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The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans.

The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans, by Mark Jacobson, Simon and Schuster, 368 pages, $26.


THE CONFLICT OVER historical memory is a continuing one, with different perceptions vying for the top slot. The title of Mark Jacobson's book The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans might lead readers to believe they are going on a gritty journey through a death camp survivor's continuing nightmare. Not quite. But Jacobson does wander the world looking for the truth behind the tales of lampshades made from human flesh at Nazi concentration camps.

Jacobson tells a strange tale indeed. His concern was a lampshade purchased at a post-Katrina yard sale by a friend of his, Skip Henderson. It was while on a search to find a drum to use in Mardi Gras festivities that Henderson stumbled across the sale and the lampshade. The seller, Dave Dominici, opened up once he had identified Skip as a local rather than just a curious tourist. Because of this New Orleans-style social contract, Dominici offered Henderson the lampshade, telling him that it was "made from the skin of Jews." Henderson didn't fully believe it, having heard enough weird tales while in Louisiana, but something about this particular story struck him as different. His curiosity was piqued. He eventually mailed the lampshade to his friend Jacobson, the book's author, asking him to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Jacobson embarks on a quest that takes him from memories of boyhood days and taunts over his being Jewish (including a threat to turn him into a lampshade) to museums and medical examiners, from the United States to Israel and Germany and all over again. His search serves to examine not only the horrors of the Holocaust, but also the construction of historical memory. The evil duo of soap and lampshades made from humans are items of mythic proportions, but do these stories have any basis in historical fact? This is what Jacobson hopes to find out and settle, once and for all, as he does his best to ferret out the truth behind this yard sale horror.

One of the pivotal points of the book is Jacobson's meeting with Shiya Ribowsky, who had worked at the medical examiner's office in New York City in the dark days after 9/11. Ribowsky takes some DNA samples of the lampshade and, with Jacobson's agreement, sends them to Bode Technology, a genetic analysis lab in Virginia charged with the grim task of identifying the remains of 9/11 victims. With the results in hand, Jacobson then approaches a number of institutions, among them the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, and Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel. Both have cold feet about taking the lampshade off Jacobson's hands; there is no clear history to the lampshade beyond what Dominici and a forensics lab said.

Jacobson does a good job discussing the problems with objects such as the lampshade. First, quite a few observers from either side of the political spectrum are skeptical about stories of lampshades made from human skin. Second, there are the Holocaust-deniers, who say the lampshades did not exist or that the Holocaust either did not happen or has been exaggerated. Finally, scholars and others who have studied the empirical evidence of the Holocaust hold opinions that lampshades and soap made from camp inhabitants are sensational boogeymen that draw attention away from the real facts and real horrors in the camps.

Jacobson weaves together tales of woe from Palestine, New Orleans, Germany, and 9/11, from the lives of people featured in the book and from his own childhood. He reflects on these episodes and the events and memories associated with them. With regard to the wars over historical memory, Jacobson's visits to Buchenwald and the lessons taught there while the site was under Soviet/East-German authority are fascinating. The role of American troops in liberating Buchenwald, for example, was almost completely buried under tales of near-superhuman fighting by Communist inmates who freed the camps from the fascist guards. Again, Jacobson illustrates how historical memory is used to support a particular agenda.

In a very colorful way, Jacobson demonstrates that whether something is authentic or not often does not matter. This book makes it plain that even in the Information Age, a tale told often enough is finally accepted as the truth.

Michael Edwards

New Orleans, Louisiana
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Author:Edwards, Michael
Publication:America in WWII
Date:Dec 1, 2010
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