Vigilant guardians of a tragic legacy

Lest the Nazi era be forgotten -- or denied -- collectors preserve Holocaust artifacts.

January 10, 1999|By Leonard W. Boasberg | Leonard W. Boasberg,Knight Ridder Tribune

People collect all kinds of stuff. Stamps. Rare coins. Fine art. Comic books. Baseball cards. Posters. Dolls. Political buttons.

But memorabilia from Nazi concentration camps? Who would want to collect such ghastly material?

As it happens, there is indeed a market for Holocaust memorabilia. In Philadelphia, a private collector recently paid $625 at auction for a lot of anti-Semitic broadsides and papier-mache masks of "ugly Jews." In Beverly Hills, in mid- November, Superior Galleries, an auction house, put up for bid an extensive collection of Holocaust and anti-Semitic artifacts whose owner, like many collectors, in- sisted on anonymity.

The bidding, a gallery spokesman said, was intense. A concentration-camp prisoner's striped uniform jacket went for $6,250 -- a world's record for such an item, he said.

Among other items auctioned were shoe liners cut from the vellum leaves of a Torah; bars of soapstone used in the camps instead of real soap; letters that Wladislaus Nowakowsky, a Polish Jewish artist, wrote to his wife from Auschwitz (he perished there); labels from canisters of Zyklon B, the poison gas used to kill the inmates; and a folio of reproduction watercolors painted by Adolf Hitler during World War I.

The auction drew objections from the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, a resource center on the Holocaust with a huge collection of documents.

For one thing, says Adaire Klein, Wiesenthal's director of library and archival services, it was concerned with the authenticity of some of the items. Let the buyer beware: There is a tremendous amount of fake Holocaust material on the market.

But there is also, she says, an ethical issue as to whether such material ought to be auctioned off at all: "These are sacred items with historic value and should be treated as such." At the very least, bidders in an auction of Holocaust items should be limited to museums and similar institutions, the center contends.

"In fact," says Superior Galleries president Mark Goldberg, "most of the Holocaust material in the sale was acquired by museums."

But one private collector, Michael D. Zentman, who lives in Centerport, N.Y., acquired some scrip (locally printed "money") that had been used in the ghetto in Lodz, Poland. Zentman, a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, has been collecting anti-Hitler collectibles for 10 years or so. Why would he want to own this material identified with Jews who, it is likely, ended up in gas chambers?

Because two of his grand- parents were among them.

"I think collecting this anti-Hitler material, and now the Holocaust material, is a way for me to manage the trauma of what happened to my family," he says. "For me, it's a way of connecting to the family that I lost. I never want this to be forgotten."

Wilbur Pierce feels the same way.

On Aug. 27, 1942, a year after he was born in Philadelphia, relatives still living in the Lithuanian village from which his grandparents emigrated were exterminated. Pierce began to collect Holocaust memorabilia several years ago because of his "very strong emotional attachment to the fact that none of our people were left -- the culture of that whole civilization was obliterated."

Pierce is a dealer and collector. With his wife, Sara, he has put together one of the largest Holocaust collections in private hands in the world. He estimates he has 4,000 pieces, not only Holocaust memorabilia, but "anything to do with Jewish history" from any number of countries -- Russia, Ukraine, France, Italy, the former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, the United States, South America, even Asia.

His most valuable piece is a rare poster advertising an exhibition of anti-Semitic material, "Der Ewige Jude" (the eternal Jew) held in Berlin and Vienna in 1938. What's it worth? At least $50,000, Pierce told a visitor recently. His wife demurred. She wouldn't take less than $100,000 for it, she said.

"It's worth whatever the market says," Pierce says. But it's not for sale. Neither are most of the items in the Pierce collection. Wilbur Pierce is a dealer who doesn't like to deal. He is a collector.

"It's a passion," he said. It's a passion shared by his son, Paris, who is always on the prowl for Judaica of all kinds.

Pierce's first language was Yiddish; a natural linguist, he has taught himself Russian, German, Spanish and enough French and Italian to get along. For many years, Wilbur and Sara Pierce operated their own museum on the second and third floors above their Philadelphia store. Trouble was, few people came. They intend one day to re-establish the museum in a building they are buying in Frenchtown, N.J. He has taken upon himself, he says, the responsibility to "preserve the legacy."

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