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The READ: How Do We Understand the Holocaust?

The struggle to discern truth from fiction.

In the summer of 1995, when I was an intern at The New York TimesWarsaw bureau, we received an unusual news tip. A flea-market vendor in Gdansk had been selling what he described as “authentic soap” made out of fat taken from the bodies of Jews murdered at the Stutthof concentration camp. He had been displaying the soap, complete with a sign advertising both its price and provenance, at his stall for several days before anyone seemed to have taken note. People passed by his table, looked at the card, and walked on, “as if soap made out of humans were something completely normal,” reported the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.

The vendor turned out to be a middleman for the soap’s owner, who was believed to have been one of the caretakers at Stutthof after the war. One of the bars of soap had been bought by German tourists, the vendor told the newspaper. By the time the Gdansk police roused themselves to undertake an investigation—according to Polish law, anyone who “insults a human corpse” or otherwise disturbs the rest of the dead can be sentenced to up to three years in prison—neither the vendor nor the owner could be found.

Meanwhile, Wyborcza reporter Wojciech Tochman undertook his own investigation into the question of whether soap had ever actually been made from the corpses of Holocaust victims—a widespread rumor during the war that had since been deemed apocryphal. (The controversy has been usefully summarized by the website Nizkor, which is dedicated to refuting Holocaust deniers.) Tochman learned that, while the Nazis themselves did not mass-produce human soap, a rogue scientist in Gdansk, Dr. Rudolf Spanner, was alleged to have produced soap in his laboratory using corpses from Stutthof. The writer Zofia Nalkowska, in a book of stories published after the war that included fiction and reportage, had written of seeing human bodies and soap-making equipment in his laboratory. At the Stutthof Museum, Tochman was shown several bars of soap from Spanner’s lab. They had never been tested, and the museum director said she could not be certain about their composition. Tochman’s eventual article on the matter, however, left little room for doubt that such soap had existed.

The soap episode has haunted me for years—the idea that an item formerly believed to be apocryphal could suddenly turn up for purchase at an ordinary flea market, awakening decades’ worth of doubts and fears. So I was particularly intrigued by the premise of Mark Jacobson’s new book The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans, which takes up a similarly debated item of macabre Holocaust lore. Ilse Koch, the infamous wife of Buchenwald Kommandant Karl Koch, was said to have plucked out prisoners with particularly attractive tattoos so that she could use their skin to make household objects, including gloves, book covers, and lampshades. The existence of such items was reported shortly after the liberation of Buchenwald by UPI correspondent Ann Stringer, who wrote that she had seen them herself and quoted prisoners testifying to Ilse Koch’s predilection. At Nuremberg, where the woman known as both the “Bitch of Buchenwald” and the “Lady of the Lampshades” was sentenced to life in prison, a former prisoner testified that he had recognized a friend’s tattooed skin in a laboratory at Buchenwald. But no objects made from human skin were introduced into evidence, and Ilse Koch always denied the accusations. Pieces of tattooed human skin from Buchenwald are currently kept at two museums in the Washington, D.C. area, but none appears to have been used as a lampshade. And so, the story of the lampshades, like that of the soap, had gradually been discredited.

Until now. Jacobson writes that, in New Orleans after Katrina, a friend of his discovered a man on the street selling a lampshade that he claimed was “made from the skin of Jews.” He bought it and sent it to Jacobson for investigation. To Jacobson’s astonishment, a mitochondrial DNA test returned “a 100% probability” that the material of the lampshade was human. Of course, this does not prove that it is a Nazi artifact: No further information about the genetic makeup of the source was determinable, and additional forensic testing done by both Israeli and German authorities was also fruitless. But Jacobson retains the suspicion that the item in his possession might very well be an artifact of Ilse Koch’s peculiar sadism.

Jacobson’s attempts to clarify the myths surrounding this most ghoulish Nazi practice bring him into contact with some interesting characters: the former head of collections at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, who claims that the lampshade would continue to be a myth “even if you could document it one hundred percent”; “Denier Bud,” who makes videos in defense of Ilse Koch; a Dominican medium in Jersey City who claims to make contact with the spirit of the man still contained within the lampshade. The connections he draws between the Holocaust and post-Katrina New Orleans feel like a stretch, and his story devolves into tangents that could be accused of serving as padding. But he has something important to say about one of the central questions of how we understand the Holocaust from our particular historical vantage point.

Representations of the Holocaust in art—books, movies, theater—have often been evaluated not according to their aesthetic success or failure, but based on their level of historical fidelity. I’ve explored the conundrum of whether works of Holocaust literature have a special obligation to the truth in various essays for TNR over the past few years, including a piece about Elie Wiesel’s Night, and it is the primary theme of my new book, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction, which will be published by Oxford University Press later this fall. My reading on this subject has demonstrated to me that the standard of accuracy to which we tend to hold these books is unattainable, because every major work of Holocaust literature, from testimonial memoirs to explicitly fictional novels, involves some graying of the line between imagination and reality. Even the works that we think of as most unassailable, such as Anne Frank’s diary, reveal the deliberate marks of careful crafting. This is no slight against their importance: The fact that Primo Levi altered facts and stories about certain characters who appear in Survival in Auschwitz does not call into doubt the value of his observations and theories about life in the camp. But it does mean that we ought to keep in mind the difficulty of entirely separating out truth from fiction, and to beware of facile black-and-white category distinctions.

It is a paradox of events such as the Holocaust that they tend to invite myth-making: One would imagine that the horrors of reality would be sufficient. There is a value, of course, in establishing truth; but it is often necessary to accept that, especially 60 years after the fact, some myths may never be either proved or disproved. “There will be no last certitude about the object for now,” Volkhard Knigge, the director of the Buchenwald Memorial, tells Jacobson in an e-mail delivering the results of the German forensic testing. After 300 pages of attempts to establish just such a certainty, Jacobson is finally philosophical about the idea that it might be impossible. Some certainties, after all, might be too much to bear.

A few years ago, while writing a piece about Tadeusz Borowski, I learned that a few copies of a book called We Were in Auschwitz, in which some of his stories first appeared, were said to have been bound in the striped cloth of Auschwitz uniforms. Neither the Library of Congress nor the Holocaust Museum had such a copy, and I began to doubt whether the rumor was true. I called Alicia Nitecki, a professor at Bentley University in Boston who has translated some of Borowski’s work into English, and she assured me that not only did such books exist, but there were others as well, even stranger. A few weeks later, I was sitting at her dinner table with Barbara Girs, the daughter of a graphic designer who had worked closely with Borowski in Munich after the war. Barbara showed me a few unusual editions, including one with the striped-cloth binding and another in the black leather of an SS officer’s uniform and ornamented with barbed wire. A final copy was bound in what looked like pale brown leather. Borowski’s name and the title were stamped in gold, and the sides were handsomely decorated with curlicues. The material was marred, its shading uneven; on the back was a large mark that looked like a bruise. Her father, Barbara said, had told her the book was bound in human skin.

We regarded it cautiously, with something like wonder. Did she believe him? Was it real? She could not say.

Ruth Franklin is a senior editor of The New Republic.

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