Vigilant guardians of a tragic legacy; Lest the Nazi era be forgotten -- or denied -- collectors preserve Holocaust artifacts.


People collect all kinds of stuff. Stamps. Rare coins. Fine art. Comic books. Baseball cards. Posters. Dolls. Political buttons.

But memorabilia from Nazi concentration camps? Who would want to collect such ghastly material?

As it happens, there is indeed a market for Holocaust memorabilia. In Philadelphia, a private collector recently paid $625 at auction for a lot of anti-Semitic broadsides and papier-mache masks of "ugly Jews." In Beverly Hills, in mid- November, Superior Galleries, an auction house, put up for bid an extensive collection of Holocaust and anti-Semitic artifacts whose owner, like many collectors, in- sisted on anonymity.

The bidding, a gallery spokesman said, was intense. A concentration-camp prisoner's striped uniform jacket went for $6,250 -- a world's record for such an item, he said.

Among other items auctioned were shoe liners cut from the vellum leaves of a Torah; bars of soapstone used in the camps instead of real soap; letters that Wladislaus Nowakowsky, a Polish Jewish artist, wrote to his wife from Auschwitz (he perished there); labels from canisters of Zyklon B, the poison gas used to kill the inmates; and a folio of reproduction watercolors painted by Adolf Hitler during World War I.

The auction drew objections from the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, a resource center on the Holocaust with a huge collection of documents.

For one thing, says Adaire Klein, Wiesenthal's director of library and archival services, it was concerned with the authenticity of some of the items. Let the buyer beware: There is a tremendous amount of fake Holocaust material on the market.

But there is also, she says, an ethical issue as to whether such material ought to be auctioned off at all: "These are sacred items with historic value and should be treated as such." At the very least, bidders in an auction of Holocaust items should be limited to museums and similar institutions, the center contends.

"In fact," says Superior Galleries president Mark Goldberg, "most of the Holocaust material in the sale was acquired by museums."

But one private collector, Michael D. Zentman, who lives in Centerport, N.Y., acquired some scrip (locally printed "money") that had been used in the ghetto in Lodz, Poland. Zentman, a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, has been collecting anti-Hitler collectibles for 10 years or so. Why would he want to own this material identified with Jews who, it is likely, ended up in gas chambers?

Because two of his grand- parents were among them.

"I think collecting this anti-Hitler material, and now the Holocaust material, is a way for me to manage the trauma of what happened to my family," he says. "For me, it's a way of connecting to the family that I lost. I never want this to be forgotten."

Wilbur Pierce feels the same way.

On Aug. 27, 1942, a year after he was born in Philadelphia, relatives still living in the Lithuanian village from which his grandparents emigrated were exterminated. Pierce began to collect Holocaust memorabilia several years ago because of his "very strong emotional attachment to the fact that none of our people were left -- the culture of that whole civilization was obliterated."

Pierce is a dealer and collector. With his wife, Sara, he has put together one of the largest Holocaust collections in private hands in the world. He estimates he has 4,000 pieces, not only Holocaust memorabilia, but "anything to do with Jewish history" from any number of countries -- Russia, Ukraine, France, Italy, the former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, the United States, South America, even Asia.

His most valuable piece is a rare poster advertising an exhibition of anti-Semitic material, "Der Ewige Jude" (the eternal Jew) held in Berlin and Vienna in 1938. What's it worth? At least $50,000, Pierce told a visitor recently. His wife demurred. She wouldn't take less than $100,000 for it, she said.

"It's worth whatever the market says," Pierce says. But it's not for sale. Neither are most of the items in the Pierce collection. Wilbur Pierce is a dealer who doesn't like to deal. He is a collector.

"It's a passion," he said. It's a passion shared by his son, Paris, who is always on the prowl for Judaica of all kinds.

Pierce's first language was Yiddish; a natural linguist, he has taught himself Russian, German, Spanish and enough French and Italian to get along. For many years, Wilbur and Sara Pierce operated their own museum on the second and third floors above their Philadelphia store. Trouble was, few people came. They intend one day to re-establish the museum in a building they are buying in Frenchtown, N.J. He has taken upon himself, he says, the responsibility to "preserve the legacy."

Pierce has sold some Holocaust items, and one who has bought them is David Rosenberg, a pediatrician who lives in Cherry Hill, N.J. Rosenberg's interest is not simply in collecting. In 1973, he went on a mission to Warsaw to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Since then he has been using Holocaust material in talks he gives to schools and organizations.

Yehuda Nir has similar motivations. Nir, 68, was himself nearly exterminated; his father was. Nir, born a Polish Jew, is now a Manhattan psychiatrist; about half of his patients are Holocaust survivors. He spent World War II in German-occupied Poland, pretending to be a Catholic, fearful that at any moment he might be found out. He has written a book about his experiences, "The Lost Childhood.

Nir collects mainly books and documents on the Nazi era -- histories, propaganda leaflets and other anti-Semitic material, along with yellow stars, Lodz ghetto and concentration-camp scrip, and photographs of Hitler. He has a basement full of the stuff.

Why does he want it?

One reason is "to maintain the authenticity of the events that took place before and during the war." He is not referring only to the Holocaust deniers -- the ones who contend it never happened, or wasn't so bad. He's concerned about the people he says underplay the German role in those terrible events: "When they talk about Auschwitz, they talk about the Nazi concentration camps, not the German concentration camps."

He shares with other collectors another reason for getting the material, which is to donate it to Jewish museums. He has given a number of items to the new Museum of Jewish Heritage on the southern tip of Manhattan in Battery Park City, opposite the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

Virtually all the items in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington were donated.

Many Jews who experienced Naziism do not want any reminders, though. Manfred Anson is a retired importer whose hobby is dealing in Judaica. Anson, who lives in Bergenfield, N.J., was 17 in 1939, when he escaped from Germany. His parents managed to survive Theresienstadt and came to the United States in 1946. A brother, sent to Maidenek, was one of the 6 million Jews that the Nazis and their allies killed for being Jewish.

"My sister survived four concentration camps," he says. "She was liberated in 1945; she was lying on a heap of bodies, still moving. British troops sent her to Sweden. It took her a year to get back to normal."

So Anson doesn't deal in anything connected to the Holocaust. "I'm too close to it," he said.

Pub Date: 01/10/99

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