Consumers argue ethics of selling Nazi items
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Lisa Wainer Wein and her husband were recently shopping at a Delaware County antiques shop when she spotted something that made her want to hurry out the door.
A World War II armband bearing a swastika was displayed in a case near the checkout counter at the Liberty Antique Mall in Powell. Wein, a Jewish woman who lives in Bexley, was so shocked that she wrote a letter to The Dispatch encouraging others to boycott the business.
“I have no problem with Nazi paraphernalia being available for education or history,” Wein, 37, said in an interview. “I don’t want to bury that stuff. I think it’s important that it exists and we’re reminded of it.
“My problem is that the store is profiting off of it.”
Although Wein balks at the thought of anyone making money off such wares, others counter that there’s nothing wrong with owners — sometimes U.S. veterans or their families — selling historically significant items to memorabilia collectors.
The items can command a decent price. Among other offerings in the display case were Nazi helmets, pins, medals, buttons and daggers, including one priced at $735. A German photo album had a $455 price tag.
“It’s a piece of history; there’s no changing that,” said Chris Freiheit, who owns the Liberty mall. “Just because you’re selling a certain item doesn’t mean you’re promoting an ideology.”
Freiheit, who rents mall space to about 35 vendors, said the Nazi items have been offered for about six months and sell well. He declined to reveal the name of the vendor who sells them.
If book publishers, film studios and museums can collect money by telling the stories of Nazi Germany, he asked, why is it improper for dealers of collectibles to generate a profit?
It’s wrong because 240 Holocaust survivors live in central Ohio, said Gordon Hecker, president and chief executive of the Jewish Federation of Columbus.
“To think that anyone anywhere would be profiting off the immense tragedy that these people experienced is a travesty,” he said. “What the Nazis perpetrated was a horrific genocide, a deliberate murder of millions of people — not just of the Jews, of many, many others — and that’s what the swastika represents to many people: cold-blooded murder.”
The sale of Nazi memorabilia is nothing new. It has long been a staple of gun shows and some antique dealers, Ohio State University history professor Peter Mansoor said.
“There’s just a certain segment of the population that’s fascinated with that era and with the Nazi history in particular,” he said. “It seems strange to some people, given the sordid nature and horrific nature of the Nazi regime, but ... people still collect Nazi artifacts, and they still have an interest in Nazi memorabilia.”
Some European countries restrict the sale of such items. Some private auctioneers, including the website eBay, also place restrictions on what types of Nazi memorabilia can be sold.
But dealers in the U.S. aren’t breaking a law and have a right to sell the items, said Anita Gray, a regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, which fights anti-Semitism.
“As despicable as I find it, I would defend that right,” she said. “It’s free speech.”
Craig Gottlieb of the History channel show Pawn Stars has been a bit of a lightning rod for his dealings in Nazi memorabilia, including a hat that belonged to Adolf Hitler valued at $1 million.
Gottlieb, whose military-antiques business is based in Solana Beach, Calif., said people who sell Nazi items are inviting controversy and should address it. Saddam Hussein’s uniform, for example, probably wouldn’t elicit the same reaction as Hitler’s, he said.
“I think there’s such a visceral reaction to what the Holocaust represents, to what the Nazis represent,” said Gottlieb, an ethnic Jew. “They represent institutional, wholesale annihilation, the beginning of genocide.
“Genocide got a name after World War II. Our most-proximate symbol of genocide, and how awful that is, is the swastika.”
Still, he believes that artifacts are “the closest you’re going to get to a time machine” and the best way to educate people about history. He reiterated Freiheit’s opinion that filmmakers and museums don’t educate about World War II stories for free, and people who deal in such artifacts shouldn’t, either.
“I do believe artifacts are important, and it’s OK and ethical to profit from them,” Gottlieb said. “This is a business, but I do take pride in knowing that I am preserving a part of history that other people don’t see as worth preserving.”
Jeff Jaynes, a professor of church history at Methodist Theological School in Ohio, which is in Delaware, teaches a course on the Holocaust and has spoken with many survivors. He said he has never encountered someone who has mentioned the sale of Nazi artifacts as particularly offensive.
But he finds the fascination with Nazi Germany troubling and said people who are offended should make it known to dealers.
“That kind of public statement is good, to let folks know ‘I do find this problematic,’” he said.