The item was described as follows: “A folded letter sent by inmate #15529, block 12/4 in Dachau concentration camp, sent to wife in occupied Poland, censored by camp Police, 8/19/1942, fine condition.”
But the artifact was not in a glass case at a museum or on file at a library — it was for sale on the e-auction block. The piece — titled “Holocaust, Folded Letter From Dachau, 1942” — was eventually sold by its owner, eBay member “barneam,” but there’s more where it came from: He is currently selling dozens of similar letters on eBay.
Selling antiques and heirlooms on the site is old hat, but some Jewish scholars in New York said they question the propriety of the online selling of letters and other personal artifacts from the Holocaust. With sites like eBay allowing just about anyone to visit their marketplaces and bid on items, there are no guarantees that the buyer will have historical or personal interest in the items for sale — or be a scholarly, sensitive or even moral individual.
The man who uses the eBay handle “barneam” is a 58-year-old economics professor at the University of St. Thomas, in St. Paul, Minn., named Meir Barnea. The items are taken from his personal collection, Barnea said in a phone interview. He bought most of his material from estate sales, collectors and dealers in the United States and abroad. He said he is Jewish and that he lost several of his family members at Auschwitz.
Starting bids for his items range from $10 to about $150, and Barnea said he has received positive feedback from buyers on more than 2,700 transactions — that is, on the sale of more than 2,700 manuscripts, photo-postcards and letters, many of which were mailed by inmates imprisoned in German, Polish and Czech camps during World War II.
Barnea said that dealing with the items in his collection has brought him closer, in a way, to the Holocaust. He would not say how much money he has made in eBay transactions. “You almost punish yourself,” he said. “But I feel lucky doing it. The motive of making money, that’s definitely a drive. I’m not a philanthropist.”
Most of Barnea’s recent sales have the catchwords “Judaica,” “Holocaust” and “concentration camp” in their titles, which ostensibly piques the interest of some collectors of Judaica who search those terms on eBay. Members with names as varied as “perfeta_judaica” and “palestineairmail” are listed as having purchased items from Barnea. A member named “jacob1933” wrote “Shana Tova,” Hebrew for “Happy New Year,” in the feedback he left for Barnea this past September.
But what exactly are these buyers doing with Holocaust memorabilia?
Some, including “mathis25,” who would not reveal his name, said that he or she was working for a museum partly dedicated to the Holocaust. Others said they were buying items for their private collections.
“How dare he!” said Yael Danieli, co-founder and director of the Group Project for Holocaust Survivors and Their Children, as she looked in disgust at the list of items Barnea was selling on eBay. “If he has my grandparents’ letters, for example, it’s not his to sell. I think they should go to museums so they become a document of humanity rather than just financially valuable objects.”
New York-based attorney Menachem Rosensaft, founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, said that though people have a right to sell Holocaust-related items on eBay, it’s still not an ideal situation.
“If they own it, you can hardly say they don’t have the right,” said Rosensaft, a member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. Rosensaft himself is a child of Holocaust survivors. “Would I be happier if they were donated to an institution? Sure.” He said he worries whether items purchased on eBay have a greater risk of being “mocked or not treated appropriately.”
Even one of Barnea’s regular customers, Saul Singer, a First Amendment lawyer and private Judaica collector, professed a bit of discomfort with the process.
“My personal take on that is as follows: Anybody who cares about that would not, ever, list the item on eBay, where the winner is simply the highest bidder and the seller has no idea who that might be — or even who that person is, even after the close of the auction, other than an eBay name,” Singer wrote in an e-mail to the Forward. “There are other effective ways to sell family heirlooms or to make certain that valued and beloved items are disposed of to the ‘right’ kind of buyer.”
Still, he stopped short of criticizing Barnea. “I have been dealing with [him] for many, many years, and he is truly reliable, dependable and an absolute pleasure to deal with,” he wrote. “He has tremendous stuff, and all of it is original.”
Karen Franklin, director of The Judaica Museum of The Hebrew Home for the Aged at Riverdale, in the Bronx, helped organize an exhibition called “Culture as Commodity: Internet Auctions and Judaica Collecting,” three years ago. The exhibition’s goal was to explore what it meant to purchase religious objects online, so $5,000-worth of Judaica was purchased from eBay and later re-sold.
“EBay has changed immeasurably the way museums do business. Items change hands more. You have a whole new philosophy of these objects,” Franklin said.
“What we found was that objects lost their stories in transmission and translation,” she explained, citing one example of a woman who said she wished she could take home a Torah binder on display because she thought it would go well with her curtains. In that moment, a historical artifact became a mere accessory. Because such devaluation can occur, Franklin said that she thinks artifacts such as Barnea’s should be stored at museums or public institutions, where their original stories can be preserved.
For now, though, the private purchasing continues. A bid of $60 brought the Dachau concentration camp letter, item #15529, from Apple Valley, Minn., to a private residence in New York City. It arrived pressed neatly between two pieces of corrugated cardboard, complete with Meir Barnea’s business card. It could be seen, when the letter was slipped out of its packaging, that the 60-year-old paper, soft to the touch, had yellowed.
“What have you done the whole week? What have you talked about? I know now is the time when all are busy working, but in the evening there is always some time to talk with one another. Tell me about it in your next letter,” reads the letter, which was written in German and contains the alternately frustrated and upbeat thoughts of a 39-year-old man named Richard Bartella as he wrote to his wife, Sofie, in 1942. “Send greetings to my beloved mother and other relatives. When will the time come that we will be able to see each other again?”
Jennifer Weiss is a recent graduate of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and a freelance writer in New York. She will begin a one-year reporting internship at the Newark Star-Ledger this week.