Merchant runs Holocaust museum with price tags

PHILADELPHIA — At his toy store, Wilbur W. Pierce can sell you a set of 10-mark "Rumkies" — Holocaust money signed by Mordechai Rumkowski, chairman of the Lodz ghetto Judenrat — for a price somewhere between $2,000 and $3,000.

A Talmudic scholar, bon vivant and self-described "coordinator of imagination," Pierce owns one of the world's largest Holocaust-money collections. He is one of a selected few international dealers in this unusual currency.

Pierce's toy store, named Presents of Mind: Einstein in honor of the scientist he so avidly admires, is surely a most unconventional retail establishment.

It isn't really a toy store at all, Pierce maintains, punctuating his pronouncement with the kind of singsong argumentation he learned in yeshiva. The gregarious, roly-poly entrepreneur, who is fluent in many languages, holds forth in the company of Pishy, his ever-present toy fox terrier.

His store, he will tell you, is a "museum with price tags. What we do is sell you the museum."

The store's shelves are stocked with items of historical value and adult appeal, reflecting Pierce's own eclectic interests: Russian stacking dolls, coin-based jewelry, material on women's suffrage, 78-rpm records, and Daddy Long Legs black dolls, his largest-selling item.

There's also a humorous board game about the Yiddish language — Pierce developed it himself — called "Look at the Schmuck on That Camel." The game includes the cassette titled "Gois 2 Mensch," a takeoff of the Philadelphia pop group Boyz II Men.

Some of the more intriguing items are upstairs, where storerooms are lined with Russian anti-communist paintings that Pierce conceived and commissioned Russian artists to paint.

There are several categories of Holocaust money, including currency printed by the Germans, money printed by Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto and money that Theresienstadt concentration camp officials printed in order to persuade the Red Cross that life inside the camp was "normal."

Pierce also has currency the Nazis called "special privilege" money. It was given to Jews who worked harder so they could "purchase" extra rations — but what really happened was that the Germans simply took food away from some prisoners and gave it to others.

Buchenwald notes, printed on fine paper with a flower design, include the SS symbol, the letters RM for Reichmark and the German words Standort-Kantine (mobile canteen).

Some of the stories associated with this money are almost surreal. One of the most fascinating tales concerns Solomon Smolianoff, a Jewish inmate at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and a known forger. Unbeknownst to the German High Command, Smolianoff received the German Iron Cross from Nazi security police chief Bernhard Kruger as a reward for helping to facilitate Operation Bernhard — a German plan to counterfeit the British pound and flood England with it from the skies. The Royal Air Force ultimately foiled the attempt.

In another case, Horst-Willi Lippert, a graphic and portrait artist imprisoned at the Oranienburg camp outside Berlin, was ordered to design inmate scrip. In an ingenious attempt to dupe his captors, he scratched out the top of the letter "g" in the word Konzentrationslager on the 50-Pfennig plate, yielding Konzentrationslayer . Thus, the scrip announced itself not as currency but as accessory to murder. It was Lippert's silent rebellion.

Suppliers of Holocaust money today form a shadowy international group.

"Generally," Pierce explains, "people don't want to give up who their sources are. But over a number of years, you get to know some of the people.

"There's a gentleman in Hamburg, there's someone in Berlin, there's someone in Antwerp, there's a guy in Jerusalem, there's someone in San Francisco, there's one guy in Connecticut, there's two in Brooklyn.

"There's some that you can't talk to at sundown on Friday. There's some that you can't talk to anytime."

To those who criticize the trade of Holocaust money, Pierce responds: "Let me introduce you to two things: one is the First Amendment, the second is the door." He launches into a spirited defense.

"Some people say I should give it all away. I say, `I got a better idea — you should give me $10,000, and you can give it away.' I don't make any money on Holocaust materials or on Judaic materials. And unfortunately, I don't make very much money in my store."

A specialist in metaphorical brain work who drove people crazy in yeshiva with his spirited discourses opposite rabbis with dissenting opinions, Pierce is a natural-born iconoclast. He holds an unpopular view of museums, particularly on the subject of Holocaust materials.

"I have a big problem with museums," he says. "They have one thing on display and 999 things in the basement. There aren't enough walls in the world to hold all the things a museum should have out.

"This is the story of our people. Why shouldn't it be where people can see it? Why shouldn't there be a Holocaust Museum in every synagogue?"

"Why do I sell Holocaust materials? Why? Because in order to understand what…you want never of, you have to look at what…was."

Pierce recounts the story of a French woman so overjoyed to find a Star of David in his store like the ones worn by her parents during the Nazi occupation of France, that she kissed him. She purchased one of Pierce's stars to remember her mother.

The story is a kind of metaphor for Wilbur Pierce, who points to the star on his office door and explains: "That star belongs to all of us because I am not the star in this company. I am the coordinator of imagination…"