The LampshadeReporting The Lampshade took me halfway around the world,  to Germany and Jerusalem,  still I consider it to be,  to a large extent,  “a New Orleans book.” Many of the events described took place in New Orleans, a good deal of the book was written in my house in the Bywater and surrounding cafes. But more than that, I regard the story I try to tell in The Lampshade to be infused with the highly resonant,  often dark, quality of meaningful coincidence–what some might call synchronicity–which is always so thick in the thick Crescent City air.

By this I mean:  the fact that a lampshade made of human skin quite possibly created in a Nazi concentration camp would turn up, sixty years later,  in an abandoned house during the aftermath of the worst single disaster in the history of the United States is by any standard an appalling, wholly unexpected, turn of events. Yet if that Nazi lampshade,  that icon of evil,  an object that resides in the imagination somewhere between myth and reality,  was going to surface somewhere, New Orleans after the storm sounds like the place.

Many surprising, hair-raising facts have emerged since my old friend Skip Henderson purchased a tatty but curious-looking lampshade (price: $35) at the corner of Piety and Royal Streets one winter’s afternoon in 2006. After all,  who was to know that the seller would turn out to be one David Dominici,  the self-described “most hated man in New Orleans,”  the erstwhile “Cemetery Bandit” infamous for his role in the late 1990’s series of thefts of marble angels from “Cities of the Dead”? And how was one to predict the thing would actually turn out to be real, with the lab that did much of the forensic testing on the body parts of 9/11 victims returning a report saying the shade had “a 100% possibility” of being of “human origin”?

Facts like these have led, as in most interesting stories,  only to more questions, many of which have remained unanswered. Some are straightforward such as, if this truly is a Nazi artifact,  how did it get to southern Louisiana? Another query would pertain to the mindset of the individual who affixed the tassels to the bottom of the shade,  little Hershey Kiss-shaped baubles which, as Skip Henderson pointed out, are purple, green and gold, or Mardi Gras colors. Beyond that, owing to the fact that lab test can only prove that the lampshade was made from a human being,  but not what kind of human being,  what does that say about the overarching conundrum of universal victimhood itself,  i.e., if the lampshade is a symbol of unthinkable cruelty, can a certain kinship be found between those who perished in camps and the individuals who found themselves caught in the Flood?

In the end,  however,  I think about the lampshade itself and the strange relationship I have forged with it over the period of time it has been close to me.  At first it was a person,  someone like you or me,  then through whatever vicious process,  it was turned into a thing,  this ultimately frightening icon of inhumanity.  This is how I regarded it when it first came to me. But this changed. It changed as I looked at it,  and thought about it,  the fear and terror was replaced by an insurmountable wave of sympathy. And so it became a person again,  a person with a sad, likely unavoidable fate,  but a person nonetheless.


Mark Jacobson is a writer who doesn’t drink enough to live in New Orleans more than a few months a year, so he mostly resides in Brooklyn, where he works for New York Magazine. In addition to The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans, he is the author of several books,  including the novel Gojiro and the collections of his journalism work, The Teenage Hipster in the Modern World and American Gangster. We will be livestreaming his event at Maple Street Book Shop on Tuesday, November 16, 2010, 6:00 P.M. If you would like to read an excerpt of The Lampshade, follow this link.