Alexandre Gilbert

Celebrating Pop culture inspired by Nazi crimes

Ilsa She Wolf of the SS (Wikipedia CC BY 4.0)
Ilsa She Wolf of the SS (Wikipedia CC BY 4.0)

The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Sex Pistols, Madonna and Lady Gaga all shared a bizarre fascination with Nazi Paraphernalia. Unfortunately, real people suffered under these atrocities and their memories continue to haunt them.

Alice Simon lived with her husband Herbert in Berlin. They converted from Judaism to Protestantism before the birth of their twins, Carl and Hedda. When the Nazis took over, Alice made the heart-wrenching decision to send her 15-year-old son Carl alone to England. At 17, Carl journeyed alone again, this time to the USA.

Carl’s daughter, Deborah, was born in Milwaukee, where her mother and one sister were born. Milwaukee, near Chicago, is a three-hour drive from Plainfield, a very small town that gained infamy in 1957 when Ed Gein, a psychopath obsessed with Nazi medical experiments, was discovered to have brutally killed at least two women and defiled many corpses from the tiny cemetery of Plainfield. At that time, Deborah’s family was living in Boston. She was 7 years old and remembers her mother’s painful reaction upon learning from the television, what Ed Gein had done. The victims were well-known in such a small town which is why Gein’s place was burned down. It was terrible for everyone. Her great-uncle Fred was one of the deputies that discovered the horrors.

In 1960, her family moved back to Milwaukee and in 1962, her maternal grandfather, Carl Potton, who grew up in Plainfield died of cancer at 61 when Deborah was 12. Six years later, Ed Gein was found guilty by reason of insanity. At that time, Deborah was 18 and attending university in Stevens Point, half an hour from Plainfield. The shame of Plainfield was always very hurtful for her mother, so they rarely discussed it. She loved Plainfield.

In 1989, Deborah and her own family moved to Madison, Wisconsin, but the other Simon children all still lived in Milwaukee. Five years later, they all learned from Auschwitz death camp records that her grandmother, Alice Simon, had been murdered there. However, the story took another tragic turn. In 2004, German historian Hans-Joachim Lang discovered that Alice had actually been gassed in the occupied French camp of Natzweiler with 86 other Jews in 1943. This atrocity was part of Nazi scientist August Hirt’s infamous skeleton collection project at the Reichsuniversität of Strasbourg.

The horror of Ed Gein’s crimes has lingered in popular culture, inspiring works like Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Silence of the Lambs, Scream and Dahmer. Music bands such as Slayer, Eminem and Marilyn Manson, as well as video games like Silent Hill, have also drawn from his dark legacy. In 2022, Harold Schechter and Eric Powell’s book Did You Hear What Eddie Gein Done? was published and later translated into French by Lucille Calame.

On Friday, June 16, 2023, 80 years after the tragic death of Alice Simon, her grandchildren—Debbie, Joanne, Christine, John, and Betsy—visited the Natzweiler camp. They offered a few personal items of their grandmother to be displayed there, honoring her memory and confronting a painful chapter of their family history.

1957 was marked by the arrest of Ed Gein and the launching of The Young Lions, featuring Marlon Brando, Dean Martin, and Montgomery Clift, filmed within the confines of the Natzweiler-Struthof camp, with former inmates hauntingly cast as extras. It was truly a different era, where past horrors met the art of storytelling.

About the Author
Alexandre Gilbert is the director of the Chappe gallery.
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