With this lampshade you can say it had a first history, which is that identification with the Buchenwald camp and people like Isle Koch. … Then there is the second history. The history with you. Your adventures and your thoughts. There is the strange and frightening idea that someone would make a lampshade out of a person and it has arrived in New Orleans after a storm.
Mark Jacobson, a New York Magazine writer who splits his time between New Orleans and New York City, acquired, third-hand, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a lampshade apparently made of human skin. Four almost four years he tried to determine its actual provenance, and to find a fitting home for it; it proved to be an artifact that no one wanted, a horrible “white elephant” shunned by mainstream Holocaust historians and Holocaust deniers alike. The lampshade’s wanderings, in a custom-made carrying case, take it to Buchenwald, Jerusalem, New Orleans, and New York City, stitching together the threads of the Holocaust, the Jim Crow South, 9/11, Katrina, and the “Faust” legend (both in Goethe’s native woodlands and at the midnight crossroad where Robert Johnson sold his soul).
As a “Holocaust detective story,” The Lampshade has few actual clues. Jacobson has a DNA profile made at the lab that identified the meager remains of many 9/11 victims, which shows that the lampshade is likely to be human, though the age and degradation of the material makes an absolute determination impossible. Antique dealers place the metal frame of the lamp in the first half of the twentieth century, of a middle European style: the atrocities at Buchenwald fit within this broad historical geography, but it’s insufficient evidence to pinpoint the lampshade’s origins. The official record, in particular the Nuremberg trials and the trial of Ilse Koch, the infamous “Hexe von Buchenwald,” alludes to lampshades made of human skin, but there is little direct evidence of these particular horrors within the context of the greater horror of the Holocaust. In short, there’s little opportunity for a Sherlock Holmes to deduce the lampshade’s origins with much clarity.
But the heart of “The Lampshade” is less the quest for the lampshade’s origins, than it is an investigation of the tangled stories of racism and injustice in Germany and the United States. The book starts with Goethe, whose favorite walking site would become the location of the Buchenwald concentration camp, and with Robert Johnson at the crossroads in Clarksville, Mississippi, where the man who gives the lampshade to Jacobson spent years trying to get fitting recognition paid to the area’s rich musical legacy. Throughout the book, Jacobson illuminates connections between lynchings, neo-Nazi marches, grave robbing, medical cadavers, Mardi Gras krewes, and care for the dead. He interviews a wide range of characters, from Louisiana racist David Duke to the Jewish American communications officer in charge of opening Buchenwald to the world after the camp’s liberation; he discovers that Holocaust deniers are more open to the lampshade’s possible Holocaust connections than are the Holocaust museums in Washington, DC, and Jerusalem, and that Buchenwald itself, tainted for half a century by East Germany’s Cold War interpretation of the camp and struggling to overcome the heroic anti-fascist myths of the Communist era, isn’t particularly interested in a homecoming.
Though unsatisfying as a detective story, “The Lampshade” is a fascinating look at history through a macabre lens. The lampshade is both illuminating and obfuscating, directing light to interesting places and blocking the light from some hidden corners. It may not provide new insight into either the Holocaust or the history of New Orleans, but it raises uncomfortable questions.