Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Is this lampshade made from human skin?
I read an excerpt of Mark Jacobson’s new book in the Sept. 5 New York Magazine, provocatively titled “Skin.” It was an excellent piece, enthralling and affecting, especially given the disquieting subject matter.
Jacobson, a self-described “big-nosed Jew,” is the award-winning New York writer whose pieces were the basis for the late-‘70s, early-‘80s Taxi television series and the 2007 film, American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe.
The book, with a dust jacket of translucent paper (eerily reminiscent of skin) through which the glow from a tattered lampshade pictured on the cover can be seen, is a massively-researched account of this gruesome object, which enters Jacobson’s life and piques not only his curiosity, but memories of growing up Jewish in the 1950s. In Cold War-era Flushing, Queens, Jacobsen was often bullied by neighborhood kids to shut the hell up — or risk being turned into a Nazi lampshade.
Purchased by a friend for $35 in early 2006 at a rummage sale full of mismatched scavenged items in post-Katrina New Orleans, the lampshade is “hot-potatoed” to Jacobson by the friend with experience taking apart and reassembling vintage German guitars. Skip Henderson recognizes the solder connecting the panels as German handiwork. Almost as soon as he observes “the greasy, dusty feel of it, the veined, translucent look of it,” Henderson is told by the seller it’s “made from the skin of Jews.”
Not long afterward, DNA lab testing reveals the lampshade is indeed of human origin, confirming the niggling feeling of everyone who has touched the shade, with its tiny pores and unmistakably familiar wrinkling. So begins Jacobson’s search for the history of this palpable reminder of the Holocaust’s horrors, and his own complicated relationship this loathsome lampshade.
Like the heath in Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native, the main character in The Lampshade is the object — in all its immutability. With the lampshade in hand, its immediacy cannot be ignored, especially by a journalist whose own father, a member of the 133rd Engineers Corps attached to George Patton’s Third Army, had a photo taken of himself in June 1945 seated defiantly on Hitler’s balcony in Berchtesgaden, Germany.
Jacobson’s quest to retrace the path of a lampshade reportedly found in an abandoned house by a history buff on a pile of junk ceiling-high, “like a cherry on top of an ice cream sundae” (he eventually becomes so attached to it, he names it Ziggy, an Americanized version of Sigmund) leads him to the Buchenwald concentration camp, where from varying accounts, anywhere from 33,000 to 56,000 prisoners from all over Europe (primarily Jews) died during World War II.
There he explores the legendary “Bitch of Buchanwald,” Ilse Koch, wife of the Kommandant at the internment camp, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for war crimes, including “blithe defilement of the human body.” These offenses included rampant rumors of her selection of prisoners to be executed, skinned and made into lampshades by virtue of her fancy of their tattooed backs and torsos.
There are arguably more characters in this book than The Iliad and keeping them straight is an epic feat in itself. As to whether Jacobson’s detective story ends in certitude, you’ll have to finish the book yourself. If you can stomach its difficult parts, you’ll at the very least get a better understanding of how interconnected we all are, even participants in and victims of atrocities and natural disasters.