“So I finally get up to Momma Hilda’s place, where the water is like ten feet high, and I see what looks like this gray bush just bobbing in the water between the shotgun houses. Right away I know it’s Momma Hilda, ’cause she’s got that color hair. She must have fallen off the porch because she couldn’t walk too good and drowned. Poor dear! I pulled her out of the drink. I’m crazy dope sick, but what can you do? She was such a nice lady. I just sat there and cried because it was so crazy and sad.”
It was soon after that Dominici “started finding things. There were so many abandoned buildings. People left everything and got out of town. Plenty of it was ruined, but not all of it. It could be useful. For sure, no one was coming back for it.” It was in one of these houses, Dominici said, that he came upon the lampshade.
“There was this whole pile of stuff … And there it was, right on top, balanced up there, like a cherry on top of an ice-cream sundae. The rain was coming in because the roof of the house was ripped off. The way it looked in the flashlight, glistening, it caught my eye. Don’t ask me where I got the idea of what it was. But I’d been watching some Hitler stuff on the History Channel. I’ve always been a history buff.”
It was nearly six weeks before the phone call came. You couldn’t say it was a eureka moment because someone as sober as Bob Bever does not have eureka moments, at least ones that show. The lab had done the testing several times, with the same result. It wasn’t much, a level that barely could be measured definitely, but it was there.
“The report says it’s human,” Bever said evenly.
“You’re sure? No mistake?”
Bever exhibited a sense of irritation. Yes, he said, a mistake was possible, but he was not in the business of making mistakes.
Bever said, “Right now, if I had to stand up in a court of law, as I often do, I would testify that we have found evidence of human origin.”
The report e-mailed from Furnace Road arrived in my in-box a few moments later, dated April 20, 2007, which would have been the Führer’s 118th birthday, 62 years to the day after Ann Stringer’s story about the Buchenwald lampshade broke. The mtDNA haplotypes found in the lampshade samples were compared to “standard Cambridge Reference Mitochondrial sequence,” and it was ascertained that the “NCBI database … came back with a 0.0 E-value signifying a 100% probability that the cyt b sequence is human.” Two such human profiles were found, one major and one minor. It was the opinion of the lab that the minor profile might be due to the handling of the lampshade, but “the major profile is most likely from the lampshade itself.”
A few hours later, Bever called again to make sure I got the report. Yeah, I told him. I did.
It makes a certain kind of sense that the Nazis, zealots engaged in a sweeping social project aimed at turning men into gods, would choose to build the Buchenwald camp—where 55,000 people would die between 1937 to 1945—in the Ettersberg Woods, only a few miles from the famous city of Weimar. Over the years, so much of German brilliance had flowered on this hilly ground. Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Liszt, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Schiller, Friedrich Nietzsche, Richard Wagner, Walter Gropius, and many other luminaries had all lived here. It was in Weimar and in his country house on the Ettersberg that Goethe toiled for more than 50 years on Faust, the most sublime of all German artworks. It was in search of that same sublimity that the Nazis came here, to weed out the inferior.
This was something to think about as I stood on the Buchenwald Appellplatz, where the camp prisoners were made to assemble for the daily roll call. In his book The Theory and Practice of Hell, Eugen Kogon, a political prisoner at Buchenwald from 1939 to 1945, describes the process. “Thousands of zebra-striped figures of misery, marching under the glare of the floodlights in the haze of dawn, column after column—no one who has ever witnessed it is likely to forget the sight,” Kogon writes.
Standing here, I understood the charmed life I’d led, growing up in America, removed from the terror of my roots. In Romania, where much of my family comes from, they didn’t even need Nazis. The Romanian Army competed with the Einsatzgruppen, the SS “mobile killing teams,” to see how many Jews they could murder. It was in the blood there, too. But I’d been spared that, just as I’d gotten out of so much other misery, the Vietnam War included. Past 60 now, and they hadn’t laid a glove on me.