The year is 1943, and the matronly harridan Helga von Grimm has a problem. Lampshades made from human skin are “all the rage” in nazi-ruled Europe, and hers has a defect. The imbecile guards at the local concentration camp, where all prisoners are tattooed with swastikas, have mistakenly left tattoo marks on the tanned skin, despite Helga’s specific instructions that they be removed, and now her new lampshade is ruined.
She had hoped to equal her rival, “that horrible Gretchen Smutcher,” who already has her own skin lampshade, hers without any tell-tale swastikas that give away the secret of its manufacture; but in this bizarre nazi version of keeping up with the Joneses, Helga von Grimm, despite being the wife of the camp commandant, has failed to keep up. Gretchen has the better lampshade.
I am summarizing a brief scene from “Out of the Grave,” which appeared in 1953 in the eleventh issue of the horror comic Haunted Thrills. It is among the earliest representations of the nazi concentration camp in a comic book. If you think Helga’s housewifely predicament seems grotesquely humorous, you are
correct. “Out of the Grave” was intended to be at once horrifying and funny, as were many of the grotesque pre-code horror comics of the early 1950s.
Cognoscenti of Holocaust lore will have detected that Helga, like Ilsa the SS She-Wolf twenty years later, is one of the many fictionalized versions of Ilse Koch, the Bitch of Buchenwald, who was falsely accused of having selected tattooed inmates for execution so that their skin could be made into lampshades, among other articles. Yet this Ilse Koch is more a figure of fun than an object of terror. We are in a comic-book version of the nazi concentration camp before the invention of the Jewish Holocaust, and thus there is no sermonizing about the end of poetry or skies that fail to darken; there are no intimations of pan-European racial guilt; there are no tearful complaints about Jehovah’s abandonment of his preferred people; there are no claims that the entire world is criminally responsible for Helga and Gretchen’s unusual taste in household furnishings. Instead, nazi savagery is played for chills and laughs.
The hero of “Out of the Grave” is Antonio the Cobbler, who lives beside the concentration camp in the Italian village of Basilio. The prisoners in Eric von Grimm’s camp are all Italian resistance fighters, among them Antonio’s son. Following his wife’s example, Commandant von Grimm decides to have a new pair of boots made from human skin, since his old boots are falling apart and new boots fashioned from conventional materials hard to find in war-torn Italy. He tasks the cobbler with the job of preparing them. They will be made from the skin of Antonio’s own son; Colonel von Grimm casually executes him to provide the raw material. Antonio makes the boots but bravely loads the heels with explosives, so that when his son’s murderer, as nazis are wont to do, loudly clicks his heels while greeting a visiting general (“they’ll hear me click my heels in Berlin!”), he self-detonates, not only ending his own life but also killing an assembly of German officers and their spouses. Antonio has already been executed, and the final panel of the comic brings us into the present. A former partisan kneels before the humble cobbler’s grave: “You avenged your son, Antonio! You avenged all of us!”
“Out of the Grave,” if we were forced to dignify it with a meaning, is a tale of European resistance to murderous nazi tyranny. Revisionists, attentive to facts and evidence, would find its fanciful depiction of the concentration camps of wartime Italy infuriating; but that would be quibbling. If we leave aside the remarkable stupidity of its story, “Out of the Grave” is an accurate representation of the postwar idea of the concentration camp, at least among the victorious Allies.
Since the concentration camp had not yet become exclusive Jewish cultural property, the inmates are Italian partisans, who like millions of freedom-loving Europeans have risked their lives to defend their nation from nazi tyranny; the European resistance fighter was still, in 1953, numbered among the great heroes of the war. Before the arrival of the Holocaust, these heroes were the principal reason for the camps, which were places where Germans incarcerated their most dangerous political adversaries. In its essence a concentration camp was once, before it became racialized under the Holocaust, an especially brutal version of a POW camp. Wherever the nazis conquered, they required concentration camps, because their bravest political opponents, the resistance fighters, were ubiquitous across the continent.
It is therefore not surprising to find the savagery of a nazi concentration camp in Italy, nor should it be surprising, for anyone familiar with pre-Holocaust representations of the concentration camp, to find a camp without a single gold star stitched on any of the prisoners’ uniforms. There was no Jewish Holocaust in 1953, and therefore no cataclysmic moral outrage that the Western world needed collectively to acknowledge, confront, and atone for.
Haunted Thrills was published by Robert W. Farrell, who entered the world as Izzy Katz. The script of “Out of the Grave” was likely written by Ruth Roche, also Jewish, and the comic was created in Jerry Iger’s Studio, which produced most of Farrell’s horror titles. “The early comic-book industry,” as Art Spiegelman notes, “was a specifically Jewish milieu.” Jews were not the first in the last century to profit from selling violence in popular fiction; the practice derived from pulp magazines, most of whose writers were non-Jews, a good number of them racialists. Jews like Farrell were, however, the first to target commodified violence at children. Sex and violence were staples in some of the pulps, and the Jewish revolution in comics specializing in horror and violence was an extension of that subject matter from one medium to another, while drastically dropping the age cohort that the material was directed at.
Despite claims by self-styled comic historians today, there can be no doubt that the vast majority of comic readers in the 1950s were teens and pre-teens. Had we been responsible adults in 1953, it is the violence of “Out of the Grave” that would have struck us as most reprehensible. We would have been angry, and in fact a year later titles like Haunted Thrills would be history, swept away in a growing populist wave of revulsion that culminated in the comic book code of 1954. Comic publishers like Farrell became less popular than pornographers, which some of them had actually been before they sought out a different medium and a younger demographic. “The filthy stream that flows from the gold-plated sewers of New York,” as a newspaper editorial described Jewish crime comics, had temporarily come to an end.
But our responsible adults in 1953 would not have found anything politically offensive in “Out of the Grave,” which was in its own modest way a deranged but patriotic story. Its creators had reshaped and expanded the tale of Ilse Koch and her lampshades, which had been a true fact known about the defeated German enemy from 1945 until 1947, when General Lucius Clay correctly concluded that the story was false and commuted the future She-Wolf’s sentence. If you lose an enormous war, you can expect the victors patriotically to repeat lies about you in the years that immediately follow, and readily to believe the lies that others tell.
At Auschwitz, for example, SS auxiliary Irma Grese, another of Ilsa’s progenitors, would slash, with a bejeweled whip, the breasts of attractive female internees and then, according to a reliable Jewish witness writing in 1948, masturbate during the subsequent surgeries that her sadism necessitated, “kicking the victim if her screams interfered with her pleasure and giving herself completely to the orgiastic spasms which shook her entire body and made saliva run down from the corner of her mouth.” Irma did that often, not just once or twice. Robert Faurisson calls such fantasies the nazism of the sex shop. They are perhaps more striking than non-sexual tales of lampshades and soap, but they share the same effect: the conjuring into fictional existence of a fantasy realm of phenomenal savagery once presided over by twisted and powerful nazis, until their defeat by the forces of liberal democracy.
In later versions of her legend Irma Grese would also be enmeshed in the same anti-German libel as Ilse Koch, becoming herself a collector of unusual lamps: “Irma had . . . the skins of three victims made into the most attractive lampshades, because she discovered that human skin, though it was tough and durable, also let light through in a most pleasing way.” Note the detail here: not “several victims,” or “many victims,” but exactly “three victims” were sacrificed to shade Irma’s lamps.
It is important when thinking about the Jewish Holocaust to distinguish logically the specific charges made against Germans in the aftermath of the war from the political meaning that was subsequently expressed, decades later, by the political edifice those charges helped erect. Stories of lampshades, Jewish soap, barbed-wire beds, and sexually rapacious SS dominatrices could be considered the raw materials or building blocks for the ground floor of what would later be the Holocaust. They distinguished the brutality of nazi camps from the run-of-the-mill brutality of other harsh prisons, thereby elevating victims of nazi camps far above all other victims. The camps of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, limited in their brutality by the author’s unwillingness to tell tall tales, are dull and uneventful places in comparison to the nazi camps of postwar propaganda. It was these postwar charges that made the nazi camps special locations, unprecedented in the long history of man’s inhumanity, different in kind from every other camp, for the obvious reason that they never existed. Yet the original reason for telling these stories had little or nothing to do with our era’s Holocaust, which now presides over Western civilization as its reigning mythology.
The principal purposes of the Jewish Holocaust, which first came into conceptual existence in the late 1960s, were the privileging, in the name of Jewish identity politics, of Jewish victimhood and the broadening of nazi guilt to embrace the entirety of the West. Through the existence of the Jewish people, the Holocaust theologian Eliezer Berkovits would argue in 1973, “God tested Western man and found him wanting,” the Holocaust being the most devastating proof of our perennial history of moral failure. The two sides during the war in Europe were merely rival factions within the West and thus both shared the same responsibility for “the greatest moral debacle of any civilization.” It is a claim, repeated elsewhere, that presents a radically Judeocentric view of their wartime exploits that none of the victors in 1945 would have understood. They thought they were winners of a gigantic war, not co-losers in a moral test. But under the Holocaust, as historian Ernst Nolte put it, “Homo hitlerensis ultimately appears as merely a special case of Homo occidentalis.”
If we briefly envision the Holocaust as an aggressive predator, the instinct of this predator is to prey not merely on one species of enemy but on a wide variety, pretty much any breathing target that falls within its gaze, though it displays a special aggression toward benefactors who offer it sanctuary. The genesis of that creature was, however, almost two decades away, and Ruth Roche knew nothing of it.
Roche, as a Jew, likely had a special distaste for Germans: “Colonel Eric von Grimm and his wife Helga were a loving couple — they both loved to inflict pain, to hear the dying screams of those poor unfortunates who were not of the master race!” Such anti-German hostility was, however, hardly rare eight years after the end of the war, and the antonyms of “master race” in this sentence are not only Jews but also the occupied nations of Europe and any non-German who lives elsewhere. Roche’s script, unlike the Holocaust, narrows rather than broadens guilt, transforming a logical candidate for defamation into the terrorized home of a non-Jewish class of victims: Italy, a major Axis power throughout most of the war, has become one of the captive nations pillaged and tormented by nazis like Helga and her husband. In short, “Out of the Grave” is not really a Holocaust text, though superficially it may look like one.
Haunted Thrills #11 was a product of its time, and for most American Jews in the 1950s, as the sociologist Nathan Glazer concluded in 1957, the alleged industrialized extermination of Jews in Europe “had remarkably slight effects” on their inner lives. They were not alone in their ignorance of any notable Jewish political claim to unique victimhood. Jewish suffering during World War II, Edward Linenthal writes, “was often indistinguishable, in the immediate postwar years, from the millions of noncombatant casualties due to terror bombings of civilian populations, epidemic illness, or starvation. It was considered by most as simply part of the horror of war.”
That historical moment of intelligent analysis, which could surprisingly co-exist with widespread belief in the most outlandish tales of German cruelty, has now been restructured, in current Holocaust scholarship, into a painful era of repression and Holocaust forgetting when American Jews, perhaps compelled by the constricting conformism of American culture, ignored the gaping wounds inflicted on their group psyche by the suffering of their co-religionists in Europe. The postwar era was, a prominent Holocaustologist has complained, a time of omission and avoidance, as everyone, Jews and non-Jews alike, refused to notice a giant crime looming over the West. Art Spiegelman, himself a successful Holocaust cartoonist, speaks of “postwar guilt at a time when the culture was unwilling to reckon with the catastrophe in any medium.” His preferred old comic-book reckoning with the Shoah, a much more accomplished story scripted by Al Feldstein, appeared two years after “Out of the Grave,” which is evidently in the eyes of the Holocaust industry not a rare treasure from an era of repression but an embarrassment.
Feldstein’s “Master Race” was published in 1955, but his most famous (or infamous) contribution to comic-book history was likely “Foul Play,” which is a more revealing artifact for our purposes. A baseball player has been poisoned by a rival, and in retaliation his teammates kill the poisoner and dismember his body. The comic ends with a grotesque midnight baseball game: the grass is stained red with the criminal’s blood; his various body parts form the bases; his intestines mark the baselines; and his head serves as a baseball. Since our own popular culture is awash in violence, we may fail to appreciate the reactions of earlier generations to this kind of fictional grotesquery. Almost all adults in the 1950s found comics like “Foul Play” objectionable, especially since teens and pre-teens were the bulk of the readership. They were, whether out of unenlightened naivety or respect for human dignity, much less tolerant than we are today of images of suffering and violence employed for the purpose of entertainment.
Feldstein himself acknowledged that he would not want his own children to read his crime and horror comics, but he felt that other people’s children could. The story is told by Adele Kurtzman, the wife of comics legend Harvey Kurtzman, and she drew an interesting parallel: it was just like those parents who want other parents to send their children to racially integrated schools, but prefer that their own children forgo the experience. Most Americans outside the comic industry, and some inside it, held a much different view. “I don’t think anybody,” a journalist wrote in an article on horror comics, “has the right to poison the minds of my children.” Even the official spokesman for the comic industry’s trade association, Henry Schultz, conceded that “excoriating the bad taste and vulgarity sometimes bordering on obscenity that occurs in these publications” was an unavoidable response to much of their content.
It is often hard in our own era to assess a stranger’s emotions. It is harder still to understand the emotions of a comic-book creator working over sixty years ago. It is, nevertheless, highly unlikely that the author of “Out of the Grave” had any genuine emotional investment in the various pseudo-events that would later, despite their ejection from mainstream history, help form the ground floor of the Jewish Holocaust. She was not disturbed or traumatized by the story of human-skin lampshades in Buchenwald. She could even see the opportunity for humor in one of the most grotesque of the various charges laid against the Germans. In her satirical hands, for example, the age-old mutual incomprehension of men and women persists even amidst the savagery of a concentration camp. “Women!,” Eric von Grimm marvels, “I’ll never understand them. Just because Gretchen has a lamp-shade of human skin, Helga must have one!” Whether we find that joke funny or not, it is clear that Ruth Roche hoped that her readers would.
Roche was working in a competitive comic-book business where fellow writers sought out shocking subjects and shocking images to entertain their young readers, who wanted to be shocked. In the early 1950s comic books were a highly lucrative industry, perhaps publishing history’s greatest success. Bad taste, vulgarity, and grotesque violence were valuable commodities.
It is frightening to imagine your eye being pierced by a needle, so comic writers introduced scenes that made use of that fear in their stories. It is grotesque to dismember a corpse, so from his fertile imagination Feldstein invented a baseball game in which the players use a man’s leg as a bat and his head as a ball. Another comic writer, recognizing also that the dismemberment of bodies is valuably grotesque, had a lovelorn psychopath assemble the perfect woman by murdering local beauties and severing their most attractive body parts so that he could, like Victor Frankenstein, put the parts together in a composite creation. The story of Ilse Koch and her lampshades was ideally suited for this kind of exploitation in a sub-literary medium that specialized in chills and dark humor. It is grotesque to imagine boots and lampshades manufactured from human skin; it is also darkly humorous to imagine German housewives competing to see whose lamp has the most elegant human-skin shade.
In another of the pre-code comic industry’s rare concentration-camp tales, the wife of a quisling guard at a French camp turns out to be a vampire, and her fixation throughout the story on shedding the blood of interned French resistance fighters is therefore explained by her membership in the horror genre’s most famous category of fantasy creature. The revelation that what appears to be merely just another nazi sadist is actually a vampire thirsty for blood is an indication that the concentration camp of the comic book carries no real political meaning but is only, like Stoker’s Transylvania, an evocative location for horror fiction, a strange place where weird and violent events are likely to occur, whether the nazis in charge of the camp are whipping the inmates or turning their skin into boots and lampshades. These horror stories are non-reckonings with the Shoah, not because Eisenhower-era conformity inhibited their authors, but because they saw nothing that needed to be reckoned with. The Germans had lost the war and the Allies had won, and thus there were no more German concentration camps in liberated Europe. No reckoning was necessary.
Few in the 1950s, when the war was still a recent memory, felt compelled to omit or avoid its history; most Americans, Jews included, simply did not see any special political or racial meaning that needed to be attached to the wartime concentration camp. Representations of the camps were not, as they are today, automatically entered into the ledger of Western guilt and crime. In the democratic West of the postwar era there was little inclination to do that, and until the arrival of the Holocaust no ideological mechanism through which it could have been accomplished.
When Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, a valiant soldier turned reluctant politician, is asked to display his many war wounds before admiring Roman crowds in order to acquire political power, he finds the prospect too degrading. A heroic patrician’s wounds are a private matter, not invitations for public admiration or sympathy, so Coriolanus prefers to keep his wounds concealed. The Jewish Holocaust in our era is a cultural repudiation of that principle. Boasting about unique war wounds is a large part of the Holocaust, and the Holocaust museum is a site where, among other activities, such boasting is institutionalized for political purposes.
In the 1940s and 1950s, on the other hand, there was no victim culture and therefore no cultural space for boasting about wounds. Dwelling on the allegation that Jews had been transformed into lampshades would, moreover, have been tantamount to an admission that those particular Jews passively so transformed had played no meaningful role in the Allied victory. Jews therefore preferred to stress their active wartime role as ghetto fighters, a piece of old-fashioned heroism and a clear analogue to the European resistance heroes. A claim of extraordinary racial victimization during the war was not yet a route to fame, fortune and political power, and the gruesome allegations about the Germans and their concentration camps were not much more than an archive of weird locations and grotesque imagery useful for telling scary stories to children.