Mark Jacobson, “The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans”, Simon & Schuster 2010.
By Alysia Santo.
At a New Orleans garage sale following hurricane Katrina, a lampshade made out of human skin is sold to a social worker named Skip Henderson for $35, described as a Nazi relic made from “the skin of Jews”. Henderson mails the lampshade to an old friend in Brooklyn, Mark Jacobson, a veteran journalist, hoping he will figure out the story behind the shade.
Jacobson, a contributing editor for New York Magazine, confirms through a DNA test that it is, in fact, human skin. His book, “The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans”, released this September by Simon & Schuster, brings readers through an array of interesting, albeit, confusing sets of characters and locations. His interviews meander from Holocaust denier’s to scholars to a psychic medium in his search for the truth about this mysterious symbol of Nazi brutality.
The book begins with the infamous Ilse Koch, who was convicted during the Nuremburg trials. Nicknamed the “Bitch of Buchenwald”, she was deemed responsible for the transformation of “hundreds of innocent people into lampshades”. This, in contrast, to lampshades current status as a “staple of Holocaust-denier rhetoric”, Jacobson speaks to Holocaust scholars who say the lampshades are “mythic” and have never been proven to be real. Directors of the museums he approaches even call it “Holocaust porn”, citing that there are more “positive” ways to learn about the Holocaust. With no way to establish a time or genetic origin of the tanned, taut skin, the only thing that is indisputable is that the lighting apparatus used to be a person.
The quest for answers about the lampshade zigzags across New Orleans, from the city’s history with tumultuous weather to a synopsis of lynching in the city. At times, Jacobson strays so far off topic that relevancy is lost, such as when he discusses the New Orleans memorial to Robert E. Lee at length, making a loose connection between New Orleans history of racism and the persecution of the Jews. Sourcing, at times, borders on trivial. He speaks to a high-end light designer and a woman who sews animal skin lampshades. He even interviews an actress, now in her 70’s, who played Ilse Koch in the Nazi sexploitation film, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS.
Jacobson, predictably, gets quite attached to the lampshade. He eventually starts calling it “Ziggy”, and instead of mailing it to some of his sources, he personally accompanies it everywhere, from Jerusalem to Buchenwald. At one point he is stopped at an Israeli airport, asked by security if he is an antique dealer. When he says no the officer asks, “You always travel with lampshades?” to which he responds, “Just this one.” He begins to realize that his feelings about the lampshade are quite delicate, as ”certain questions of identity suddenly felt unusually pressing.”
Jacobson insightfully portrays what it was like growing up Jewish in Queens in the aftermath of World War II. As a kid growing up in Queens he was teased by bullies with threats that he would be turned into a lampshade: “You heard me, Jewboy,” he recollects, “a lampshade.” He describes how “another schoolyard Holocaust topic” was the rhetorical question: “If you saw the baby in the carriage and you knew it would grow up to be Hitler, would you strangle it or not?” to which he and his friends “all swore our unwavering willingness to do it.”
As Jacobson realizes there are no definitive answers to be had, he starts conjuring up ways to lay the haunting artifact to rest, considering an orthodox funeral, among other options. Even his friend Skip Henderson begs him to get rid of it, saying that he had nightmares that New Orleans was drowning in the lampshades. The decision about what to do with the lampshade drags on throughout the end of the book and frustratingly wander’s from idea to idea, struggling for a conclusion.
Yet the book is captivatingly tangled, as it moves from the history of human skinning to the conspiracy theories behind Holocaust denial. At its heart, the book is about the carnage of the Holocaust told through Jacobson’s spirited attempts at identifying an artifact that has such fleeting authenticity.
Despite countless reports of people who say they saw these lampshades at Buchenwald, there is not one that is considered 100 percent genuinely a product of the Nazi’s today.
Eventually, Jacobson’s motivation to go on an exhaustive, three-year search for the truth about the lampshade comes back around. “I could feel the questions I’d been asking about the lampshade turned back on myself.”