said. “It's also 70 years old and, you know, you can't go waving it around when you're, you're hitting up the rally… It's going to fall apart.”
Militaria collectors usually get into the hobby because they had family members who served in wars — they are interested in history or just think the items look cool. It used to be a much bigger hobby in the eighties and nineties, which Combs attributes to the fact that there were more WWII vets.
As collecting has fallen out of fashion and white supremacists started making headlines, the collectors and sellers have received backlash from outside the collecting community. Stores in places like Sacramento, and Long Island, have been asked to pull items from their collections.
“No one was offended before. There was no question as to why people were collecting this stuff before,” Combs said, explaining that as WWII vets die, people understand less and less. “People understood this and people knew this in the proper context. If this wasn't a political statement…It was simply history.”
Combs said context has become important to his organization and others in recent years. His organization adopted a new level of sensitivity and started implementing rules in the display of their antiques. Now they don't allow the display of Holocaust-related material except when approved by a Holocaust museum or related organization, and everything is in historical context. Nazi flags must be laid flat, not hung, and armbands can’t be worn. They also don’t allow the sale of modern recreations. Sparr’s shop seemed to be following all of these guidelines.
“I want to address those issues, but still preserve the history,” Sparr said.
“[Collectors] are not expounding a political philosophy. They are in fact preserving history so that these events, both the heroism of our soldiers and the other allied soldiers and the crimes and misdeeds of Nazi Germany and their allies, these things are not forgotten… through the artifactual evidence of it,” he said. “And that's what museums do. And by connection, that's what private collectors do.”
Military antiques usually depend on three groups of people to preserve them. The first is family, the second is museums, and according to Combs, the third, unseen group is individual collectors. Museums don’t have the resources to hold onto everything and usually turn to private collectors to bolster exhibits and expos.
Jewish people are divided on whether they think the sale of these antiques is justified. While on a national level there is a small number of Jewish people who collect these antiques or think that collecting certain items is ok, Rabbi Jonathan Pearl of Astoria Center of Israel, one of the two synagogues in Astoria, says knowing this is being sold in the community upsets him.
“I don’t think it should be illegal to sell things, but obviously I don’t think it’s the right thing to do… to buy and sell those things,” Pearl said. He wasn't shocked, he said, because he had always seen anti-Semitism as an issue.
“It’s all part of the same picture of people who hate Israel or who hate Jews,” he said. “There are plenty of museums around that display the evil of the Nazis and all the paraphernalia. That people can go out and buy it, to me that doesn’t reek of trying to keep the memory alive.”
But like Combs, he believes learning about history is important.
“Individuals need to learn about it. That’s how we remember things, by learning them, by learning them properly. Not watering them down.”
This story is a collaboration between Gothamist and the Queens Daily Eagle