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

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Few growing up in the aftermath of World War II will ever forget the horrifying reports that Nazi concentration camp doctors had removed the skin of prisoners to makes common, everyday lampshades. In The Lampshade, bestselling journalist Mark Jacobson tells the story of how he came into possession of one of these awful objects, and of his search to establish the origin, and larger meaning, of what can only be described as an icon of terror.Jacobson’s mind-bending historical, moral, and philosophical journey into ...

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

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Overview

Few growing up in the aftermath of World War II will ever forget the horrifying reports that Nazi concentration camp doctors had removed the skin of prisoners to makes common, everyday lampshades. In The Lampshade, bestselling journalist Mark Jacobson tells the story of how he came into possession of one of these awful objects, and of his search to establish the origin, and larger meaning, of what can only be described as an icon of terror.Jacobson’s mind-bending historical, moral, and philosophical journey into the recent past and his own soul begins in Hurricane Katrina–ravaged New Orleans. It is only months after the storm, with America’s most romantic city still in tatters, when Skip Henderson, an old friend of Jacobson’s, purchases an item at a rummage sale: a very strange looking and oddly textured lampshade. When he asks what it’s made of, the seller, a man covered with jailhouse tattoos, replies, “That’s made from the skin of Jews.” The price: $35. A few days later, Henderson sends the lampshade to Jacobson, saying, “You’re the journalist, you find out what it is.” The lampshade couldn’t possibly be real, could it? But it is. DNA analysis proves it.This revelation sends Jacobson halfway around the world, to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, where the lampshades were supposedly made on the order of the infamous “Bitch of Buchenwald,” Ilse Koch. From the time he grew up in Queens, New York, in the 1950s, Jacobson has heard stories about the human skin lampshade and knew it to be the ultimate symbol of Nazi cruelty. Now he has one of these things in his house with a DNA report to prove it, and almost everything he finds out about it is contradictory, mysterious, shot through with legend and specious information.Through interviews with forensic experts, famous Holocaust scholars (and deniers), Buchenwald survivors and liberators, and New Orleans thieves and cops, Jacobson gradually comes to see the lampshade as a ghostly illuminator of his own existential status as a Jew, and to understand exactly what that means in the context of human responsibility.One question looms as his search goes on: what to do with the lampshade—this unsettling thing that used to be someone? It is a difficult dilemma to be sure, but far from the last one, since once a lampshade of human skin enters your life, it is very, very hard to forget.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A lampshade possibly made from the skin of a concentration camp prisoner fitfully depicts the limits of human brutality in this beguiling but unfocused odyssey. When DNA tests proved a lampshade, found in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, to be made of human skin, New York magazine contributing editor Jacobson (12,000 Miles in the Nick of Time) set out to establish its provenance and meaning. Both prove elusive: evidence linking it to famous allegations that Nazis made lampshades from concentration camp victims is scanty, and Holocaust museum curators dismiss such claims. But as Jacobson's investigation takes him to places with legacies of racial hatred and mass killing--Buchenwald, Dresden, Israel, and the West Bank--he ponders the lampshade's mythic resonance as both a "particularist" emblem of Jewish victimization and a "universalist" token of human suffering. The author excels at sketching haunted locales and oddball characters, especially in atmospheric New Orleans, but his project is gimmicky--he calls in psychics and dubs the lampshade "Ziggy"--and his habit of seeing shades of the Holocaust everywhere feels forced. Jacobson's reportage is intriguing, but it doesn't pierce the darkness. (Sept. 14)
AMERICA IN WWII magazine
Jacobsen does wander the world looking for the truth behind the tales of lampshades made of human flesh at Nazi concentration 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. …In a very colorful way, Jacobsen demonstrates that whether something is authentic or not does not matter. This book makes it plain that evening the Information Age, a tale told often enough is finally accepted as the truth.
Dwight Garner
…an antic, improbable and resonant nonfiction book, one that's part historical horror story and part squalid crime caper…Mr. Jacobson's book passes a primal test… When you put it down, you look forward to picking it up again. This is largely because it becomes an entangling meditation on not merely Nazi atrocities but on the nature of authenticity.
—The New York Times
From the Publisher
"Provocative.... A well-executed, original reflection on how social evil tends to endure, puzzle and resist efforts at redemption." —-Kirkus
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781416566274
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 9/14/2010
  • Pages: 357
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark Jacobson

Mark Jacobson, a contributing editor at New York Magazine, is the author of 12,000 Miles in the Nick of Time, Teenage Hipster in the Modern World, Gojiro, and Everyone and No One.

Johnny Heller has won two prestigious Audie Awards, earned numerous Audie nominations, and was named one of the Top 50 Narrators of the Twentieth Century by AudioFile magazine.

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Read an Excerpt


PROLOGUE

I must say 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 human skin lampshade reputedly made 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. A friend of mine, a devotee, had recommended the medium, saying that if the lampshade had truly once been part of a person, “the spirit” would still be present. If so, then Doña Argentina would make contact with it, bring its secrets to light.

There was a bit of desperation in my visit, an anxiety that had been mounting since I had first come into possession of the lampshade, which a friend had purchased at a rummage sale in New Orleans, Louisiana, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Later, after DNA testing proved that the lampshade had been fashioned from the skin of a human being, I’d spent many, many months attempting to track down its true nature, its origin and meaning, a search that had taken me halfway around the world. So I was willing, if not too excited, to drive the ten miles from my Brooklyn home, through the Lincoln Tunnel, to Union City, where everyone speaks Spanish, to hear what the mystic had to say.

Doña Argentina, who said she had learned the ways of contacting the dead from her mother, whose portrait could be seen on the wall behind a six-foot-tall plaster of Paris likeness of the Virgin, began the session auspiciously. Taking the lampshade from its box, she took one look and said, “Oh, they kill him.” This was quite possibly accurate, considering there was every chance the shade had been constructed from the skin of one of the eleven million people, six million Jews among them, who had been killed by the Nazis during their twelve-year reign of terror. On the other hand, spiritualists had their tricks. They like to impress their needy supplicants. I did not know what my friend had told Doña Argentina about the lampshade before I’d arrived.

A few moments later, Doña Argentina placed a candle beside the lampshade, which was alarming. After making a number of trips to Buchenwald, the Nazi camp most associated with the lampshade story, and spending much time in New Orleans, where the object had been scavenged from an abandoned building wrecked in the catastrophic hurricane, I had no desire to see it incinerated in the basement of a Jersey spiritualist’s parlor. This seemed a real possibility as the candle flame grew higher.

Mira! The spirit is strong,” Doña Argentina said, taking a chug of rum. “It is speaking…” There was a pause now, as she stiffened in her velveteen chair. Her eyelids were fluttering. “He says… he says…”

I’d always assumed the skin of the lampshade came from a male, but this was the first time I’d heard it identified by the pronoun. Until this moment it had always been an it, a frightening, intentionally depersonalized it.

“He says… they are all bad to him. They hurt him. They cut him. Stab him with knives. They throw him in the closet. Lock him away. But you… you are different. You are kind to him. You give him attention.”

“Yes.” I was paying attention to the lampshade. For months I’d thought of little else.

The candle flame shot higher. Doña Argentina swigged more rum. The picture of her mother loomed above. “He says he feels safe with you. He wants to stay with you.”

“Stay with me?”

“He says he wants to stay with you always. He never wants to leave you.”

“You’re kidding.” Ever since the lampshade had arrived at my door as an unsolicited parcel of terror, 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 pirate might find shoved in his breeches some bad night. The idea was to divest yourself of the spot before its curse took hold, to pass it to the next unsuspecting fool, if need be.

“He can’t stay with me. That’s crazy.”

Doña Argentina leveled her gaze at me. For the moment it seemed as if she’d separated herself from her trance and had returned to the temporal world. She lowered her voice, as if to keep her thoughts from the spirit.

“Por qué?” she asked. “Por qué he can’t stay with you?”

“Because… because it is a Nazi lampshade. It doesn’t belong to me. I can’t keep a Nazi lampshade.”

“You don’t want him? He is not a Nazi.”

“I know he’s not a Nazi. I know that.” Doña Argentina was recommending I keep the lampshade near me as much as possible, to keep it at my bedside. “I can’t have a Nazi lampshade in my house.”

“But this is what he wants. You cannot do it? 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. I just can’t… keep him.”

Suddenly this trip to Union City had become very complicated. I couldn’t become the permanent guardian of a human skin lampshade. It—or should I now be referring to the shade as he?—was a dead person. A murder victim, a former human being, not a curio, a grim collector’s item. I’d spoken to rabbis, to museum officials, professors, geneticists, policemen, politicians. Dozens of serious people had weighed in with opinions concerning the lampshade and what should be done with it. Now this spiritualist, this lottery number picker, was advocating this radical course of action.

“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. It is your choice. He says 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.”

© 2010 Mark Jacobson

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Customer Reviews

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( 24 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 22 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 1, 2012

    Although JacobSon provides some very interesting details in his

    Although JacobSon provides some very interesting details in his search for answers, he strays too often into irrelevant information that made the book hard to get through. It was like sitting at dinner with that relative that just won't get to the point of his story. He also interjects too much of his personal political and religious beliefs (or non-beliefs) into this book making it yet another unnecessary distraction. I really dont care to hear from him that he thought the failures of dealing with Katrina were Bush's fault or to hear him belittle organized religions.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 16, 2010

    so-so

    Good baseline story though the author tends to be quite subjective and rambling on and on

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 1, 2010

    worth reading

    This book is definitely worth reading, alot of information in it, some irrelevant, but it takes you on a journey, the same journey that the author took to try and figure out where the lampshade came from, it's very interesting.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 14, 2012

    Slendercat

    Are you guys evil?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 6, 2012

    DONT DISBAND

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 6, 2012

    Loneforest

    (No, there was another new Clan called ShadeClan and I was wondering if this was the same one?)
    ~ Lonefores

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 6, 2012

    Autunmleaf

    "Its okay!"

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2012

    Shadestar

    Sadly i announce the end of this clan *the entire forest and everything in it dissapears

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 18, 2012

    Not really a detective story

    I thought, because of the story, that it would be more of a detective story, with the author trying to track down where the lampshade is from and who it is from. Instead, it's more about his ambivalent relationship with the lampshade. The author goes on for quite some time about his conflicted feelings about the lampshade--yeah, I get it, it's a lampshade made of human skin, you should feel weird about it!

    On another note, I've read plenty of books on WWII and this book did offer anecdotes about concentration camps I had never heard of.

    My recommendation: read parts 1-2 of this book and skip part 3, unless you're interested in the author's thoughts on the lampshade.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 7, 2012

    Really fascinating.

    Of course, considering the subject matter, one would probably have to actively work to make it boring, but this is a really thoughtful, well written and of course fascinating personal narrative.

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    Posted November 23, 2011

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    Posted April 21, 2011

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    Posted April 26, 2012

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    Posted September 29, 2010

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    Posted September 30, 2010

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    Posted December 19, 2010

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    Posted September 26, 2010

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    Posted January 22, 2011

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    Posted February 5, 2011

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