About a half-year later, Froboess continued, he had occasion to visit a friend who was working in the Buchenwald pathology department, where he saw skin and “to my horror I noticed the same sailboat that I had seen on Jean.”
On August 14, 1947, found guilty of participating in a “common plan” to violate “the Laws and Usages of War,” Ilse Koch stood before the court in a frumpy checkered dress and was sentenced to life in prison. Despite all the testimony about human-skin lampshades and book bindings, no such object was introduced in evidence. Ilse Koch steadfastly denied ever owning a human-skin lampshade or ordering one made. She claimed the first time she ever heard of any lampshades was when “I read about it in Life magazine.”
It is hard to know how much of this filtered down to the preadolescent brains of my friends and me as we grew up in the “fresh-air zone” of Flushing, Queens, in the middle fifties, beloved child actors in our parents’ then fully functioning version of the American Dream.
The Italians were the tough guys, of course. Mostly they were okay, but there were those times when you’d hear that ominous chorus of fake-sneezing. “Ah-ah-ah … Jew!” And there they’d be—Vito, Joey, and Willie—bouncy in their Continental pants, hairless chests thrust out, waiting to see what you’d do. You could ignore it, hope they went away. Or you could reply, as I sometimes did, “Guinea-zunteit.” This brought screaming and, perhaps, some pushing. Sometimes the conflict would escalate. Then it would come out: “Shut your fucking mouth or I’ll turn you into a lampshade … You heard me, Jewboy. A lampshade.”
“Take that back!” was the only acceptable response, and when it was not, there’d be no choice but to start swinging. This was because back then, at age 9, before the word holocaust was spelled with a capital H, when none of us knew exactly what we were fighting about, we knew the lampshade had something to do with what the Nazis had done to the Jews—or, more important in our training-wheel machismo world, something the Jews had let the Nazis do to them. A terrible, unspeakable thing. In the Queens schoolyard of the fifties, decades before the museums and Schindler’s List, the lampshade was our holocaust, the Shoah we knew.
Then again, the fifties was an odd time to be Jewish in the United States, at least in my family. Culturally, we were Jewish, willing to assimilate as long as the seltzer man still brought the Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda to the door. The religious aspect, outside of no Christmas tree, however, was a hollow, but still ensnaring, echo of the past. My parents never went to temple, even on the High Holidays (not riding in a car on Yom Kippur was their single act of atonement); nonetheless, I was still made to attend Hebrew school three days a week, year after year, until my bar mitzvah, in 1961.
Rabbi Adler was one of my teachers. Older than the others, with an unkempt beard and shabby trousers, he was a scholar. He’d grown up studying in unheated European yeshivas and made no secret of his humiliation at being so needy in this foreign land that he was forced to make a living teaching a classroom of heedless little pishers like us. One time, my friend Stewie forgot his yarmulke and was wearing a Yankees cap instead. Adler snatched the hat from Stewie’s head and threw it out the window.
“You!” Rabbi Adler yelled in his near-impenetrable inflection. “You are not a Jew! … None of you are.”
I was afraid of Rabbi Adler and consequently wasn’t thrilled one afternoon to find him standing beside me at the next bathroom urinal, smelling like an old kitchen. Things had not been going well in class. Aware that I, like most of my doo-wop-regarding, baseball-average-memorizing classmates, could not read a word of Hebrew, Adler kept calling on me to read from the prayer book. “Ha-ga-la … na … ” was all I usually could muster, to the rabbi’s mounting rage.
Rabbi Adler stood there a moment in the bathroom, staring at me. “Mordecai,” he finally said, referencing my Hebrew name. “Do you have any idea?”
“Excuse me, Rabbi, idea of what?”
Adler did not answer, instead pulling up the sleeve of his coat to reveal a series of tattooed numbers on his forearm. He stuck the numbers in my face and held them there. “Idea of this,” Adler spat before zipping himself up and leaving the bathroom.
That night, I mentioned this incident to my father, who to my surprise seemed really angry about it. “He had no business doing that,” my father said, agitatedly. Previously, Dad’s attitude toward my “Jewish education” was that I was to shut up and simply do it, get bar-mitzvahed so everyone in the family could come to the party, and that would be that.