Few growing up in the aftermath of World War II will ever forget
the horrifying reports that Nazi concentration camp doctors had
removed the skin of prisoners to makes common, everyday lampshades.
In The Lampshade,
bestselling journalist Mark Jacobson
tells the story of how he came into possession of one of these
awful objects, and of his search to establish the origin, and
larger meaning, of what can only be described as an icon of terror.
Jacobson's mind-bending historical, moral, and philosophical
journey into the recent past and his own soul begins in Hurricane
Katrina-ravaged New Orleans. It is only months after the storm,
with America's most romantic city still in tatters, when Skip
Henderson, an old friend of Jacobson's, purchases an item at a
rummage sale: a very strange looking and oddly textured lampshade.
When he asks what it's made of, the seller, a man covered with
jailhouse tattoos, replies, "That's made from the skin of Jews."
The price: $35. A few days later, Henderson sends the lampshade to
Jacobson, saying, "You're the journalist, you find out what it is."
The lampshade couldn't possibly be real, could it? But it is. DNA
analysis proves it.
This revelation sends Jacobson halfway around the world, to Yad
Vashem in Jerusalem and to the Buchenwald concentration camp in
Germany, where the lampshades were supposedly made on the order of
the infamous "Bitch of Buchenwald," Ilse Koch. From the time he
grew up in Queens, New York, in the 1950s, Jacobson has heard
stories about the human skin lampshade and knew it to be the
ultimate symbol of Nazi cruelty. Now he has one of these things in
his house with a DNA report to prove it, and almost everything he
finds out about it is contradictory, mysterious, shot through with
legend and specious information.
Through interviews with forensic experts, famous Holocaust
scholars (and deniers), Buchenwald survivors and liberators, and
New Orleans thieves and cops, Jacobson gradually comes to see the
lampshade as a ghostly illuminator of his own existential status as
a Jew, and to understand exactly what that means in the context of
One question looms as his search goes on: what to do with the
lampshade-this unsettling thing that used to be someone? It is a
difficult dilemma to be sure, but far from the last one, since once
a lampshade of human skin enters your life, it is very, very hard