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Connected by a wartime souvenir

Op-Ed

Opening a captured copy of 'Mein Kampf' starts a new story.

November 11, 2012|By Hinda Mandell
  • "Mein Kampf," a book that defined a regime that murdered some 6 million Jews, came home with an American soldier in 1945. It is purposely turned upside down.
"Mein Kampf," a book that defined a regime that murdered some… (Photo courtesy of Matthew…)

My parents can't agree about what to do with the book. My mother has wanted to chuck it from the minute she married my dad in 1969. But my father insists on displaying it, albeit upside-down, on the bookshelf next to his collection of Jewish texts.

His uncle, Eddie Cohen, brought the book home from World War II in 1945. As I heard the story, Eddie, my great-uncle, took part in the storming of Omaha Beach and went on to fight in Germany. During one battle, he killed a German soldier and went through his rucksack, claiming the copy of "Mein Kampf" he found inside as his dubious souvenir.

When he returned from the war in 1945, he gave the book to his sister, my grandmother. Grandma Helen stashed the book in her basement, where it sat for two decades until her son, my father, decided he would become its next owner.

For my mother, the gold-leafed volume sitting on the bookshelf was an outrage. Her father had fled from the Nazis in Poland in 1939, and the family he left behind had all perished in Treblinka. But over time, my mother came to accept that her husband needed that upside-down book on his shelf — a visual reminder of devastation and triumph — even more than she needed it out of her house.

So she dealt with the book in her own way.

If her fingers happened to brush against "Mein Kampf" when she was reaching for another book, she scrubbed her hands with rubbing alcohol. And when she wanted to read a book that had touched the Fuhrer's polemic, she taped cardboard to the front and back covers of her selected reading material. She needed to quarantine Hitler's work — and anything that had come in contact with it.

A couple of years ago, I became curious about the book. The story of how it had come to us was somewhat thin on details, and because my uncle and grandmother had died, they couldn't add anything to the tale. I looked at the book carefully for the first time to see if it could tell us anything more.

Inside, I found an inscription. The book had been a gift to a couple, Walter and Klara Jess, on the occasion of their wedding in April 1938, and the mayor of Lubeck, Germany, had presented it to them.

Armed with this skeletal information, I got in touch last spring with a German genealogist, Ursula Krause, who agreed to help if she could. The first thing she found was Walter Jess' Nazi registration papers at the federal archives in Berlin, which showed that he had joined the Nazi Party on May 1, 1933, and that he had worked as a land registry secretary. Krause suggested I send a letter to Axel Jess of Mainz, with the hope that he was related to "our" Jess family.

"My family has a book that may have originally belonged to your family," I wrote to Axel. "I am working with genealogists to find descendants of Walter and Klara Jess."

Eight days later I received an email from Axel, 62, confirming that he was the son of Walter and Klara. "I was really surprised, when I received your letter today with this interesting story of the past," wrote Axel.

He put me in touch with his sister, Heike Stucke, 72, and together, the three of us exchanged more than 40 emails as we attempted to mesh together our different family lore. But it turned out it didn't quite mesh.

I'd heard that my uncle took the book from a dead soldier, but the book's original German owner, Walter Jess, had survived the war. Walter Jess, his children told me, died of skin cancer in 1967, and his wife, Klara, died more than 10 years later.

Axel was born after the war, but he speculated about where his parents would have kept their copy of "Mein Kampf." When American forces entered their home in Hillesheim, Germany, he wrote, they took an ax to the family bookcase. "And I think," wrote Axel, "the book 'Mein Kampf' was in the bookcase." The bookcase, since repaired, is now in Axel's living room.

He doubts whether his father, who served as a sergeant, would have carried "Mein Kampf" into battle. "Why should my father, intelligent and cautious, carry this book in his 'backpack,' when he was 'fighting,'" wrote Axel. "There is always a risk to become a POW and that would not be funny, if the Americans would find 'My Struggle' in his backpack. That doesn't make any sense for me."

The mystery will never be cleared up. My great-uncle's military records were destroyed in a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, so I can't find out whether his unit entered Hillesheim.

But I no longer feel a strong need for answers. It's enough, somehow, that a copy of "Mein Kampf, a book that defined a regime that murdered some 6 million Jews, has now brought people together. Two families, with two very different World War II histories, have developed a connection.

I suspect that Walter Jess and Eddie, my great-uncle, might feel uncomfortable about this connection between the Jewish relative of an American soldier and the children of a Nazi. But I am glad to have learned about that other bookshelf far away and the real people who own it. And I am relieved my great-uncle didn't kill their father.

What I learned about the book has also softened my mother's views. She would never advocate turning such a terrible volume right-side up. But I doubt she'd get rid of it now, even if my father approved it.

Hinda Mandell teaches in the Department of Communication at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.

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