It is not every day a small parcel of Hell arrives at your door, but that' s what happened sometime in early 2007 when the postman delivered the lampshade. It was sent from New Orleans by Skip Henderson, an old friend of mine, who bought it at a rummage sale during the aftermath of the cataclysmic hurricane Katrina. The seller, a jailhouse tattoo festooned man told Skip this was not just any lampshade.
"It is made from the skin of the Jews," the man said in the local patois. "Hitler made skin out of the Jews." The price was $35.
Skip Henderson is not exactly the gullible type, but this was one however specious-sounding offer he found himself unable to pass up. Not that he believed the seller's macabre claim as to the lampshade's origin. But as Skip said, some stories, just the mere suggestion of them, "prey on your mind." The mere proximity of the lampshade was driving him nuts. This was why he sent it to me.
"You' re the journalist, " he said, "you find out what it is."
My search to shed light as to the nature of this strange and unsettling object is told in the new book, The Lampshade. Some answers were obtained, most shockingly that the according to extensive testing at one of the country' s top DNA laboratory, the lampshade is "real", or in the words of the lab report " of human origin." Many other aspects of the lampshade were uncovered during the three years I worked on the book, a time during which I made numerous trips to Buchenwald, the concentration camp most associated with the alleged Nazi practice of stripping the skin from Jewish prisoners and fashioning it into sardonic knick knacks like lampshades. One thing I was told, by a number of Holocaust authorities, was that the idea of the human skin lampshade, a specter that had inspired much inchoate fear in my nine-year old mind as I grew up in Queens during the 1950's, was not thought to have ever existed. They were "a myth" many experts said, a product of rumors generated in part by the camp victims themselves. The lampshade had been largely written out of the mainstream narrative of the Shoah.
So what was this thing that was delivered to my house, this translucent, exceedingly creepy feeling one-foot high object the art curators said was likely constructed in Central Europe during the early to mid 20th century, this artifact scientists judged to have once been part of human being? It is a question one can become obsessive about. And even now, having looked into the history of the object and encountered dozens of people at least as equally engaged with the myth-reality of human skin lampshades as myself, I cannot truly claim to have fulfilled Skip Henderson's plea to "find out what it is." I can, however, say with reasonable certainty what the
lampshade is to me.
One thing that people constantly ask me is how I could stand being near such a hideous object, to have kept it for a period of time in my home where my wife and I raised out three children. It is a query with a subtext, namely "how sick, how heartless can one individual be?" Hearing this I usually say "well, I've made my accommodation with it," which sounds vaguely professional enough. What I usually leave out (although not from the book) is the fact that once past the initial wrench of opening the shade's Pandora' s box, my relationship with it has evolved. That, in many ways, I am grateful to have been even for this fleeting time to have assumed custodianship of the lampshade.
This doesn't mean it isn't a horrible, fearful object. It is horrible that anyone would make another human into a lampshade. It is a hateful thing that Nazis once existed, and still do. The world is so often a place of unimagined cruelty, where unspeakable acts, what many call evil, are commonplace. The urge to ignore this lurching tide is strong, and reasonable. But, even here, safe at home in America, how can one pretend not to notice humanity' s innate viciousness when a human skin lampshade, this icon of genocide, sits on your table? Because what is this thing, really, beyond all the nightmarish associations, but a person---someone probably quite like you or me you had the bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong pedigree? Seen this way, the terror inspired by the lampshade fades away in an immense wave of sympathy. For me, given the circumstances, there is no other way to feel.