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A Human Skin Lampshade Sparks a Journey into the Heart of the Holocaust

By Gene Santoro 
Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: September 30, 2010 
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After Hurricane Katrina pounded New Orleans, many unwelcome things surfaced—including a lampshade made of human skin. Veteran journalist Mark Jacobson was enlisted to trace its story. InThe Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans, Jacobson, a contributing editor at New York magazine, recounts his remarkable two-year hunt. In the process, he raises revealing questions about what the Nazis did, how the Allies presented it, and why Holocaust deniers and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum play it down.

Did the Nazis make Jews into lampshades?

After the war, that was the truth, and everybody knew it. They'd seen lots of footage, photographs, headlines. Every-body thought it was horrible, evil, and that our civilization, with God on our side, had risen up to smite them. It let us feel good about ourselves. And it should.

Is there any evidence for this?

Eisenhower saw Nazi artifacts made from humans, including a lampshade, when he toured Buchenwald, and was legitimately horrified. That stuff was filmed. For him and others, the lampshade summed it up. Maybe, in retrospect, the Allies oversold it. But symbols are how the human mind thinks: The Holy Grail. The True Cross. Don't give me a lot of details; give me something I can focus on. Symbols convince people to think in a certain way. The lampshade did that.


Were any Nazis found guilty of these atrocities?

Ilse Koch, "the Bitch of Buchenwald." There was testimony at Nuremburg. Survivors said she had things made of Jewish people, especially their skin, and that she liked tattoos. When Lucius Clay, military governor of the American sector of Germany, commuted her sentence, there was an uproar. Ed Sullivan, Walter Winchell, all the big columnists screamed. In 1950 Congress was so outraged they convened a special committee about it. They'd demonized her to the point where she became as big as Hitler.

What changed?

Suddenly the Commies were our enemies and the Germans were our friends. So the demonizing shifted targets. Holocaust deniers say it was all propaganda. But that doesn't mean it was untrue. The survivors of the camps kept the stories alive.

Where did that leave your lampshade?

Holding this icon of my postwar youth in my hand had a whole lotta resonance for me. So I had it DNA tested by the firm that worked on body parts from 9/11. Cost me five grand. It turned out to be real. Made of human skin. That's why it was so hard to take when people said it was fake.

What people?

Start with the Holocaust Museum in D.C. My friend who found it was very determined we give it to a holocaust museum. Seemed like the thing to do. So I called them. No response. Finally I called their press rep and came on heavy. He presented me with Diane Saltzman, who was in charge of their collections then. She made it very clear she had zero time for this.

Why wasn't she interested? 

She insisted it was a myth, even though I'd sent the DNA report. I didn't understand what she was talking about. Later, I began to understand. She said it was distracting. Sure, it's sensationalist. In my opinion, she's right—but only because they oversold the symbol to begin with.

How?

After the war, the human lampshade was central to the narrative of the Holocaust. It makes sense to try to put it back in perspective. You've got six million dead Jews and millions more dead people, no matter what Holocaust deniers say. We shouldn't need a lampshade made out of human skin to know how evil that was. I understand that. Their point is, this stuff is so unusual it shouldn't be part of the story. This symbol is no longer needed.


What's wrong with that?  

They want to narrow—and own—the narrative of the Holocaust. That's dangerous. It gives the owners too much power. It shuts down asking questions. Raul Hilberg, the famous Holocaust historian, used to talk to Holocaust deniers. People thought that was horrible. He said, "Why not? They might say something interesting." I'm with him.

Who else did you talk to?  

Basically, I had this…thing, and I was trying to get somebody—anybody—to look at it. I started with Shiya Ribowsky, a cantor who was director of special projects at the medical examiner's office in New York on 9/11. He took it out of the box—remember, he'd dealt with 20,000 body parts after 9/11—and said, "This is the saddest thing I've ever seen." That was the first time I thought it might be real. Ken Kipperman is an individual obsessed with finding the Buchenwald lampshade. Michael Berenbaum is former project director at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum; he agreed with Saltzman that this stuff is distracting. Mike Smith, alias Denier Bud, said Jewish American propaganda officers planted the stuff at Buchenwald. Hans Ottomeyer, general director of the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin, said, "There is an undue concentration on the darkness of German history." Yehuda Bauer, a leading Holocaust scholar at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, encouraged me: "Keep telling the story. That's what's important. Write a book."

Did you go to Yad Vashem [the official Israeli Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem]?

Their two main curators and the head of the museum gave me an hour, basically to tell me they didn't want to have anything to do with it. In Israel, they have a religious problem: they can't have human remains. I could understand it; it was very fair. They didn't question that it was human skin. But the DNA testing from this ancient, degraded skin meant I couldn't prove its provenance—Buchenwald 1943, or even a Jewish person. The science isn't available. That was their out. So I went to the Buchenwald Memorial.

What happened?  

Volkhard Knigge, the director, took the lampshade for more testing. It turned out like the others. He e-mailed me, "There will be no last certitude about the object for now. That's how history works." But he agreed with Bauer: keep telling the story, keep asking questions.  

How did the lampshade affect you?

When I began to realize the horror of the actual process of its creation, I almost screamed. A wave of sympathy overwhelmed me. The horror turned to sadness. The sadness turned to under- standing what the human species is capable of in a situation as crazy as the Third Reich. Skin defines us. Outward appearance. Racism. Tattoos. These are all connected. There's no koan more untrue than "You can't judge a book by its cover." People are always doing that. Thinking like that made the lampshade more and more important to me. Why do some people think others are worth less than they are? I began having sympathy for this thing because I'm a human being. Was Ilse Koch a human being? Her son is born in prison, while she's supposed to be in isolation. I have sympathy for him. I hope he's figured a way to deal with the horrible existential situation he was born into. It wasn't his fault.


21 Responses to “A Human Skin Lampshade Sparks a Journey into the Heart of the Holocaust”


  1. 1
    david says:

    I found this conversation a bit odd. I went to medical school in New Orleans and after 4 years there would not have any doubt at all that someone in that population would have a lampshade made of human skin. Now the question would be as to if it truly came from Germany. I don't feel that the gentleman's book is worth the effort and money to find out.

    In fact, I would say that a lampshade from Germany would make little difference in my concept of the tragedy that was WWII. After all, what difference does it make? I agree with the people from the muesem in feeling that it only acts as a distraction to the dialogue about the holocaust. The shade would only mean that one deranged individual was cruel enough to preform such an act. I can assure you that a number of such individuals likely live in my neighborhood.

    So what is it we should concentrate on about the holocaust? The fact that 6 million Jews were killed is certainly a concern, but they represented only a portion of the people killed. For that matter, what is the difference between 6 million killed by the state versus one. Where do we begin the separation. Many questions need to be answered in order to understand who we are and if such a thing can happen again. Take Hitler, I have studied him and really don't think he was any more deranged or evil than many of our politicians. We have leaders just as eager to kill, or isolate groups of people, or demonize others ideals. In fact, our current president fits that bill perfect.

    The German people are us. We are descended from them. Are we any different or would we respond different from those in Europe. I think not, just look at our destruction of Dresden. What did that accomplish? Two months before wars end and we demolish a city and it people that were clearly not a military target. How are we different from those that ran the camps?

    Then there are questions for the Jews themselves. Why did they allow this mass killing with little effort at resistance? Why did many participate in killing their own? Did the Jews really do something to inflate the hate of the Germans? I know this has been covered, but has it really or have we just covered up some aspects that would be inconvient to consider? We currently face a similar situation with Islam. Our way of life, morals, viewpoints are at odds with the Islamic world and this is manifest in acts of violence against innocents. Should we take a page from the Germans and seek to eliminate our enemy before they become stronger and more organized, or are we going to submit to politically correct concerns and cause the death of our children and destruction of our way of life?

    The Holocaust has much to teach us, a lampshade does not.

    • 1.1
      Simon says:

      Did you really just compare Obama to Hitler? Wow.

      • 1.1.1
        TheRealTruth says:

        Why not?

        Just because Jews voted for him doesn't make it any less valid a comparison.

    • 1.2
      Simon says:

      Also, "Take Hitler, I have studied him and really don't think he was any more deranged or evil than many of our politicians" So you don't think that a man who was bent on the military domination of Europe (and possibly the world) and the genocide of Jews is any different from our current batch of politicians? It's disturbing that you can't see the difference. It's about as different as it gets.

  2. 2
    JoAnna says:

    We need to understand, as people, the depths others will sink to. Not just because some people are sick, but also due to incredible amounts of hate from those in power.

    Jews have been a popular target in Europe since they appeared. After all, Europe quickly became Christian, and those people killed the Son of God. They were moneylenders, so they knew who had debts, and how much. The narritive of the European Jew is a very sad one, culminating with Hitler using them as the scapegoat for Germany's troubles.

    The thing is, so many people died horrible deaths. Jews, Christians, Gays, Gypsies – anyone his convoluted mind could blame the problems on.

    The lampshade is a tangible thing – ideas are hard to grasp, but an object drives it home. You can talk about how terrible the camps were, but photos of emaciated men, piles of bodies, a normal, everyday object made from a murder victim, those drive home just how horrific the events were.

    It's even more important as time dims memory. Most people now think of WWII as something that happened a very long time ago. My father was a WWII vet. My mother is a boomer. I am much closer to this than many of my generation, and it's still something that I have to seek out information for, because it's glossed over.

    Germany wasn't the only country to do terrible things – Japan did horrible atrocities during the same time period. Stalin came to power and killed millions of his countrymen. But I can identify with Germany as a 2nd generation American on my mother's side – her dad came from Austria.

  3. 3
    K. Slater says:

    As a person of German Jewish heritage, my parents fled here and produced three children. We never had Grandparents as other kids had. That lampshade could be my Grandpa or Grandma. In reading your article, it brought tears to my eyes to think that any human could be so inhumane. However, I agree with the previous comments. The act of killing another human, regardless of what is done with the remains, is an act of horror in itself.
    After writing this comment, I went to play with my 6 grandchildren and felt even closer to them than before. It is something that I never had.

  4. 4
    Khan says:

    My heart crushes and my soul bleeds as I read this article. Our (as in human) insanity & blindness & cruelty silently propagate to the top as we enjoy the reins of power and domination. My condolence and love is always for the one suffering from the unjust as in this case, are, Jews. But on the same note, in another case, it's with the Palestinians.

  5. 5

    [...] of taste, but I need to remind y’all that during nazi Germany, a lot of folks thought “Jew skin lampshades” were pretty exotic, too. Personally, when it comes to skin and my rockin’ sex life, I prefer [...]

  6. 6
    Lisa says:

    I went to East and West Germany before reunification. I saw a human shrunken head of a Polish Jewish man and a lampshade made of human skin. It is one thing to see these things in a newspaper, magazine or book book as a still image or see it in a film or video clip and it is completely different to have the real thing two feet from your nose. It is right in front of your face it is very powerful. The emotional impact on your is substantial.

    At the museum the shrunken human head was displayed right beside the lampshade made of human skin. I flipped out. I almost threw up and passed out. I am not Jewish. No one in my family is Jewish, but holy hell that is a lot to ask of a person to have that is front of their face and give no reaction.

    I had to be taken outside a side door, put on a bench in a courtyard and my head was pushed down between my knees so I would not pass out. I went into shock after I viewed the shrunken human head mounted on a marble base that a SS officer kept on his desk as paper weight and the lampshade made of human skin. The lampshade even had a tattoo in one of the panels so I knew it was real for sure. It made me sick to my stomach. I was fighting nausea and trying to keep down my breakfast after viewing those two items.

    Seeing a lampshade of human skin on the Internet is NOTHING like seeing it in front of your face. The experience is totally different. The experience is so moving and distressing I can't even put it into words.

    Prior to reunification these items were on display where I saw them in a history museum in East Berlin. East Germany blamed West Germany for the Nazi atrocities. The West Germans blamed the East Germans and neither side of the border accepted responsibility for what happened. This was reflected a in a now closed history museum that was in East Berlin prior to reunification of East and West Berlin and East and West Germany.

    • 6.1
      Angelica says:

      My grandfather saw these things for himself when he was small! He saw the factory where they were made after the war. We're Jewish, and this is something that both Jews and non Jews should never forget. It was so powerful, that he will never forget it!

  7. 7
    Elaine says:

    My father fought in WWII. He was a paratrooper with the 101st Ariborne, 506th Parachute Infantry, the now-famous Band of Brothers, and I did not realize until after seeing this series that he had participated in the liberation of a concentration camp. Until the day he died, mention of the war would generate a faraway look in his eyes that held horror and dread. He also had a lifelong compassion for the Jews, and I guess I know why. I have heard of many atrocities that occurred in those death camps, including pulling teeth with gold fillings, experimenting on women and children. but somehow this desecration of human bodies illustrates more than anything the soullessness of these callous barbarians. I do not believe things like this should be on public view – how horrifying for any person who lost a loved one whose body was never recovered. Yet the story should never be forgotten – the very idea of using a person's remains for a decorative item is just so far beyond merely grisly.

  8. 8
    Angelica says:

    Dear Mr. Santoro,
    I'd like to thank you for keeping this story alive. I never knew that the idea of such atrocities of the Holocaust were posed as "myths". My grandfather was 7 when his father was stationed in Germany in 1946. We're a Jewish family, and he took my grandfather and his wife to a factory where they made such lampshades.

    My grandfather was small, but this horror stayed clearly in his head. There were many lamp shades, and especially ones with tattoos (concentration camp tattoos, which were prized). Mattresses made form human hair, ash trays made form skulls.

    I CANNOT believe that this is being covered up as myth. These things should be fought, because 50 years from now, such things could be covered up entirely.

    Editing history is inexcusable, as frightening as it is to address, or as "distracting" as some people claim it is. I don't see how it could possibly be distracting. This is the evidence of human evil that we must never cover up, but learn from. If not, more things will slowly be covered up.

    I will never cover up such a story, and I solute you for spreading it and speaking of it. I know it to be true!
    Sincerely,
    -Angelica

    • 8.1
      Michelle barka says:

      That is exactly right. It may be morbid, but this history should never be sensored. I'm 48, and just learned of it. Anything that reminds us of the horrific suffering our Jewish brothers and sisters of this world had to endure needs to be open and discussed. It is the least we as humans can do for their memories. Looking at the lamp shade may be uncomfortable, but just think what they endured. As long as I breath I will never forget and shed tears for all those poor souls.

  9. 9
    Yuribel says:

    History is bound to be repeated when we forget the true meaning of horror and cruelty. Nowadays, we see the concentration camps and the holocaust as a story from another time and in doing it we let this horrendous things happen time and time again in places such as Ruanda and Bosnia even when we know what genocide is and all the atrocities humans beings go through in wars such as these. The lampshade may be viewed as a distracting item for museums since people may argue what is important is the fact of the holocaust and not items such as these, but what can never, and should never, be overlooked is the fact that people in general react more strongly when exposed to real life items rather than just stories or ideas. This lampshade may even be not real, but still we should never forget that there are other undeniable proofs, just as grisly, of the holocaust that no historian can say are distracting, or that the holocaust never happened because when we allow ourselves to be convinced that such things were not real we are condemning ourselves to repeat the same stories over and over again rather than learning from our past to make our futures better.

  10. 10
    David says:

    I think your story is crap.

  11. 11
    Mrs.A says:

    One word: AWFUL! and may I say about David's comment…….those who forget history are bound to repeat it. People don't elieve and don't want to remember and we are letting it all begin again and does anyone think the end result will be any different. May God have mercy on us all.

  12. 12
    Donar van Holland says:

    The reason the Holocaust Museum finds the lamp shade distracting, is that it is a myth. It has been disproved by mainstream historians, just like the shrunken heads and the soap made from Jewish body fat. These are urban myths, leftovers of American war propaganda. The author just wanted to make money with his sensational and false claims.

  13. 13
    wolf says:

    What a non sense, it is a shame that lying can be done at this level
    You all will learn I hope in your after life of how bad you were accusing the german people of doing such ridicilous thing as human soap from fat, lampshades, gas chambers…

  14. 14
    David says:

    The lampshade and shrunken head, along with the gas chamber stories are all allied propaganda.

  15. 15
    Robb says:

    Just finished watching this story and two additional tests where purformed recently and was found to be cow skin.

  16. 16
    TheRealTruth says:

    Psychological Warfare Division of the Allied Forces created hoaxes to gin up hatred against Germans and Japanese. The hatred of Germans has morphed into a hatred of any and every white person on earth. There will come a time when these hoaxes are finally put to rest. Unfortunately, people are making so much money off of these hoaxes and using them to guilt every white nation into mass immigration the backlash will not be a hoax. It will be very real and very deserved.

    Lying to go to war and clear the people's conscience is one thing. Continuing those lies to guilt, shame, bilk, and destroy your allies' nations long after they fought to save you is grounds for total war without end.



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