When does historical curiosity become unethical fascination? This question was the subject of an article by Ian Shapira of the Washington Post (January 3, 2019). It seems that “Hitler” has made a bizarre comeback and is big business for collectors and auction houses across the world and on the internet. The nouveau mystique of anything Nazi, Third Reich, or Hitler has found a niche in the most unlikely places and bought by equally unlikely people.
Haim Gertner, director of Yad Vashem archives, agrees that Holocaust and Third Reich historical items should be preserved. It is a “show and tell” of how pure evil can intentionally obliterate a segment of society. Yad Vashem is more than a Holocaust museum, it is a testimonial to a time in history when being Jewish was automatically a death sentence. And while a regime systematically murdered millions of its citizens the rest of the world remained silent and frankly did very little or nothing at all to stop it. Yad Vashem documents the horrors of the Holocaust through memorabilia mostly donated by victims’ relatives or survivors. Haim also adamantly condemns selling these artifacts “to the highest bidder”. He calls it “incorrect and even immoral”. Is it?
Basil “Bill” Panagopulos is the founder of Alexander Historical Auctions. An entrepreneur who trades in historical memorabilia. His humble beginnings started in 1991 when he opened his first auction house in Connecticut, auctioning off and dabbling in the occasional president’s autograph and turning up the volume with an alleged lock from Lincoln’s head. But it was a few years ago that he diversified. He discovered that Third Reich memorabilia was not only marketable but in demand. He has been known to sell anything from the mundane to in-your-face Nazi items of often macabre significance. Many Jewish organizations are up in arms over the insurgence of such artifacts for sale. According to Terry Kovel, founder of the annual price guide on antiques and memorabilia; recent years have seen an increase in Third Reich auctions. Some presumed lost or missing objects are finding themselves on the auction block in prestigious auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s. FaceBook and Ebay also contribute to the clandestine sales of Nazi memorabilia to people and places unknown. But who is buying it, and why?
Forget the stereo typical tattooed skinhead leather clad extreme right Nazi thug bidding at an auction. According to Mr. Panagopulos, these louts cannot afford it, and they would not know what to do with it either. They are not “historians”. Some buyers wish to remain anonymous, but others have no problem admitting to buying the stuff. What blows one’s mind is the fact that a few of Mr. Panagopulos’ customers are Jews. When in 2010, Panagopulos put two sets of Mengele’s journals up for sale, they were allegedly bought by an Orthodox Jew whose grandmother was an Auschwitz survivor. This was the last straw for The American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants organization who petitioned the Connecticut attorney general to investigate the sale. They found the sale “disgusting”. As of yet they still have not been given any indication that the sale was investigated. A year later, Mr. Panagopulos sold the remainder of the journals to allegedly another Jew. The sale of Mengele’s journals totaled $350,000. Since then, Mr. Panagopulos has also sold Hitler’s medical records for an undisclosed amount. These records included sordid sexual treatments to enhance the Fuhrer’s libido. According to Mr. Shapira, the “grisliest” item to date that Mr. Panagopulos sold was a blood stained piece of cloth allegedly belonging to Hitler’s couch at the time of his suicide. He admitted that he kept another piece for himself but never puts it on display. He received $18,000 for that “artifact”.
Mr. Panagopulos’ credits the rise in demand to World War II movies and the History Channel. One Jewish collector bought the memorabilia as Holocaust educational material which he donated to his alma mater in the hope that he can put the Holocaust in the forefront and in “people’s faces”. But such good intentions can often back fire, because in some circles it is raising doubts about the evil of Nazi Germany. For example, a famous photo of Hitler with Rosa Bernile Nienau, a presumably young Jewish girl who allegedly “warmed” Hitler’s heart, has “intellectual” pinheads questioning the Holocaust and whether Hitler was as evil as everyone portrays him to be. Maybe he had a gentler side. Maybe we should not be so judgmental.
The line between preserving history and exploiting it is thin and nebulous. What we keep for posterity must be weighed with what we should get rid of because it’s irrelevant or simply put; trash. The photo of Hitler and Rosa is currently being investigated as to its authenticity. The photo has an inscription allegedly written by Hitler. Bart FM Droog, an author on counterfeit Nazi artifacts is one individual questioning this inscription. The photo was allegedly consigned to Mr. Panagopulos by another collector, Jeff Clark. Mr. Clark’s website sells Nazi party uniforms. But according to the Washington Post, Mr. Clark denies knowing anything about the photo.
Collectors like Mr. Panagopulos claim that they sell these artifacts to history buffs, but concerned Jewish groups feel that in recent years Hitler has been given a mystique that may be contributive to the rise in anti-Semitism. Unlike Holocaust museums like Yad Vashem, or the Jewish Museum Berlin, unabashed dealers like Mr. Panagopulos are seen as reducing the Holocaust to a profitable business. One of Mr. Panagopulos’ Jewish clients admitted to buying a Nazi anti-Semitic painting of a “hook-nosed Jew” for $2,000. He also admitted of keeping it hidden from his family because they would not “necessarily approve or understand”! You think?
Germany has had to live with its Nazi past for 80 years. It still deals with active neo-Nazi groups who run amok and vandalize Jewish cemeteries, temples, or memorials. Yet, Germany does not hide its concentration camps and documentation centers from the public. Most of what is on display is donated. The Document Center in Nurnberg has preserved detailed footage of the Nurnberg trials. It is not unusual to meet up with German school children walking stoically through the Center to learn about a past most Germans would like to forget. It is a learning experience that exposes evil for what it is, and hopefully a lesson in not repeating it. It is also atonement. Germany’s Nazi past has never really passed. The country tries very hard to educate rather than glorify its dark legacy. But recent attacks on Jews and Jewish communities in Europe has raised serious concerns among European Jews. To be fair, people like Mr. Panagopulos and Mr. Clark would not be in this business had there been no demand for it. Which in itself is disconcerting. According to Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, most of the stuff that found its way to the US was nicked by American GI’s during the liberation of Europe. Soldiers tend to take souvenirs back home without any thought. They wanted to tell their families, “I was there”. I doubt they had marketing in mind.
Whether Mr. Panagopulos is selling “hatred or history” is up to the jury of public opinion to decide. I personally find his business practices questionable and him and others like him, opportunists. I sincerely hope that this and future generations will still look upon and remember the Holocaust and Nazism as an abomination rather than an inane intellectual opportunity for philosophical millennia debate. There is nothing to debate. There is only the fear that it might happen again.
Reference: Shapira, I. January 3, 2019. The Washington Post. Hatred or History? Selling Nazi artifacts stirs backlash. (Stars and Stripes. January 3, 2019)