Opinion

Don't Keep Hitler's Stuff. Burn It

A man holding a hat with the initials 'AH' from the J A Seidl hat manufacturer prior to an auction of personal belongings of Hitler and other notorious World War II Nazi leaders.
AFP

“We will handle the items with great respect, and after they reach us, we will consult with all relevant bodies to make the best decision on how to deal with them,” said United Israel Appeal officials after it emerged that the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum organization had its eye on a few items that had been owned by Hitler. The items in question – a top hat, a cigar case and a few other objects that belonged to Hitler, including an autographed copy of “Mein Kampf” – were purchased recently by Lebanese businessman Abdullah Chatila at an auction in Munich, after which he offered them to Israel, donating them to the Jerusalem-based United Israel Appeal.

I am not a “relevant party” here, merely the daughter of two Holocaust survivors and the granddaughter of four others. Actually, not all of them survived: My grandmother, Anna Albrecht, whose death no one has avenged, was bedridden with cancer when the Jewish community in her town was forced into the ghetto. She begged her family to give her an overdose of morphine so she would not have to die in the street like a dog. Hitler’s henchmen used to shoot anyone who couldn’t walk as fast as they were expected to. Ultimately, it was my mother, Beatrice Albrecht-Melamed, who died a month ago at the age of 94, who injected the lethal and liberating dose into her mother’s veins. Beatrice was 15 at the time, and that’s how World War II began for her. In some ways, in her tormented soul, that war never ended.

But when the Red Army liberated my mother’s city from Nazi occupation and the family returned from their frantic flight to a house that had been destroyed, my grandfather Isidor was the first to rummage through the rubble. He found the copy of “Mein Kampf” he had received as a senior and devoted employee of Meissen, a company that manufactured fancy porcelain, the kind beloved by the Fuhrer. Isidor lit a small fire in the yard and burned the book.

The purpose of collecting Nazi memorabilia is “to show the entire phenomenon and those who were behind the murders,” according to Yad Vashem. We all know already that quite ordinary people perpetrated the murder of Jews and Romans, homosexuals and Catholic priests, people with disabilities and prisoners of war, opponents of the regime or those who dared to hide human beings deemed undesirable according to the criteria of Hitler’s final solutions. These people owned hats and wallets, nice silverware and top hats for special occasions, flowerpots and armchairs, monogrammed handkerchiefs, impressive libraries. The banality of evil is not just a reference to the soul of a person; it also includes the objects he owned.

Each item of “Hitler memorabilia” that the United Israel Appeal wants to be kept and treated “with great respect” is banal, generic, historically unimportant, charged only with celeb value: “This cigar case? Hitler’s hand once touched it.” Maybe. Wow. Is that any more important and interesting than Marilyn Monroe’s dress, a book signed by the late JFK, or a scarf worn by Mother Teresa? “And here is Eva Braun’s hat – look!”

So what? Yad Vashem tried to reply to such an expected question by determining that the object of keeping and displaying such inane memorabilia, in the context of Holocaust events, will “demonstrate how a human society created an ideology that led to the systematic murder of another people.”

No, it’s not the objects that demonstrate. In the nice house where Isidor and Anna Albrecht lived before they were declared to be undesirables, there were the same, if not identical items, including a top hat that’s seen in a wedding photo, as well as the groom’s white gloves. I imagine Hitler also had gloves like that. Perhaps they’ll be found and auctioned off one day.

These objects, like any other mass-produced items, illustrate nothing of the history of Nazism and fascism. A cigar case does not teach you how “human society created an ideology that led to the systematic murder of another nation,” in addition to a number of other populations who did not constitute a nation yet and were subjected to a holocaust. One learns through great emotional and intellectual ordeals the immense difficulty of grasping such evil, along with a categorical need and imperative to understand it so that it doesn’t return under different guises, wearing different hats. But one can also learn from token acts meant to abolish evil.

This was well understood in real-time, right after the war, when the Soviets repeatedly tried to blow up Hitler’s bunker – to no avail. In the end they sealed it off and virtually removed it from the geography and history of Berlin, until it was rediscovered in 2006. They did not want the hero worship that might have arisen again at that site, along with any potential “demonstrations.” They wanted to expunge and destroy any vestige of evil, leaving the preservation of history and remembrance to other channels, perhaps intangible and more difficult to grasp but absolutely essential.

I dare speak only in the name of my parents and theirs: The correct and moral thing to do with these pathetic objects of Hitler is to light a small fire, perhaps in a metal garbage bin outside Yad Vashem, and burn them, just burn them.