THE LAMP by Valerie Eitzen
In 1950, a new girl came to my first grade class in Del Rey, California. Anna did not wear pretty dresses and Mary Jane shoes to school like the other girls. Instead, she wore an army-green suit and black leather, high-top boots. All the other girls in class had long hair, but Anna had her dark hair trimmed into a severe bowl-shaped haircut. Her round, thin-rimmed wire glasses had thick lenses that made her large eyes appear to bulge.
Much taller than all of the girls and dressed in a masculine, military-style uniform, it was hard for us to make friends with Anna because she was so different and standoffish. She wouldn’t play games with the rest of us at recess, but limped off by herself to the end of the playground.
I reached out to Anna, because I was lonely, too.
One day, I asked Anna how she got the scars on her face. She said her mother threw her out of a concentration camp window in Germany so she wouldn’t be gassed with the other Jews. She fell face-first onto the concrete and managed to crawl away to safety in the woods where some adults rescued her.
As a sheltered six-year-old child, Anna’s story confused me. I had no idea what she was talking about. It was difficult for me to understand who the Jews were and why they had been forcibly taken from their homes, and locked up in camps during the Holocaust.
A few months later, my family moved and I soon made friends with Gayle. I was reading a library book titled The Italian Twins and she told me her neighbors were Italian. I was eager to meet the Moretti’s. Gayle told me they always had a spaghetti dinner for their large family on Friday nights and sometimes she ate dinner there and spent the evening playing with the children. I quickly accepted her invitation to a sleepover, and a few days later, we walked across the street to the Moretti’s just before dinnertime.
That night is emblazoned in my memory. The extra leaves for the Moretti’s dining room table stretched so over twenty people could be seated comfortably. An uncle put a pillow on a chair, picked me up, and plopped me near the center of the boisterous family. Grandma Moretti walked into the dining room with a bucket-sized, yellow bowl of spaghetti and hefted it onto the table, right in front of me. Thankfully, someone scooped some spaghetti onto my plate and handed me a wedge of garlic bread. One of the children showed me how to twirl spaghetti noodles on my fork.
After dinner, Mr. Moretti retired to his study. He asked his eldest daughter to fetch me from where I sat on the floor playing Jacks with the other kids. Angela said Papà wanted to show me his special lamp. Puzzled, I allowed myself to be pulled over to his easy chair.
Her father’s special lamp stood beside him on an end table. Soft amber light filtered through the translucent shade. The lamp base had been covered with whip-stitched leather and the lampshade, made up of several thin wedges, looked Western-style. Holes bound with rawhide, ran along the sides of each strip to hold them together.
Mr. Moretti asked me what I thought the lampshade was made of. I rubbed my fingers up and down one panel. It felt a little greasy. I shrugged. “Cowhide?”
“No,” he said, as he gently pinched my arm. “Like this. It’s human skin.”
“That’s . . . people skin?” Horrified, and dizzy with the thought, I backed away from him.
Papà twirled the lampshade around. One of the strips had some blue-black marks running along it, down toward the bottom. “Come here. See this?” he asked, pointing to the line of dark numbers. “It’s a tattoo. It was tattooed on the left forearm of a Jew at the Buchenwald concentration camp, in Germany, during World War II. I got this lamp as a souvenir of my military service in the war.”
As he explained, my stomach roiled. I was confused and nauseated. Why were Jews held in concentration camps? Why were they tattooed with numbers against their will? I was too afraid to ask why and how skin was cut off several people’s arms to be made into this human skin lamp. I thought of Anna and wondered whether she hid a tattoo under her long sleeves.
One day, almost seventy years later, while searching the Internet for information on the Holocaust, I discovered from the Trial of Ilse Koch some information about these human skin lamps. There was a picture of one similar to Mr. Moretti’s lamp.
I’m a great-grandmother and I still cringe and grieve over that lamp. I don’t know how it was acquired, and it does not matter. A war “souvenir” such as this is unbelievably offensive and horrific. The passage of time has not made it less so.
A lamp still remains on the end table of a family in my neighborhood.