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.
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.