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.
I received two research grants from the Rochester Institute of Technology, where I am an assistant professor, to hire genealogists to track down information about the original owners, and later to travel to Germany.
Eventually, I would learn that the book belonged to Walter and Klara Jess. The couple was married in Lübeck on April 29, 1938. Five years before their nuptials — nearly to the day — Walter became a member of the Nazi Party. She was a nurse; he was a land registry secretary. On their wedding day they received a copy of “Mein Kampf” from the Lübeck mayor. It was a common gift for such an occasion. Indeed, weddings helped put 10 million copies of Hitler’s political manifesto into circulation by 1945.
The Jesses could never have fathomed on that day that their Führer’s “Mein Kampf ” would end up in a Jewish home, 4,000 miles away.
The genealogists learned from city registries that the couple moved south to Hillesheim from Lübeck in 1938, and then to nearby Mainz in 1956.
They had three children. There was one entry for “Jess” in Mainz, listed in the local phonebook. First name: “Axel.”
One of the genealogists, Ursula Krause of the Berlin-based organization Rootseekers, emailed me his address. Perhaps he was related to Walter and Klara Jess and could share information about the couple?
Over Skype, Krause urged me to be withholding in my letter to Axel Jess. My approach should be gentle, she said. I should make no mention of the “Mein Kampf,” since it might cause him to shut down.
“All I’m saying is you have to be careful,” Krause said. “And be kind.”
So I sat down to write. I mentioned my great-uncle in the letter, saying that he brought home a book from the war. I didn’t mention what type of book it was. Nor how he got it. “You don’t know me, but I may have a connection to you,” I wrote. “My family has a book that may have originally belonged to your family.”
Eight days later, he emailed me. Walter and Klara Jess were indeed his parents.
It was a disorienting experience to come in contact with a living link to a book that has occupied so much of my mental space in recent years. It brought “Mein Kampf” out of the realm of history and into the here and now — although a here and now that is still shaped by the war.
Throughout the two dozen emails I exchanged with Axel Jess and his sister, Heike Stucke, I felt like a voyeur, peering into their family history through the sole lens of “Mein Kampf.”
“What a shame that the book is a copy of ‘Mein Kampf’!” Jess wrote when I finally told him the title of the book and my family’s story. “I thought that the book might be a guide to the city of Lübeck, a lovely town.”
What he told me contradicted my own family’s story: Walter Jess survived the war. He was not killed in battle by my great-uncle Eddie; he died from skin cancer, in 1967.
Jess and Stucke came up with another theory about how their parents’ book came into my uncle’s possession. Americans invaded the town of Hillesheim, near the Belgian border, in 1945 and entered the Jess home. They destroyed a bookcase and a piano. Perhaps “Mein Kampf” was sitting on that bookcase. Perhaps a soldier — my uncle? — lifted it.
We don’t know if Eddie was stationed in Hillesheim, since the National Archives and Records Administration lost his military records.
I had reached a dead end.
In June I went to Lübeck to visit the place where my family’s myth began. By that point, I knew that visiting would do nothing to advance my knowledge of the book’s origins, but I went anyway. I thought it could add a new dimension to the backstory of “Mein Kampf.”
The historic entrance to the city is marked by a 15th-century gate with round towers. The landmark structure — considered one of the most important city gates in Germany — welcomes visitors with the Latin greeting “Concordia domi foris pax.” “Harmony at home and peace abroad.”
I visited the address in the center square where the young couple lived right after their nuptials, at 27 Sandstrasse. The original home must have been torn down; the simple brick building was a postwar construction.
I strolled through city streets and visited cafes selling marzipan — a local specialty — and it became clear to me that I’d experience no great revelation about the book. I felt I was chasing down a family story I could never verify.
My family now lives with two parallel narratives. We still hold on to the heroic version of how my great-uncle came to seize “our” “Mein Kampf.” We recognize that just because a story may not be factually true doesn’t mean it’s a lie.
Krause urged me to think about my quest as a way to come to terms with my family’s past. “Just having a peace treaty to end the fighting is not really how you end it,” she said.
My mother, once afraid of the book, enjoys learning about the Jess children. My father says this journey has elevated “Mein Kampf” beyond a painful historical artifact. He now sees it as a vehicle to understand history — personal and geopolitical.
When Eddie brought home “Mein Kampf,” it was evidence of his victory. But the book had another chapter in it, one that could only be written decades later, by taking it out of the basement and off of the shelf.
Hinda Mandell teaches in the Department of Communication at the Rochester Institute of Technology.