New Book Tells Grim Story Of 'The Lampshade'

A new book tells the story of what may be one of the most gruesome artifacts of the Nazi persecution of Jews — a lampshade made from human skin.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

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And I'm Robert Siegel.

A new book tells a grisly story of a lampshade found in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. This is a story that I should warn you may be very unsettling.

Genetic testing has determined that the lampshade is made of human skin. Jon Kalish reports.

JON KALISH: Six months after the hurricane, Raymond "Skip" Henderson came upon a rummage sale in his Bywater neighborhood. He was interested in a water-stained drum set, but the seller pointed him to a lamp and specifically its shade.

Mr. RAYMOND HENDERSON: He said: You know, this is skin of the Jews. He said: That's Jew flesh. Then I said, What? And he goes, It's a World War II souvenir.

You know, once you live in New Orleans, you just get prepared for anything.

KALISH: Henderson decided to buy it, paying $35. When he got home he started to examine it.

Mr. HENDERSON: Now you start looking, you're noticing wrinkles and pores. And it's very translucent. It looks dusty or greasy. It's like a silky feel to it. It'll clear a room out. I mean, you take it out of the box, man, people do not want to be in the same room as this thing.

KALISH: Henderson had the lamp for about a year before he sent the shade to a friend in Brooklyn, Mark Jacobson, who writes for New York magazine. He paid $6,000 to have it tested at a leading genetics laboratory.

The lab determined that the shade was made of human skin. Subsequent tests by German and Israeli labs confirmed the finding. But because the skin was so dry, the labs could not tell the ethnicity of the person it came from.

Mr. MARK JACOBSON (Writer, New York Magazine): As soon as you see the DNA report, it's moving into the realm of some kind of really hideous, heartbreaking reality.

KALISH: Writer Mark Jacobson.

Mr. JACOBSON: This object, this 10-inch tall thing that's in the closet of my house, used to be part of a human being. Somebody took off their skin and made it into a lampshade.

KALISH: Stories of Nazi atrocities began emerging immediately after the war. Albert Rosenberg served in the U.S. Army's Psychological Warfare Division. He interviewed more than 600 prisoners at Buchenwald concentration camp after it was liberated.

Mr. ALBERT ROSENBERG: I was sitting at the desk, interrogating a liberated French prisoner. His name was Stefan Essel, and he said to me: How can you, an American officer, sit at this desk with this lamp? And I said: What the hell's wrong with this lamp? He said: Don't you know? I said: What's wrong with it? He said: That lampshade is human skin.

KALISH: The 92-year-old Rosenberg says he doesn't know what happened to that lampshade but recalls that it looked different from the one pictured in Mark Jacobson's new book.

A lampshade was also filmed by Allied forces after the camps were liberated, and that footage was used in the 1961 fiction film "Judgment at Nuremberg."

In it, Richard Widmark plays a prosecutor who describes the abuses discovered at Buchenwald as he shows the footage to the courtroom.

(Soundbite of film, "Judgment at Nuremberg")

Mr. RICHARD WIDMARK (Actor): (As Colonel Tad Lawson): A lampshade made from human skin, skin being used for paintings, many having an obscene nature.

KALISH: Woody Guthrie even wrote a song about Ilse Koch, the wife of Buchenwald's commandant. She is alleged to have had the skin of murdered inmates made into purses and lampshades.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WOODY GUTHRIE (Singer): (Singing) I smell the chimney smoke. I smell the chimney smoke.

KALISH: Guthrie recorded the song at home. It was never released but made available by the Woody Guthrie Archives.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GUTHRIE : (Singing) Lampshades are cut from skins. Lampshades are cut from skins.

KALISH: Despite the many stories and the film footage, the use of skin for lampshades is largely seen as mythology, something Mark Jacobson discovered when he tried to donate the lampshade to the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Mr. JACOBSON: The museum said that even if I could prove it 100 percent that it was human, which they said I could not, it would still be a myth. And I said, What?

Mr. MICHAEL BERENBAUM: I can understand why my colleagues at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and my colleagues at Yad Vashem would not want to go near this.

KALISH: Scholar Michael Berenbaum served as the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum during its creation.

Mr. BERENBAUM: Any aspect of what's displayed in a museum is a matter of taste, judgment and a sense of its impact on an audience. Those are issues that all sorts of museums that deal with the horrific and the difficult in life have to grapple with.

KALISH: In addition to those considerations, most Holocaust museums are constrained by Jewish religious law, which dictates that body parts must be buried. Mark Jacobson contemplated the idea of burying his lampshade but ultimately decided not to.

Mr. JACOBSON: Why should I bury it in a Jewish cemetery and decide this is what it is, when there's no proof that that's what it is? And it certainly wasn't mine to bury by the end of my book so I can have an ending for my book.

KALISH: Holocaust scholar and rabbi Michael Berenbaum says he does not believe the shade should be buried or displayed but that it should be preserved because of the controversy surrounding it. But so far, Mark Jacobson says no institution has offered to do even that.

Mr. JACOBSON: The day it's no longer in my possession, it'll be okay with me.

KALISH: For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.

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