ADL officials slam S.F. auction of Hitler collectibles

A private collector bought Adolf Hitler's personal phone book and other effects that belonged to the Nazi führer for $17,250 in an auction Tuesday at Butterfield & Butterfield in San Francisco.

In an event called "Arms and Armor," the auction house sold 1,300 packages of related collectibles at their site and online, topping $5 million in sales Monday and Tuesday.

Spokesmen for the company declined to reveal the identity of the phone book's buyer, other than to say "he" placed an absentee bid, meaning he left a top bid at the auction house and then departed. Staff notified him later by phone that his bid came out on top.

The Anti-Defamation League offered a swift condemnation.

"This elevates Hitler to celebrity status," said Jonathan Bernstein, director of the ADL's Central Pacific Region in San Francisco. "He becomes another pop icon, like Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe. I would like to see them [Butterfield & Butterfield] exercise a little more moral judgment."

The phone directory, whose pages were only slightly soiled and worn at the corners, listed the numbers of dozens of Third Reich officials, including Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goering, propagandist Joseph Goebbels, SS chief Heinrich Himmler and Nazi Party second-in-command Martin Bormann.

Also listed are the Wehrmacht headquarters, Hitler's bodyguards, Albert Speer, and Hitler's companion, Eva Braun.

On the last page, the British soldiers who seized the book signed their own names.

"Its a great history piece," said Greg Martin, Butterfield & Butterfield's director of the antique and collectible militaria division. The lot also included a bedsheet embroidered with a Third Reich eagle and the initials "A.H."

It is not the first time Butterfield & Butterfield has sold Nazi memorabilia.

"Everybody has it," Martin said. "All the houses. The interest [in Nazi collectibles] has always been there. You'll see more and more of it because the guys who brought it back with them are getting old and dying."

Even so, that doesn't necessarily justify selling Nazi items, Bernstein said.

"Holocaust survivors are also dying," he said. "It is important for those of us in the subsequent generations to make sure we don't lose the lessons we've learned."

Two days before Hitler's phone book went on the auction block, Great Gatsby's opened bidding in Atlanta and online on a 125-piece silverware set and other paraphernalia belonging to Hitler. An American soldier brought the goods back from the war, and his Georgia family had since acquired them.

"There's the question of why sell it? Are we profiting off of so much suffering?" Martin said. "But I view it as a captured war trophy. Isn't it nice that we have [Hitler's] silverware and his phone book over here, rather than FDR's being sold over in Munich?"

Kenneth Jacobsen, assistant national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he questions the motives of those who seek out Nazi paraphernalia.

"Our concern is the sensitivity of sales to individuals with pro-Hitler attitudes," he said in a phone interview from New York. "These auction houses have the right to sell them. But they have to be aware that such materials can end up in the quote-unquote wrong hands."

Still, some private collections serve an altruistic purpose.

For instance, Chicago collector and Holocaust survivor Milton Kohn amassed an exhibit that once consisted of a boarding pass for a boxcar and a list of people scheduled for extermination on July 5, 1943.

It has since grown to a 700-piece collection, including a pillow stuffed with human hair, a bar of soap made from human body fat, and patch of skin bearing a tattoo, which had been presented to a German woman who was a tattoo fancier. Kohn's exhibit has been shown in 14 countries.

"Which is great," Jacobsen said. "But the problem is, we can't control how these things will be used. And they [auction houses] can't control how these things will be used."

And critics charge that with the rise of Holocaust revisionism, it is urgent to keep accurate tabs on history.

"We are our brother's keeper," said Stuart Elenko, founder of the Holocaust Studies Center at the Bronx High School of Science.

More than 34,000 visitors from around the world have visited the center to see such objects as a Nazi crematorium orderly jacket, a Gypsy woman's Nazi concentration camp uniform and a Warsaw Judenrat document.

San Jose-based eBay, the popular auction Web site, bought Butterfield & Butterfield earlier this year. Its officials told critics they do not market items that are prohibited by law from being sold, such as human body parts and babies. All else is fair game.

"But they have eBay in Germany, and in Germany there are laws against selling [Nazi paraphernalia]," said Bernstein, who contacted eBay executives about the matter. "But the whole discussion of business ethics and morality went nowhere. They just didn't get it."

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Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.