In the summer of 1995, when I was an intern at The New York Times’
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
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
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
Until now. Jacobson writes that, in
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
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