Opinion: Auction of Mengele journals is an outrage

Bill Panagopulos runs Alexander Historical Auctions, an affiliate of Alexander Autographs, which bills itself as “one of the world’s premier auctioneers of militaria [sic], historic letters, manuscripts, documents and relics in all fields of collecting.” Only the good Panagopulos also peddles Nazi memorabilia at his Stamford, Conn., auction house.

Among the items Alexander Historical Auctions is offering for sale on July 21 are “the hidden journals of Dr. Josef Mengele,” with an estimated price tag of $300,000 to $400,000. Mengele, you may recall, was the SS “doctor” who ran selections for the gas chambers at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps, where he also conducted often deadly medical experiments on inmates.

Among Mengele’s victims was my mother’s sister, whom he sent to death in April 1944. He also twice struck my mother in the face.

“One day,” my mother wrote in her memoirs, “a young woman was late for roll call outside her barrack. Mengele ordered her to come forward, knocked her to the ground, and put his boot on her chest. Humming an aria from ‘Madama Butterfly,’ he kept his foot there until she was dead. He showed the SS men a new way of killing.”

So what precisely is Alexander Historical Auctions hawking? The “Historically important” Lot 4, according to the auction house’s website, consists of “31 autograph manuscripts, approx. 3,380+ pp. in various formats, largely bound journals … some illustrated. All writings are penned in ink in a legible hand, in generally excellent condition.”

The content of these journals is irrelevant. Reminiscences, ponderings on eugenics, “philosophical and introspective writings,” poems, political commentaries, travelogues. Who cares? The ramblings and ravings of a sadistic sociopath who murdered thousands upon thousands more than Osama bin Laden ever did should not be allowed to yield a small fortune in profits to the anonymous consignor—no doubt with a healthy commission to Alexander Historical Auctions.

Moreover, the lucky purchaser will “own the copyright to materials contained within the lot” together with the consignor until Dec. 31, 2035. Say what? Yup, the seller of this garbage, presumably richer to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars after the auction, will retain the “co-exclusive right to use copies of any and all writings in this lot in any documentary or film about Josef Mengele or any direct relative of Josef Mengele.”

Stripped of its veneer, could the purpose of the planned sale simply be to enable a Mengele heir to finance the glorification or perhaps merely the equally reprehensible historical sanitization of his (or her) monstrous ancestor?

But there’s more.

Lot 5 is an “Extremely rare and revealing page full of pencil drawings in Mengele’s hand, some captioned, undertaken while he was in hiding in South America, ca. 1970. Among the sketches is a four-legged hideously-toothed beast at upper-right, a smiling cyclops, a car shown between two collapsing buildings, a Lutheran priest complaining about taxes, a small house in a suburban setting with a lederhosen-clad figure at one side, and a Napoleon-like figure with a sword in hand declaring: ‘Dem Volke’ [the people].” The estimated price for this gem is between $7,000 and $9,000. Pardon me while I puke.

And just in case you’re a bit squeamish and Mengele is not up your alley, Alexander Historical Auctions will gladly sell you a handsome signed and dated 1924 photograph of Adolf Hitler himself (Lot 1, estimated price: $15,000-$18,000); a handwritten birthday greeting from the Fuehrer to a presumably Aryan “gracious lady” (Lot 7, price tag: $10,000-$12,000); a signed photograph of the Nazi racial ideologist Alfred Rosenberg, expected to yield $700-$900; or, for the budget-conscious neo- or crypto-Nazi, a postcard signed by Hitler’s sister Paula, valued at a measly $200-$300.

This is not the first time Panagopulos has brokered sales of Nazi memorabilia. In February 2010, he claimed that he had sold another Mengele journal to the grandson of an Auschwitz survivor who was going to donate it to a Holocaust museum. At the time, the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants condemned the sale as “a cynical act of exploitation aimed at profiting from the writings of one of the most heinous Nazi criminals.” Nothing has changed, except, apparently, the magnitude of the outrage.

Let’s be clear: While selling child pornography is a criminal act that will land you in jail, establishing a market for signed Mengele manuscripts and Hitler memorabilia is perfectly legal—in the United States, at least. But the same First Amendment that allows Alexander Historical Auctions and its ilk to aid and abet the glorification of Nazism and all it stands for allows the rest of us to expose and ostracize the purveyors of such obscenities.

The online auction and shopping site eBay prohibits the sale of Nazi memorabilia. So does Yahoo, after a French court ordered the American-based Internet company in 2000 to bar French shoppers from sites selling such offensive materials. The least we can do is boycott Panagopulos and his Alexander Historical Auctions.

(Menachem Z. Rosensaft is vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants. He also is an adjunct professor at Cornell Law School, a lecturer at Columbia Law School and a distinguished visiting lecturer at the Syracuse University College of Law.)

Yom Kippur 5769: The Art of Forgiveness

On the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, in 1995, Eva Kor, then 61 and a real estate broker in Terre Haute, Ind., stood outside a gas chamber at the infamous camp and offered her forgiveness out loud to the late Dr. Josef Mengele for the inhumane medical experiments he had performed on her and her twin sister.

She forgave every other Nazi, as well.

“I, Eva Mozes Kor, a twin who survived as a child of Josef Mengele’s experiments at Auschwitz 50 years ago, hereby give amnesty to all Nazis who participated directly or indirectly in the murder of my family and millions of others,” she said that day, reading from a prepared statement. Even in our culture of apology, where “I forgive you” flows freely and often speedily from the mouths of perpetrators and politicians, parents and children, spouses and complete strangers, Kor’s apology stands out.

“I call forgiveness the modern miracle medicine,” she said last January in an address to congregants at the Nachshon Minyan in Encino.

Many people believe that forgiveness is an all-purpose panacea that can free people from rage and resentment, from deep depression and high blood pressure. Over the past 10 years, in fact, the John Marks Templeton Foundation and others have donated $7 million in a Campaign for Forgiveness Research to fund more than 45 projects studying forgiveness benefits. Books and Web sites devoted to the topic have become ubiquitous, including forgivenet.com, where a person can anonymously send an e-mail requesting forgiveness, along with a book or flowers.

In Jewish tradition, the act of seeking forgiveness from someone we have harmed is clear and specific.

“For transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another,” the Talmud states. But the act of granting forgiveness, especially to someone who is not repentant or who has not transgressed against us directly, is more complicated and controversial.

Mark Borovitz, rabbi of the spiritual and therapeutic Beit T’Shuvah community, makes a distinction between unnecessary pain and existential pain, which he said is part of the human condition. He maintains that happiness is a choice.

“You can get rid of resentment, but forgiveness is something [the other person] has to ask for,” he said at a forgiveness workshop on Sept. 7, attended by about 70 Beit T’Shuvah residents, their families and others.

David Wolpe, senior rabbi at the Conservative Sinai Temple in Westwood, maintains that forgiveness can actually equalize a relationship.

“When you hold a grudge, you create an imbalance,” he said. “That is, you feel superior, and the other person is less, because they feel bad.”

Wolpe also believes there is such a thing as “unearned forgiveness,” which can be offered to someone who has not sought it.

“You are not obligated to forgive, but you may,” he said, pointing out that anger can take a steep toll on your internal life.

“Forgiveness is in the power of the forgiver, ultimately,” he said. And vicarious forgiveness does not exist in Judaism; you can only forgive someone who has harmed you directly.

For Karen Fox, a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and licensed marriage and family therapist, Judaism and psychotherapy do not separate on the forgiveness issue.

“The question is: How does this burden benefit me? Can I look at the potential of forgiveness as a way to clean some of what I carry?” she said.

Sometimes, as in the case of a rape or an abusive parent, for example, when forgiveness isn’t forthcoming from the person who caused the harm, you have to forgive yourself, she said.

“Unexamined hurt ultimately hurts the one who’s holding it.” Not letting go can lead to obsession with the incident, which isn’t healthy, she said.

But the ideal doesn’t always easily translate into real life. This has been the experience for James, 44, a resident of Beit T’Shuvah whose last name has been omitted for this article.

James had worked as a chef for a certain caterer for more than three years when he was abruptly and abusively fired last November.

“I should have seen it coming, but I was his confidant because of all my experience,” James said, explaining that he had often witnessed the man acting bitterly and vindictively toward other employees as well as his own wife.

In addition to firing James, the caterer also fraudulently reported his tax liability to the Internal Revenue Service, essentially doubling James’ taxable earnings and making it appear James had lied to the IRS on his tax return.

James is currently in contact with the IRS, straightening out the financial damage and feeling good about standing up for himself. Still, he doesn’t expect any communication from the caterer.

“It feels like unfinished business,” he said, adding that he’s reviewing his own actions to try to figure out his own part.

While he’s reserving a final decision on forgiveness, he said he’s relearning that he doesn’t have to make everything right.

“I’m grateful for the situation,” he said. “Life doesn’t ever have easy answers.”