My great-uncle Eddie returned from World War II in 1945 with a shrapnel wound in his leg, a Purple Heart and four souvenirs from the Nazi regime he helped to defeat: a German bayonet, a helmet, a rifle, and a copy of “Mein Kampf.” He appointed his sister, Helen, my grandmother, as guardian of the loot.
She promptly put the items in her basement.
By 1960 she had rid her home of the weapons and the helmet. But “Mein Kampf” remained, its hard black cover faded, a stark reminder of the ideological origins of the bloodshed. We don’t know why my grandmother, who died in 1969, kept the book. But by doing so, she created an eerie family heirloom.
Over time, a story about the book became tightly wound up with my family’s conception of what it means to be Jewish and a fighter. When Eddie was in the army, my father told me, he killed a German soldier in battle. He went through the soldier’s rucksack and took his copy of “Mein Kampf.”
A book disseminated by the Axis powers ended up in the hands of a Jewish Allied soldier. It was such a good story that it never occurred to any of us that it might not be true.
At some point in the 1960s, when my father was in college, he scooped up “Mein Kampf” from his mother’s basement and declared himself its owner. In the house where I grew up, my father displayed the book upside down on the shelf. It was a silent altar to Uncle Eddie’s service, but it was also a desperate reminder of the need to triumph over diabolical madness institutionalized on a mass scale.
Eddie never asked for the book back. And though my father would have it in his possession for 40 years before Eddie’s death, in 2001, he and Eddie never once talked about it.
But my mother did.
For her, “Mein Kampf” was an object of pure repulsion; that much was obvious. But what added to her anxiety was her belief that the book was a contagion, that its gold-leafed pages would defile her should her fingers brush against it by accident when she was searching for another book on the shelf. She didn’t want to come in contact with the German soldier’s hair or skin particles — which she believed were still clinging to the book. If she touched it, she’d douse her hands with rubbing alcohol to obliterate any trace of it on her skin.
After all, her father’s entire family died in Treblinka.
As a child, I shared my mother’s aversion to touching the book. This might be why I didn’t know until two years ago that it was inscribed to a couple. My father thought briefly about donating the book to a university, and that caused us to inspect it — something we’d never done before.
Once I saw the names of the original owners, I knew I had to learn their family history. The Gothic German text teased me — offering the teeniest iota of personal information about this couple from a different era. There were two names, a wedding date and the city where they lived at the time of their wedding (Lübeck, Germany). Nothing else.