“In this world, we will do anything to isolate ourselves from the dead, to pretend that these are two completely disconnected states,” Shiya continued. “9/11 removed that barrier. So many of the people killed that day were simply pulverized, turned to dust. They became the very air we breathe.”
Shiya lifted the lampshade out of the box and held it up to the light. “It’s parchment, that’s for sure,” said Shiya, who has handled a lot of parchment in his life. The scripture verses inside tefillin and doorpost mezuzahs are inscribed on parchment. The Torah itself is written on it. The lampshade material reminded Shiya of all that. “But it is thinner, much thinner.” He held the lampshade closer to his face, and turned it around again. Then he took a deep breath and sat heavily into a chair, placing the lampshade on the table in front of him.
“This is the saddest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said.
“You don’t really think this is real, do you?” I asked.
Shiya kept staring at the lampshade on the table in front of him. “There’s one way to find out. He went out to his car and came back with a surgical scissors and a couple of small plastic bags. “Mind if I take a couple of DNA samples?” No, I said, I didn’t mind.
I took the lampshade and headed back to Brooklyn on the subway. The F train was packed with the usual multi-hue crew. The blacks—harried office workers getting loose for the weekend, mixing with slouchy high-school hip-hoppers—would mostly get off at Jay Street to change for the A train out to Bed-Stuy and beyond. With them went the various Caribbeans, headed to far reaches of Crown Heights, to Utica Avenue. The few straggler Hasidic Jews, cutting it too close for comfort on a Friday afternoon, would stay on until Borough Park and Midwood, along with Bengalis and Pakistanis. Ditto the Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, who lived up on McDonald Avenue. The Russians, more of them every day, it seemed, would ride to the last stops, to Brighton Beach. There were the “professionals” too, white and mostly young, slogging home from midtown cubicles.
Sitting among the daily gaggle, the lampshade on my lap, I thought it was no great reach to assume that many of these people, myself certainly included, might never have been born had Hitler’s killers succeeded in winning the war. In the brand-new world envisioned by the Reich planners, this train full of lebensunwertes Leben—individuals declared to be “life unworthy of life”—would be replaced by a whole other kind of humanity, riding not the crummy subway but amid the sleek comfort of a Deutsche Liner, a smart set of the Völkisch decked out in Hugo Boss daywear, medicated for extreme performance by I. G. Farben.
With the lampshade samples on their way to the DNA lab, you felt lucky that the Nazis had made their grab for racial hegemony when they did. A mere seven decades after the promulgation of “Laws for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor” in 1935, which, among other things, forbade “the extramarital sexual intercourse between Jews and subjects of the state of Germany or related blood,” it was sobering to imagine what the Hitlerites might have accomplished had they cracked the genetic code. Considering their vaunted organizational genius, what chance would the supposed mongrel races have had of survival had Mengele’s crude alchemist efforts to turn brown eyes into blue been replaced by a technology capable of producing a complete chromosomal profile from a single strand of hair?
Since I’d received it, there had been times I’d taken the lampshade out of the box, given it a once-over. On the surface, the thing didn’t look all that creepy. If the idea hadn’t been planted in your head, what would you see? Just a vaguely antiquish table lampshade with some cheesy boudoir tassels. There was little reason to suspect anything else. After all, no human-skin lampshade from the Nazi time had ever been proved to be real.
But knowing the story, just having the suggestion inside my head, changed everything. Knowing the story made it almost impossible not to feel what Skip did when he picked up the shade: the warmth of its touch, the strange greasy smoothness, how diaphanous it looked when placed near the light, the way the stretched panels appeared to be marked with striations similar to the ones I saw on my own skin.
Shiya sent the lampshade samples to the Bode Technology Group, a well-known genetic-analysis firm in Lorton, Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C. In the aftermath of the 9/11 disaster, the New York medical examiner’s office had done a lot of business with Bode and had been impressed by the results.