I didn’t put much stock in the possibility that a Dominican spiritualist working out of a basement in Union City, New Jersey, would have much to say about a lampshade that might have been made from human skin in a Nazi concentration camp. But there I was, sitting across from Doña Argentina, a large woman wearing a ceremonial headdress and smoking a pair of cigars, one on either side of her mouth.
I’d spent many months attempting to track down the true nature of the lampshade, its origin and meaning, a search that had taken me halfway around the world. So I was willing, if not overly excited, to drive the ten miles from my Brooklyn home to Union City, where most everyone speaks Spanish, to hear what the mystic had to say. After all, Doña Argentina had her devotees. If the lampshade had truly once been part of a person, “the spirit” would still be present within it, people said. If so, Doña Argentina would bring its secrets to light.
The session began auspiciously. Doña Argentina took the lampshade from its box, took one look at it, and said, “Oh, they kill him.” This was possibly accurate, since the Nazis murdered upward of 11 million people, 6 million Jews among them, during their twelve-year reign of terror. On the other hand, spiritualists have their tricks. They like to impress their needy supplicants. I did not know what Doña Argentina had been told about the lampshade before I’d arrived.
A few moments later, the medium placed a candle beside the lampshade. The flame grew higher.
“¡Mira! The spirit is strong,” Doña Argentina said, taking a chug of rum. There was a pause now, as she stiffened in her velveteen chair. Her eyelids were fluttering. “He says … He says they are all bad to him. They cut him. Stab him with knives. They throw him in the closet. But you are kind to him.”
The flame shot higher. Doña Argentina swigged more rum. “He says he feels safe with you. He wants to stay with you.”
“He says he wants to stay with you. He never wants to leave you.”
“He can’t stay with me. That’s crazy.” Ever since the lampshade had arrived at my door, I’d been trying to get rid of it. It was, I thought, like the Black Spot in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, a dark circle inscribed on a page ripped from a purloined Bible, a floating accusation of ultimate guilt a grizzled pirate might find shoved into the pocket of his breeches some bad night. The idea was to pass the Spot to the next unsuspecting fool before the inevitable calamity occurred.
Doña Argentina addressed me in a low voice, as if to keep her thoughts from the spirit.
“But this is what he wants. You want me to tell him that he cannot stay with you? That you don’t want him?”
“It isn’t that I don’t want him. But I can’t keep him.”
“I will tell him,” Doña Argentina said, in the manner of a neutral messenger. The candle flame shot higher again. Doña Argentina stared into the fire. She let out a barking sound. If it was a performance, it was a good one. It was a while before she spoke again.
“He says there is nothing he can do. He leaves his fate to you. But it is good.”
“Good?” I replied meekly.
“It is good because he trusts you. You’re the only one he has now.”
The drum. That’s all Skip Henderson was looking for on the day he bought the lampshade: a drum to beat on for Mardi Gras, the first carnival since Katrina destroyed New Orleans.
For Skip, as for so many other New Orleans residents, what had happened during Katrina didn’t fully sink in until he returned to the city nearly two months after the storm. Nothing was where it should be. Houses were in the water and boats were on dry land, sometimes on top of houses. On Napoleon Avenue, an ultrasound machine sat in the middle of the street for weeks. With the streetlights out and the stop signs blown away, these objects created a new traffic pattern. Life, as it had been lived, was gone. The drum mattered because it was important to make a lot of noise on Mardi Gras, especially this Mardi Gras, if only to show that the city was still there.
Skip had been looking for a drum for weeks, but it wasn’t until right then that he realized he was looking for this particular drum.
It was a fairly new-looking Yamaha model, with a three-inch-wide horizontal smudge bisecting the drumhead. Skip recognized the brown-green stain immediately; he’d been looking at variations of it for months. It was the waterline, the gauge by which the height of the toxic flood pools could be measured, a malevolent, citywide bathtub ring. Streaked across building walls, visible on the doors of the thousands of cars stockpiled underneath the I-10, in some places the ring was over your head, at least ten feet high. It was Katrina’s mark, like the familiar X’s spray-painted on the walls of almost every building in town by the National Guard, denoting the number, if any, of bodies that had been found in the house. This made the stained drum perfect, Skip thought. What better instrument to beat on in these days after the Flood?
The drum was part of a rummage sale, a motley, seemingly scavenged pile of storm-ravaged junk haphazardly displayed along the paint-peeled walls of the house on Piety Street: a pair of andirons, some chipped flowerpots, a pair of stretched-out Allen Iverson jerseys. Nothing anyone would want.
“How much for the drum?” Skip asked the man standing there with his back turned.
The sound of Skip’s voice turned the guy around. He was tallish but bent over, probably in his forties, but that was hard to gauge owing to dark bubble shades covering his eyes. Over a greasy New Orleans Saints T-shirt, he wore a thin black leather jacket with the sleeves rolled up to reveal arms covered with what Skip immediately recognized as prison tattoos—blue, black, and blotty. Tattooed onto the guy’s stomach, visible between the edge of the too-small T-shirt and the empty belt loops of his saggy jeans, it said NOLA.
This seemed redundant, Skip thought. The way he looked, like some demented brigand with a hacked-off Mohawk haircut, and the way he talked, in that incongruous river-rat amalgam of off-angled Brooklynese with the occasional flowery southernism thrown in, where else could the guy be from but New Orleans?
“How much for the drum?” Skip repeated.
“Can’t you read?” the man replied, pointing to a nearly illegible handwritten sign saying $100—TAKE IT ALL AWAY.
Skip had no need for any of the trash splayed across the sidewalk. “I’ll give you $100 for the drum alone. Keep the rest of the stuff and sell that for $100.”
“Take it or leave it,” the man finally said, pointing at his sign.
That about tore it from Skip’s perspective. He’d made his best offer. Walking away, he heard the man’s voice behind him. “Wait a minute,” the man said. “I’ve seen you around here. You’re a neighbor. That’s a whole different story.”
It was then, as Skip remembers, that the man, now exceedingly friendly and introducing himself as David, David Dominici, reached under a table and pulled out a small lamp.
“Check it out, neighbor. This isn’t part of the other deal. It’s separate,” Dominici said, flashing a gap-toothed, jack-o’-lantern smile. “This is going to be right up your alley. I guarantee it.”
The lamp in his hand, Skip’s collector’s impulse, his reverence for an object seen within the proper context, a talent cultivated in backdate-magazine stores, guitar sales rooms, and a thousand hours on eBay, clicked in. A quick scan revealed what appeared to be a Beaux Arts–style parchment lampshade (the plastic lamp fixture, from China, was of no interest) most likely made in the middle-twentieth century. Ten inches across the top, a foot at the base, composed of panels, eight around, the shade was in far-from-perfect condition, but not too bad. Skip’s first thought was he might be able to use it in his guest room.
Then something caught his eye about the lampshade frame, the way the thin metal rods were held together. When he was running his guitar shop back in Jersey, Skip often handled vintage German instruments, Höfners and Framuses for the most part. Both companies made a high-quality product, but many players complained about the so-called Popsicle-stick structure of the guitar neck. Rather than a single piece, the German necks were composed of thin wood layers sandwiched together with glue. The necks never warped, but to some ears they didn’t resonate like the single-piece models. This made the German guitars sound, Skip sometimes thought, a little dead.
One other thing about the German guitars was the solder. While the solder on American-made Fenders and Gibsons looked silvery and a little blobby, German solder had a darker, bluish appearance, with a liquid, almost oily sheen. The lampshade solder looked like that.
Now Skip began to grok it. The material of the lampshade itself. The warmth of it. The greasy, silky, dusty feel of it. The veined, translucent look of it. “What’s this thing made out of, anyhow?” he asked.
“That’s made from the skin of Jews,” Dominici replied.
“Hitler made skin from the Jews!” Dominici returned, louder now, with a kind of goony certainty.
“Believe me, neighbor,” said Dominici, a half-smile on his bumpy face. “Hitler made skin from the Jews. It is a historical fact!” He pointed at the lampshade Skip held in his hand. “You want it? $35. That’s a good deal.”
A human-skin lampshade for $35. That was a heck of a deal, all right.
Skip didn’t believe it. Not at first. His wife told him there was “no way that thing” was going on any lamp in her house. Not with that story attached to it, true or not. At that point Skip could have thrown the lampshade away, tossed it into one of the piles of trash that had been rising all over town since the storm. But he didn’t throw it out. He let it sit there, in a closet, festering.
One morning, he put the lampshade in a box and shipped it to a drum-maker he knew, a person with a taste for the macabre. A few days later, the lampshade came back. “I’ve been beating on skins my whole life,” the drum-maker told Skip, “and I never saw anything like this. The animal that came from never had any fur on it.”
A few days later, Skip packed up the lampshade again and sent it to a pathologist he’d known for years. Once more, the lampshade came back. “Don’t send me stuff like that,” the pathologist said.
It was around then that I happened to call Skip on the phone and he told me about the lampshade, the whole saga more or less.
“That’s a weird story,” I said.
“Well,” Skip replied. “It isn’t my problem anymore.”
“Because I just sent it to you. You’re the journalist, you figure out what it is.”
A few days later, a box arrived at my door in Brooklyn. It came U.S. Mail, covered with 40 or so first-class stamps bearing the likeness of the great boxer Sugar Ray Robinson. Sugar Ray was Skip’s way of saying he was sorry. He knew Ray was my all-time favorite, the way he moved. Like that was supposed to soften the blow. I opened the box and looked inside.
“Gevalt,” I said.
The first published mention of a Nazi lampshade made of human skin appeared in the U.S. Army publication Stars and Stripes on April 20, 1945, Adolf Hitler’s 56th birthday. Nine days after the liberation of the Buchenwald camp by American soldiers, Ann Stringer, a United Press correspondent, filed a story saying she had seen a lampshade, “two feet in diameter, about eighteen inches high and made of five panels … made from the skin from a man’s chest. Along side were book bindings, bookmarkers, and other ornamental pieces—all made from human skin, too. I saw them today. I could see the pores and the tiny unquestionably human skin lines.”
This was also the first time most had heard of Ilse Koch, wife of the notoriously brutal and corrupt camp commandant and SS officer Karl Koch. The two had married in a verdant grove of trees one midnight in 1937, surrounded by a contingent of white-gloved officers, in accordance with the Engagement and Marriage Order aimed at ensuring that the elite SS corps would remain “a hereditarily healthy clan of a strictly Nordic German sort.” After Karl Koch’s appointment to Buchenwald, the famously voluptuous Ilse was appointed Oberaufseherin, or “chief overseer,” and given free run of the place. If she desired to take a bath in Madeira, as she reportedly did, the wine was provided. In 1939, thinking his wife might like to learn to ride a horse, Karl Koch commissioned the construction of a private riding hall with mirrored walls and a 60-foot-high vaulted ceiling outfitted with dramatic skylights. The prison band was made to play each time she exercised her milk-white charger. But it was Frau Koch’s reported taste for making lampshades out of the skin of prisoners that made her famous.
One captive, identified in Stringer’s story as “a Dutch engineer,” described how Ilse Koch “would have prisoners with tattoos on them line up shirtless. Then she would pick a pretty design or mark she particularly liked. That prisoner would be executed and his skin made into an ornament.”
Ilse Koch’s wartime trial was a worldwide sensation. She was, after all, the perfect defendant, perfectly sourpussed, with the perfect nickname, “The Bitch of Buchenwald,” a cannily alliterative mistranslation of her prison epithet, Die Hexe—or “witch”—von Buchenwald. She was the “Lady of the Lampshades,” whose crimes—the blithe defilement of the human body—struck many as the perfect symbol of Nazi disregard for those thought to be less than human. The fact that Koch was a woman (the only female to be tried for war crimes at the Dachau trial), a red-haired black widow, only made the horror more shocking.
The testimony was properly lurid. Kurt Froboess, a prisoner at Buchenwald from its opening in 1937 until liberation, said, “It was a hot day. Some prisoners were working without a shirt. Mrs. Koch arrived on a horse. There was a comrade there—his first name was Jean, he was either French or Belgian—and he was known throughout camp for his excellent tattoos from head to toe. On his chest he had an exceptionally well-tattooed sailboat with four masts. Even today I can see it before my eyes very clearly. Mrs. Koch rode over … She took his number down. Jean was called to the gate at evening formation. We didn’t see him anymore.”
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.
Later that night I heard him and my mother arguing about Rabbi Adler’s act. “He did that on purpose,” my father said to my mother, who told him to keep his voice down. It was near the end of the school year, and Rabbi Adler did not return, replaced by other scary, bearded men from nightmare worlds across the sea. But still I think about why my seeing Adler’s number tattoo upset my parents so. What was he showing me, after all, but history, what had happened to people for no other reason than that they were Jewish—Jewish like me, regardless of what the rabbi thought.
I didn’t quite get the gist of my father’s reaction until many years later, after both of my parents were dead, when I went to a funeral for a great-aunt of mine. There were twelve of them in that family, eight boys and four girls. My great-aunt, past 90, was the last of them. I drove out to the cemetery for the funeral, and there they were: the headstones, one for each brother and sister, none on this earth fewer than 60 years. Their parents had bought the one-way ticket to Ellis Island in the nick of time; they’d all gotten out, not one of them had ever been sent to a death camp or had their skin turned into a lampshade by Ilse Koch. It was something to feel good about: their bones planted in the dispassionate earth of the Queens–Nassau County line.
This, I decided, was key to my father’s rage. It wasn’t as if our family was so smart. There were plenty of others way smarter than us, and they had been caught and killed. You couldn’t just call us lucky either. Dad would spend long afternoons playing blackjack in Atlantic City casinos when he was dying of kidney failure and wound up having a heart attack instead. He knew the limits of luck. The reason we had survived to thrive in our wondrous Queens Utopia transcended luck or brains. The way things worked out was beyond any accounting, not to be taken for granted but simply accepted. We were Americans, citizens of the true Promised Land. Someone like Adler had “no business” trying to infect me, the blessed son, with his misfortune.
“You don’t think this is real, do you?” I asked. “There’s only one way to find out,” said the medical examiner.
I appreciate my father for this sentiment, if indeed that was what he was thinking. No doubt, he felt he was looking out for me, saving me from the stain of the victimized past. Except now that the lampshade had arrived in my life, certain existential details could no longer be overlooked.
My first idea was to send it to a friend of a friend who works at the Museum of Natural History. My friend said he was a genius with taxidermy. Certainly he would be able to tell human skin from that of other animals. A few days later, the man called to say he couldn’t help me.
“Look,” he said. “A lot of my relatives were killed in the camps. This isn’t something I need in my life. You understand, right?”
“Yeah, sure.” It wasn’t something you were about to insist on.
I got Shiya Ribowsky’s name from a longtime NYPD detective. I was told Ribowsky worked at the medical examiner’s office, the New York City version of the morgue, was a good guy, and knew what he was talking about. “I’d be very interested to see that,” Ribowsky said when I reached him. He lived in Long Island, but today being Friday, he was in New York. Did I know that synagogue on Gramercy Park? Yes, I said. My dentist is on that block.
“I’m the chazzan there.”
“You’re the cantor? I thought you worked at the M.E.”
“I did work there. But I’ve always been a cantor. I do both.”
“A forensic cantor … That’s a trip.”
“Tell me about it.”
Now 45, but still sporting the boychik good looks to make the Hadassah ladies swoon, Shiya Ribowsky has been saying the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, for more than 30 years now, ever since his debut as a boy cantor in the Orthodox synagogue his father had helped found in Flatbush during the seventies. Place this experience alongside his fifteen years in the medical examiner’s office, where 12,000 dead bodies arrive every year, and you could say that Shiya’s relationship with death is more nuanced than most, on both the spiritual and physical planes.
In the years following 9/11, more than 22,000 separate fragments of what once had been human beings arrived at the medical examiner’s office. In the beginning, the parts were bigger—sections of legs, whole hands—but gradually the pieces grew smaller, sometimes so tiny as only to be seen under a microscope. Working at the M.E.’s office then, Shiya said, “was about as close to Auschwitz as I’ll ever get, a total onslaught of death.
“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.
“Medical knowledge tends to expand during wartime, and 9/11 was no different. The science of DNA identification grew up on the back of 9/11,” Shiya said, adding that despite the lab’s distressing address on Furnace Road, Bode had the best chance of making an analysis of the aged and desiccated lampshade cutting. “Nobody can do what they do.”
From the start, Bob Bever, the head of research at the Bode lab, was fairly certain that any meaningful DNA identification of the lampshade would be of the mitochondrial variety. There are two kinds of genetic material to be found in every cell. The vast majority of information is in the nucleus of the cell. This is the “nuclear DNA.” However, as Bever made clear, nuclear DNA is relatively fragile, susceptible to degradation in the face of excessive moisture and sunlight, which was a problem, since if there is something New Orleans has in abundance, outside of go-cups and midnight shootings, it is heat and humidity.
This left the mitochondrial, or mtDNA, a hardier brand of genetic material but far less detailed in its information. Bever said he hoped to “amplify the mito” in the sample, multiplying the remaining DNA sequences, but even then, “We’re likely to only get the species, not any secondary characteristics, like ethnicity,” Bever said. “We might find out it was a person but never know what kind of person.” To even get that far, the sample would have to be cleaned to eliminate “contaminates.” Who knew how many individuals might have touched the lampshade in its conjectured journey from Buchenwald to New Orleans? The shade would have to be bleached and bleached again. This was a laborious process, Bob Bever said. It would also cost a bit of money.
I told him to go ahead. I wanted to know. And I had to confess, I wanted it to be “real,” i.e., to have once been part of a walking, talking human being. It was a sick thing, I had to admit, but it wasn’t only me. Everyone I spoke to about the lampshade said, given a choice, they would be disappointed to find out it was made from a goat or a pig’s bladder. Here, even in the age of 9/11, after a century of genocide from Armenia to Rwanda, there was a desire to possess the unthinkable.
One thing I needed to know was how, and where, Dave Dominici had gotten the lampshade he sold to Skip Henderson.
By this time, I had discovered quite a bit more about Dominici. He was something of a local celebrity. “I am the famous cemetery bandit. The most hated man in New Orleans,” he said, opening a battered leatherette valise and pulling out a handful of crinkled clippings from the Times-Picayune. “These are all about me,” he said. There were a dozen or so articles, with headlines like “Stolen Artifacts’ Worth Could Run Into Millions” and “Cemetery Thief Pleas Guilty.”
“Local color writers” have been milking the spiked treacle of New Orleans’ seedy hoodooism for more than 150 years, but this was hard to beat. Dominici, in the role of an aging subtropical Fagin, had rounded up a dope-fiend krewe and entered into a compact with a number of French Quarter art dealers to steal and sell a large parcel of the city’s most treasured commodity: the dead, or at least the accoutrements of the dead. A six-foot-tall statue of the Virgin Mary missing from Lake Lawn had been selling in a French Quarter shop for $5,200. Other items taken from Orleanian cemeteries began turning up in antique stores in Los Angeles and London, some priced at as much as $50,000.
Dominici flipped through his cemetery-bandit clippings with a mix of regret, nostalgia, and bravado. “I know I shouldn’t have done it, and I don’t blame these people for getting upset. I’d feel the same way if someone stole from my gramps’s tomb. But I was broke and I had this habit, so do the math on that … You think it’s easy running through a pitch-dark cemetery with a 150-pound marble angel under your arm? You just can’t walk in there and start loading up, grabbing the first thing you see. You got to know the value of things, what they really are.”
That was how he knew about the Nazi lampshade. “I got an eye for antiquities, spot them right off, ” Dominici said. But when it came down to it, Dominici said, “the lampshade came from Katrina. That’s how I got it. From the storm.”
To hear Dominici tell it, the hurricane had left him in a “state of shock … a temporary insanity.” Yes, it was true, he and his girlfriend were so wasted they’d slept right through Katrina, but that just made it worse, waking up to a ruined world. “We get up, and we’re totally out. Nothing. Talk about your dope-sick nightmare … I didn’t hear anything about the levee breaks, I didn’t know about the floods. I just know I got to see Momma Hilda. She was an old black lady with diabetes who sold syringes for one dollar. To her house is just a straight walk up Piety. I done it a thousand times. But now, as I go, I’m swimming through tree branches, shoes, eyeglasses, a whole damn shed went by.
“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.
Yet here I was, at long last. And what had brought me here? The stupid lampshade.
A few weeks before I got on the plane to Berlin, I heard from Skip Henderson, who called me in his own special kind of panic to tell about a dream he had. It was the lampshade, hovering, against a black background. That was it, his entire dream. The shade never moved, just stayed there, blocking his view of anything else in life. This was when he realized something about tassels, the little Hershey’s Kiss bobs everyone I’d talked to was certain had been added years, perhaps decades, after the construction of the shade itself. The guy from Sotheby’s told me: “Beaux Arts, central European, mid-century, fringe added later.” Hugo Ramirez, who owns a classy antique-lighting shop on 59th Street in Manhattan, agreed: “Definitely central European, maybe thirties or forties; someone put those tassels on later.”
“Take the thing out of the box,” Skip demanded when he called. “Look at the tassels.”
“What about them?”
“They’re Mardi Gras colors, aren’t they?”
Strange what you don’t notice. The tassels were faded, not garish and plastic bright like the beads the masked men throw at you from passing floats. But they were definitely green, gold, and purple. Green, gold, and purple, in that order, all the way around. Mardi Gras colors. So what did that mean? That the unknown individual, the one who put the tassels on, had a really sick sense of humor? You could even call it a Nazi sense of humor. Who knew?
Who knew anything? All the lab report said was that the lampshade was “human.” There wasn’t enough genetic material to pinpoint ethnic traits to pinpoint what kind of human. So maybe it wasn’t from Buchenwald at all, maybe it wasn’t even a Jew. It could have been some poor unfortunate hitchhiker in Mississippi for all I knew. One thing did seem certain, however: that Dave Dominici was right when he said the lampshade came “from Katrina,” that without the storm, the shade would have never surfaced. It took the awful swirl of Katrina’s double, double, toil and trouble to whelp the lampshade up from the underground.
The fog on the Buchenwald Appellplatz was so thick I couldn’t make out the chimney of the crematorium. I could barely see my feet. Still, as I stared off into the murk, I felt a connection between this place of terror, where the lampshade, at least the idea of it, first came to light, and where this particular object had ended up, in the New Orleans flood. The lampshade had its secrets, things I needed to know. Perhaps Goethe, poet of the Ettersberg, would have had an answer. But even that was far from clear, as I knew from my copy of Faust, inside my shoulder bag even as I stood amid the enveloping gloom. In the dedication, the poet writes of “a shudder” that “shakes my frame” so “the firm heart feels weakened and remote. What I possess, mine, seems so far away from me, and what is gone becomes reality.”
Mark Jacobson’s The Lampshade will be published on September 28 by Simon & Schuster.