A provocative exploration of one of the “Nazi ‘human skin atrocities’ ”—a lampshade supposedly made of human skin.
New York Magazine contributing editor Jacobson (Teenage Hipster in the Modern World: From the Birth of Punk to the Land of Bush: Thirty Years of Apocalyptic Journalism, 2005, etc.) sums up a certain aspect of the postwar American Jewish experience when he writes, “In the Queens schoolyard of the 1950s, decades before the museums and Schindler’s List, the lampshade was our holocaust, the Shoah we knew.” He notes that “facts pertaining to the so-called [atrocities] remain a topic of debate, yet there is testimony indicating that the practice was widespread.” This evidence centers upon activities at the Buchenwald concentration camp and notorious Nazi Ilse Koch. The so-called “Buchenwald lampshade” was documented during liberation in a Billy Wilder–directed documentary, The Death Mills (1945), but disappeared thereafter. The official position of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is that the lampshade is a myth. Jacobson recounts an icy conversation he had with a museum representative, when he contacted them regarding the titular object, which a top lab's DNA testing had confirmed was of human origin. He received the lampshade from a cultural obsessive and bar owner who had purchased it at a post-Katrina rummage sale from a desperate, colorful substance abuser notorious as the “cemetery bandit of New Orleans.” The author and these two eccentrics became haunted by their suspicions that the lampshade was a Holocaust artifact. By focusing on his improbable journeys with the lampshade, and his hope that it “might somehow stand as a however tortured symbol of commonality,” he takes a wry approach to a horrific topic. The book's basic flaw is that beyond the DNA evidence, Jacobson cannot pinpoint the lampshade's human source or a clear connection to Buchenwald. Still, he does a solid job synthesizing the diverse locales and perspectives, which include thoughtful veterans, camp survivors, scholar obsessives, European neo-Nazis and even David Duke.
A well-executed, original reflection on how social evil tends to endure, puzzle and resist efforts at redemption.