I didn’t know if I should write about this book. I wasn’t even going to check it out. It sat at my elbow on my desk for half an hour before I decided that I needed to check it out and take it home with me. The book reminded me of driving and seeing ambulances and cop cars surrounding a car at the side of the road. Everybody slows down but it’s not out of fear and respect for the law. It’s so we can all get a good look at the car pulled over at the side of the road.
Was it an accident? A road rage speeder? Is that a shoe that flew out the window and is now 100 feet down the road? Our bodies scream for blood as we drive by. And when we don’t see any, when we see that it’s a little old lady pulled over for a broken tail light, there’s a certain disappointment. We accelerate and hurdle down the road, our blood at rest while waiting for the next accident.
In The Lampshade: a Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans by Mark Jacobson, a rather unusual lamp comes into the hands of the author by questionable means. There’s never really a straight annswer as to where the lampshade comes from. A “gentleman” from New Orleans sells it at a garage sale. He says he got it from a friend of a friend and wants nothing to do with it. The story behind the lamp is that it was made at the Buchenwald concentration camp out of a Jewish prisoner and given as a gift to a Nazi officer from his wife Ilse, known for her cruelty.
The author had heard of the lamp as a child as had other children growing up in post WWII America but it had been in a faraway sense of knowing about it. Stories are passed down that there were many things made in the concentration camps: soaps and furniture from the flesh of prisoners and even highly detailed handbags. The prisoners with the most interesting or colorful tattoos were often never seen again…as a walking and breathing human. Other prisoners, months or years later, recognize their friend’s tattoo now adorning a woman’s purse.
Mark Jacobson decides to investigate where the skin lampshade came from. He sends it to a pathologist friend who sends it back with a letter that says “Don’t send me that kind of sh*t!” The lamp disturbs everyone who comes into contact with it. Many have nightmares, lock the lamp away in a closest only to have it prey on their minds like the beating heart in Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. The journey to fine out more takes Jacobson through Katrina ravaged New Orleans where the lamp first surfaced. A grave robber “liberated” it and then told a thousand stories about where it really came from.
At one point in the book the author mentions how he’d be a little disappointed to find out the lampshade wasn’t made from human skin and then as a Jew, he grapples with the guilt he feels hoping that the lampshade is the real deal. I think I understand him. We hope for the real deal no matter how gruesome or tragic. We hope that our lives have touched something monumental so that we can squirrel away the memory of having been a part of it. Johann Eckerman, secretary and biographer of Goethe summed up our need for the dark side of life:
“We see that darkness itself is part of light. It sounds absurd when I express it, but so it is. Colors, which are shadows, and the result of shade, are light itself.”
If you enjoy real life historical mysteries you’ll enjoy reading The Lampshade.