SARATOGA SPRINGS — David Petronis said he didn’t think displaying Adolf Hitler’s personal desk at an upcoming Spa City gun show would be an issue.
“I never even gave it a thought,” said Petronis, who is president of the Mechanicville-based New Eastcoast Arms Collectors Associates (NEACA). “To me, it wasn’t controversial.”
Maxine Lindig Lautenberg, a member of Temple Sinai, saw it differently.
“I literally started to cry,” she said.
She was speaking from Congress Park before an “All Are Welcome Here” vigil, an event she helped organize before news of the planned display of Hitler’s belongings had spread. Her synagogue is on Broadway, across from the City Center where the gun show is planned for Sept. 1 through 3.
“You want to think that we’re not infiltrated, and so it really brought it close to home,” she said. “I was surprised that I had that reaction, but I actually did. I was like, ‘Whoa, it’s really right here.’”
News of the planned display — which would also have included a chair and a valet stand from Hitler’s 1930s Munich apartment and his Nazi party cap — drew quick criticism Thursday from residents and politicians on both sides of the aisle. Petronis agreed to exclude the display from the Gun and Militaria Show after hearing from Ryan McMahon, the City Center’s executive director.
McMahon said he asked Petronis to keep the display out of the show after hearing “numerous comments and feedback” from residents.
“We have spoken with the event organizer, and these items will not be on display during the arms fair,” McMahon said in a prepared statement. “The City Center Authority wishes to be responsive to the Saratoga Springs community sensitivity while fulfilling its mandate to maximize facility usage and drive customers for the local hotels and businesses.”
Petronis has brought the show to the City Center for more than three decades and hosts about 30 gun shows annually across the Northeast. He said he planned the display for the City Center show, and no other NEACA shows, three months ago.
That was before a riot of white nationalists, Ku Klux Klan members and neo-Nazis erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier this month. That protest, a response to Charlottesville’s plan to remove a statue of Confederate commander Robert E. Lee, resulted in the death of a woman and left 19 other people injured.
“I can understand, and I’m sensitive to the fact of this desk at this particular time, but I thought that we could make a very nice presentation of a historical item that is a part of history,” he said. “You’re not going to ever change history.”
Petronis said he had big plans for Hitler’s old belongings, which included draping the desk in a German flag with a mannequin dressed as a U.S. soldier sitting on top. He envisioned the G.I. piercing the German flag with a dagger, an American flag draped over his knee and a cigarette in his hand, he said.
“This simply was an opportunity for the sale to show that Nazism in 1945 was dead and buried,” he said.
He said the desk and other items will be sold at a public auction on Jan. 27 by Milestone Auctions, of Ohio — regardless.
“If these people who are so adamant against it want to pay a half a million dollars to me, I’ll give them the desk and the lighter fluid and the match, and they can burn it in the public square,” he said.
McMahon, who became the City Center’s executive director in January — replacing founding director Mark Baker in that role — said he learned of Petronis’s plan to display the Hitler memorabilia from a Thursday Daily Gazette article.
Petronis had promoted the desk’s presence in a Wednesday news release about the show, also saying John Wayne’s 1930s Smith & Wesson gun, holster rig and spurs, would be there.
“The John Wayne items will still be pretty cool, but the Hitler items will not be there,” McMahon said.
Petronis said a famous Confederate general’s frock coat would also still be on display. He could not recall the general’s name but said it was not Lee.
Baker, a Republican who is running for mayor, said he supported the City Center Authority’s decision, calling the Hitler auction items “historic artifacts that lack sensitivity to many in our community.”
Mayor Joanne Yepsen said she received numerous calls from residents with concerns about the planned display.
She thanked McMahon “for his quick action and recognizing the sensitivity of this display, in particular, right across the street from a very active organization in our city, Temple Sinai.”
Yepsen, a Democrat, is not seeking reelection. Her deputy, Meg Kelly, is running to replace her.
The biannual gun show’s place in the Spa City was threatened in recent years after the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting led community members to protest the event.
The latest show took place in May, after opposition from local politicians like Yepsen, and after leaders from NEACA and the venue had been unable to agree on dates for future shows beyond the previous show in August 2016. Sen. Kathy Marchione, R-Halfmoon, advocated for the show’s continuation locally.
“I’m horrified and saddened that someone would want to come to our community and exhibit something like this,” said Susan Steer, a city resident who collected nearly 1,500 signatures in an attempt to have the gun show banned in recent years.