NEW YORK — They’re back: the morally depraved auctioneers and other entrepreneurs who brazenly hawk Holocaust artifacts to make a quick buck.
Before Britain’s Mail on Sunday outed him, Victor Kempf, a vendor from Vancouver, Canada, was trying to sell a uniform allegedly worn by a Jewish inmate of the Auschwitz death camp on eBay for £11,200 ($17,920). Kempf thoughtfully provided the uniform’s provenance, claiming that it had belonged to a baker named Wolf Gierson Grundmann, and that he had bought the clothes from a “reputable dealer.”
Kempf was also peddling a pair of concentration camp trousers for between £5,000 ($8,000) and £5,600 ($8,960). These had belonged to another inmate, Dawid Bitterstein, who had perished at Auschwitz, and had supposedly been “bought many years ago in Krakow, Poland.”
This sordid tale is of far more than academic interest for me: My parents were imprisoned at Auschwitz. I’d be horrified to discover their uniforms advertised on eBay or anywhere else.
To its credit, eBay immediately apologized and pulled these items, together with a “concentration camp toothbrush” listed for £145 ($232) and more than 30 others.
“We don’t allow listings of this nature,” the company declared, “and dedicate thousands of staff to policing our site and use the latest technology to detect items that shouldn’t be for sale. We very much regret that we didn’t live up to our own standards.”
Additionally, eBay also said that it was donating £25,000 ($40,000) to charity.
Kemp is far from unique. There appears to be a growing market for Nazi memorabilia, such as the autographed photographs of Adolf Hitler and other Third Reich bigwigs put up for sale two years ago by Alexander Historical Auctions of Stamford, Conn.
The website Third Reich Depot (thirdreichdepot.com) advertises an array of Nazi collectibles and “accoutrements.” It offers “exquisitely tailored” reproductions of SS uniforms, caps, ribbons, insignia, badges and rings — everything the debonair fascist could possibly want.
In May 2010, the Daily Mail reported that an “extremely rare Jewish Holocaust wood doll from Auschwitz,” presumably once held tightly by a terrified child, could be purchased from a U.S.-based website for a mere $2,500. The same outfit was also advertising a pair of clogs supposedly worn by a Buchenwald inmate for $5,000.
The Internet glorification of the Hitlerite era takes on a sinister connotation as Neo-Nazi parties enjoy a dramatic political resurgence in many parts of Europe, less than seven decades after the end of the Holocaust.
In Budapest, in what World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder has termed “a historical travesty,” leaders of the reactionary Jobbik party have just unveiled a statue of Miklos Horthy, the rabidly anti-Semitic regent of Hungary throughout most of World War II on whose watch 440,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps, most never to return.
Meanwhile, the New York chapter of Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party does not even bother to camouflage its toxic bigotry. A recent article posted on its website alleges not only that “the Jews were so comfortable in recent decades with the corrupt political system and it served their interests perfectly,” but that “the American Zionists … will do anything, no matter how unethical or illegal.”
Less than three weeks ago, the World Jewish Congress asked Amazon to delete publications that deny the Holocaust or promote white supremacy from its listings.
“No one should profit from the sale of such vile and offensive hate literature,” WJC CEO Robert Singer wrote in a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. “Many Holocaust survivors are deeply offended by the fact that the world’s largest online retailer is making money from selling such material.”
To date, Bezos has not responded, and the books in question remain readily available.
Both Germany and France have laws that prohibit the public display, and hence public sale, of Nazi uniforms and insignia.
While the merchandising of Nazi garbage is not illegal in this country, it’s nonetheless, in the words of British Minister of Culture Ed Valzey, a “vile and repulsive trade.”
Trafficking in the vestiges of genocide is even more abhorrent.
In 2012, Stephen Williams, a Liberal Democratic Member of Parliament from the south-western English city of Bristol, was taken aback when he came across Lot No. 212 on the website of Dreweatts, a British auction house, described as, “A Highly Emotive Third Reich Period ‘J’ Marked Deutsches Reich Reise-Pass [German Reich travel passport] for Hugo & Ida Leser.”
Also for sale were “a Jude armband and Star of David cloth insignia.”
Williams observed on his blog that, “Someone has now paid £360 for the items that were presumably stripped from Hugo and Ida before they were murdered by the Nazis.”
“If people want to see these items,” Williams continued, “then a museum is where you should go, not an auction house in Bristol.”
Williams is, of course, right.
Holocaust-era artifacts belong in museums or archives where they can help educate about the consequences of unfettered evil run amok. They are neither curiosities nor freak objects to be exploited and trivialized for anyone’s enrichment or prurient amusement.
Simply put, for anyone to profiteer from the sale of items that evoke the most horrific human suffering in history is obscene. Those who do so must be publicly exposed and socially ostracized as unscrupulous bottom feeders.
(Menachem Z. Rosensaft teaches about the law of genocide and war crimes trials at the law schools of Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse universities.)