World War II artifacts often come with a story
ROANOKE, Va. — Greg Eigenfeld felt his pulse quicken.
A phone caller from Staunton had just told Eigenfeld, a collector of World War II military artifacts from Allied and Axis forces, about an interesting discovery she had made in the basement of a home inherited from an uncle.
Neatly folded inside a waterproof ammo box she had found what appeared to be a banner. It displayed symbols associated with Germany during the war — eagles, Iron Crosses and swastikas.
Initially, Eigenfeld did not know what the woman had found. But he guessed that it was unique and probably uniquely valuable.
"My heart was thumping," he recalled Thursday. "But then I thought about the date she was calling and I thought this was someone yanking my chain."
The date was April 20, which happens to be the day Adolf Hitler was born in 1889.
But the call was legitimate. And Eigenfeld bought what he determined to be a German regimental band musician's "kettle drum skirt" in excellent condition.
The woman had phoned in response to a small advertisement that declared Eigenfeld's interest in WWII artifacts.
Eigenfeld, 45, has placed similar ads in newspapers since his 20s.
Decades ago, he routinely fielded phone calls from the World War II veterans themselves, some of whom possessed trunk loads of souvenirs. Those calls are rare now, he said. Instead, Eigenfeld hears from veterans' surviving sons and daughters, grandchildren, nieces and nephews.
Family members of Americans who served during the war usually can share at least some details about the veterans' lives and military service. Those details enrich the collecting experience, Eigenfeld said.
"I collect because I enjoy the artifacts, but what gives me the most pleasure is the history behind each item," he said.
To demonstrate, Eigenfeld retrieved from a garment bag a leather jacket a friend had found in a basement in New York. The jacket, an A-2 jacket worn by U.S. pilots, navigators and bombardiers, was covered in mildew and mold, Eigenfeld said.
But its insignia and illustrations provided information about the man who had worn the jacket: Staff Sgt. R.H. Peath. Eigenfeld said Peath was a gunner on a B-24 bomber and part of the 15th Air Force, 485th Bombardment Group and 829th Squadron, based in the Mediterranean Theater.
The jacket showed that Peath had been forced to bail out during one mission.
Eigenfeld eventually found a Peath nephew, who told him that his uncle's experience parachuting from a doomed bomber was so traumatic that he never flew again as a civilian and even avoided airports. The nephew sent Eigenfeld photos of his uncle wearing the jacket.
Family members of WWII veterans who served with Allied forces tend to respond cooperatively when Eigenfeld finds them and asks about artifacts he has acquired.
He said family members of German veterans often react quite differently.
In one case, Eigenfeld found a surviving child of a German officer who had once carried a ceremonial sword Eigenfeld had added to his collection.
"I found a son alive and well in Vienna, but he was not receptive to inquiries about his father," he said. "I approached him so nicely, in German, and all I really wanted was a picture of his dad."
The son's reluctance might have reflected the reality that his father had been an officer with the Waffen-SS, a group notorious for war crimes.
Like other collectors of World War II artifacts, Eigenfeld recognizes that symbols associated with Nazi Germany have the potential to elicit powerful negative reactions.
"Military artifacts are one thing," he said. "Ideology is something else. Hitler was a monster."
Eigenfeld's collection is artfully displayed in a comparatively small room on the lower level of a house in Moneta that he and his family share with Eigenfeld's parents, Jerry and Norma Eigenfeld. The collection includes uniforms, rifles, bayonets, helmets, visor caps, patches, pins and much more. Included are artifacts from military forces from the United States, Germany, Italy, Russia and Japan, as well as some items from Holland, Bulgaria and Switzerland.
Eigenfeld is married to Tania Favot, whom he met in Brussels, Belgium. The couple have two children, Andrew, 9, and Jessica, 6.
Favot said she supports her husband's hobby.
"It makes him happy," she said. "I want my husband to be happy."
Eigenfeld was born in England but grew up in Rome, where his father was a chemical engineer for Firestone. He said he speaks French and Italian fluently, and can speak German and Spanish.
A gift from an aunt when Eigenfeld was about 12 years old stirred his interest in artifacts from the war. She mailed him a small patch that would have been worn on a German officer's uniform. She had found it in an antique store in Wales. Eigenfeld said he now knows the patch is a reproduction.
As a teenager in Rome, he regularly searched on Sundays for military artifacts at the famous Porta Portese Flea Market.
In 1985, Eigenfeld moved to Akron, Ohio, where he attended the University of Akron. Back in the U.S., he met World War II veterans and often asked whether they had items from the war they might sell.
One of Eigenfeld's first acquisitions in Akron was a German helmet that a U.S. soldier had found in a bunker on the coast of France. Its leather lining included the name of the man who had once worn it — R. Schellhase.
But Eigenfeld learned that placing newspaper ads provided a more efficient way to find people with military gear for sale.
An ad in this newspaper led Eigenfeld to one of his favorite artifacts, which hangs in a frame on the wall. A map drawn in pencil by a captured Japanese naval officer shows Japanese defensive positions on Wake Island. The map includes this inscription, "Wake Island As Drawn By Rear Admiral Sakabari. Taken From The Admiral By Lt. Cmdr. T.H. Wilkinson, 8 Sept. 1945."
Wilkinson had the wrong spelling for the officer's name. Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara was later hanged for war crimes.
A Wilkinson relative in Botetourt County sold the map to Eigenfeld.
Eigenfeld occasionally sells items he has acquired. But he said he does not collect "with a commercial intent."
He said his son has demonstrated a keen interest in the collection.
"I hope to give it all to him," he said.