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The quandary in the closet
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The quandary in the closet

My uncle left behind some Nazi artifacts, and a dilemma for me

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Photos by Johanna Ginsberg
Photos by Johanna Ginsberg

Is it ever okay for Jews to benefit financially from the Nazis? This is not a hypothetical question.

The situation: My sister and I were helping my mother clean out the house in Brooklyn where she had lived for 45-plus years. She recently sold the house in order to move into an apartment in the city.

We were charged with cleaning out the room that was my Uncle Dick’s until his death several years ago. My mother never had the heart to do it herself, and it remained as it was when he died.

Most of the contents — papers and photos, old menus from favorite restaurants, pens and pencils, and all manner of tchotchkes — were safely stowed in large black garbage bags. But when I reached into the back of a top drawer of his desk, my hand grasped something different. It was large and heavy. I pulled it out.

There before me, in an old leather holster, was a gun. We handled it gingerly, and looked at it with disbelief. A gun? We called my mother. “Oh that must have been Henry’s,” she said. “From the war.” Her older brother Henry, also deceased, served in World War II.

We set it aside and moved on.

Later, pondering what to do with the weapon, we decided to see if there’s a market for World War II military objects. I took it home. (Oops. Only later did I realize I had probably committed a federal offense — carrying an unlicensed weapon across state lines. Luckily, I spoke to a local police officer who suggested that I would probably not have to worry about prosecution.)

Before stowing it in the basement, I showed it to my equally amazed husband. He looked at it more carefully than we had. That’s when we made the discovery.

“This isn’t your uncle’s gun from the war.” Right, I should have realized that — you don’t get to keep your gun as a souvenir of service to Uncle Sam.

“Look at this,” he said. The gun, a schusse, was engraved with the letters “MAPF,” the marking of a French company that continued to produce weapons during the German occupation. “It’s a German gun. He must have taken this off a Nazi, and kept it after the war.”

A week later, while finishing the clean-up on the storage area behind my uncle’s closet, my sister hauled out a box layered in dust. She lifted the flaps, throwing off a cloud of dust, and pulled out a helmet. A quick perusal revealed a swastika insignia on the side. (The helmet turned out to be from the Deutsches Afrika Korps, which fought in Africa under the command of Erwin Rommel.)

For about five minutes, we actually thought we could sell them together, the helmet and the gun, as a matched set. But it didn’t take long to stumble into the ethical maze before us. Not to mention that eBay bans the sale of Nazi memorabilia and such sales are illegal across much of Europe. (A quick Google search, however, revealed a booming market for World War II weapons and memorabilia.)

That night my husband — aka my conscience — articulated the ethical issues, while I played devil’s advocate. “You can’t sell that stuff,” he said.

“Why not?” I asked.

“It isn’t right. That’s Nazi stuff.”

“So?”

“God knows whose head the helmet was on. And that gun could have been used to kill Anne Frank.”

“Anne Frank died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen. Nobody shot her.”

“You know what I mean,” he retorted. “You can’t put it back in the hands of some neo-Nazi fascist.”

“With all due respect to the ADL, there’s really not a burgeoning Nazi movement in the U.S. right now.”

“That doesn’t matter. You can’t sell Nazi stuff. If you did, then, what? Use the proceeds to go out to dinner?”

“We’re not going to use the proceeds to go out to dinner. We’ll use them to offset the cost of my mother’s move — or to help pay for Ezra’s bar mitzva.”

“Even worse,” he said.

“No,” I said, “better. It’s like revenge. We’re celebrating the Jewish future. We won.”

“I’m going to talk to the rabbi,” he said. “We’re not selling that stuff.”

“Well, what do you want to do with it?”

“Beat it into plowshares?”

“Okay, we can have an area set aside at Ezra’s bar mitzva for smashing the gun. Is that what you had in mind?”

The conversation ended.

I continued to consider the Nazi gun and a Nazi helmet sitting in my basement. Anybody know how to beat a gun into a plowshare? Now what to do?

If my husband was going to call the rabbi, I decided to call the police.

Guess what? If melting down weapons even approximates beating them into plowshares, the police offered a neat answer to the quandary: They would come to the house and pick up the gun, and eventually melt it down. The problem? It can sit in a vault in the local police station, along with evidence from recent crimes, for years, perhaps decades, before there is enough to melt down.

And anyway, if it’s melted down or turned into a plowshare, who will remember its significance? If we don’t want to benefit from the Nazis, do we also want to obliterate emblems of their deeds so easily?

The rabbi offered a better idea. And my husband didn’t even have to make the call, since I ran into her shortly after our conversation. Her suggestion: Donation. Donation. Donation. Duh, I thought.

A few quick phone calls led me to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. Unlike the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, which will collect items to take them out of circulation but does not want them for its collection, the National World War II Museum seeks donations of military items from the war — including helmets and guns.

All I have to do is get the stuff to them. And my mom can get a tax break.

It’s not plowshares. But then again, these aren’t messianic times. So that just leaves me with one final question. Can we use the money my mom saves on her taxes to go out to dinner?

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