Neil Keller’s obsession with collecting memorabilia associated with notable Jewish individuals from multiple genre started in 1986 when the now retired CPA purchased a 1961 Sandy Koufax baseball card at a Washington, D.C. flea market for $30.
Keller readily acknowledges the acquisition of that single baseball card quickly ballooned into a full-blown obsession.
The 63-year-old started by hunting down collectibles related to Jews in baseball. And then he expanded his collection include to Jews in all sports, then Jews in entertainment and politics.
Now in possession of 22,000 items, Keller’s collection has become so vast and diverse, he’s able to break it down into smaller displays that can tell specific stories.
One of those, “Triumph of the Spirit: Jewish Athletes Before, During and After the Holocaust” is now on exhibition at the Merage Jewish Community Center in Irvine.
On display through Dec. 1, the exhibit features digitized copies of Keller’s collection of trading cards, postcards, newspaper clippings, letters, autographs and photos, with many of the pieces given to Keller by the families of the athletes.
“The Nazis tried to dehumanize Jews. They even tattooed them,” Keller said. “This makes them human again.”
Though many are not names familiar to the masses, a staggering number of those memorialized in the exhibition were Olympic or professional athletes who later died in concentration camps during World War II.
Among the athletes showcased is Tunisian Jewish boxer Victor Young Perez, the world flyweight champion in 1931 and 1932. He was arrested in France by a parliamentary force of the Vichy regime and sent to the Drancy internment camp before being transported to Auschwitz.
In 1945, Perez was part of a death march and was accused by the Nazis of stealing bread to give to other prisoners. He was executed in January 1945.
One of the lesser-known atrocities the occurred in the concentration camps, said Keller, was the use of Jewish boxers as entertainment for officers and guards.
Akin to the battles between gladiators in ancient Rome, the boxers were forced to fight each other with fights sometimes lasting for hours. The losers of the fight were often shot, Keller said.
Also featured in the exhibit are Alfred Nakache, a Jewish French swimmer and water polo player, and Polish-born weightlifter Ben Helfgott. Both men are believed to be the only Jewish athletes to compete in the Olympics after being in concentration camps.
“He tracks everything,” Keller’s girlfriend, Alyse Saxe, said. “He is so organized the way he does everything and he keeps so much knowledge in his brain.”
Administrators at the Jewish Community Center first learned about Keller’s exhibit in early 2022, when the collector did a presentation in Boca Raton, Florida. The exhibit ran for two months and was hugely successful, said Aliza Sable, cultural arts director at the center in Irvine.
“So, they decided to put a package of digital assets together that would recreate the exhibit in a cost-effective way so that other JCCs and institutions could share it,” Sable said. “And we are so grateful to be able to benefit from this.”
Keller said he plans to continue bringing the exhibit and accompanying Power Point presentation to major cities and hopes to be able to talk about it for major news networks.
“I want people to know this,” Keller said. “I want people to know what happens when hate gets out of control.”
For more information on the “Triumph of the Spirit” exhibit, which is free and open to the public, visit jccoc.org or contact Aliza Sable at 949-435-3400, ext. 305, or email@example.com
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