Sunday, August 7, 2011

#53: The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans by Mark Jacobson

Simon and Schuster, New York, 2010. 348 pages

I have never read a book quite like this, nor seen anything quite like it. The plot centers on a lampshade bought in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, bought by a character named Skip Henderson at a garage sale. He asks "What's this thing made of, anyhow?"

The man answers "That's made from the skin of Jews." (44). He winds up buying the thing, and gives it to the author to find out what he can. The book that follows is extraordinary. Each chapter more or less has a focus, the first being Ilse Koch, the infamous "Bitch of Buchenwald" who supposedly turned inmates into lampshades as gifts for her husband. Along the way Jacobson tries to meet Koch's son and winds up meeting the actress who played her in the film Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. 

It is these strange meetings that make this book so memorable. One could easily get bogged down in the characters that appear in the text, but Jacobson never allows the reader to lose sight of the reason he is meeting these people: the lampshade. It literally hangs over this book like a ghost. It is terrible in so many ways, but an incredible monument to both cruelty and urban legend. Is it real? Is it a myth?

The lampshade is the main character in the text; if anything, post-Katrina New Orleans shares this role. Jacobson was a one-time resident of the city and still has multiple friends and connections there. The man who sold the lampshade told three different stories about how he got it, the guy who bought the thing runs his own krewe for Mardi Gras, Dr. John makes an appearance. The prologue involves a Dominican spiritualist telling Jacobson "fate has delivered this to you, and it is are all he has now." (3-4) Hell, even David Duke shows up. By this time he is living in Bavaria (where else?).

The main question in this book is "What do we do with the past that shames us?". This is the question that binds the lampshade and New Orleans, the Holocaust and neo-Nazism. Do yourself a favor and find out what answers Jacobson finds. You won't be disappointed.

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