Kenneth's Kaddish

Haunted by the undignified treatment accorded to human artifacts from the Holocaust, Kenneth Kipperman calls on int'l Jewish institutions to take up the cause.

kenneth kipperman 88 (photo credit: )
kenneth kipperman 88
(photo credit: )
The walls of Kenneth Kipperman's basement in Hanover, Maryland, are painted a deep, dark red. It makes the stairway feel narrow. Looking up, one sees frames of collector's edition stamps, some of which Kipperman himself originally engraved on a metal plate as one of a handful of skilled artists at the US Bureau of Printing and Engraving. On a small corner table is a photograph of his daughter Deanna graduating college. Next to it is a photograph of his wife Paula kissing Deanna on a Coney Island beach, where the family lived in the 1970s. But turn the corner. File folders, plastic tubs and tattered cardboard boxes hold Kipperman's fixation and his nightmare for nearly two decades - photographs and still shots from documentaries taken in April 1945 by Americans liberating Buchenwald. Stacked on a stone table, upholstered chairs, a bar stool is research material, official correspondence, unclassified and declassified documents, all from Kipperman's tracking of Buchenwald artifacts from Germany to Washington, DC. Horrors that have haunted him nearly all his 60 years, pictures capturing the depths of a hell known as Buchenwald's Pathology Section, cover a large pool table. The images contain decapitated human heads cut in half or shrunken, pieces of tattooed skin - not numbers but portraits and designs - taken from prisoners' bodies and set for display. Kipperman first saw these items on television as a young boy living in Coney Island. They were photographed when displayed on a table in Buchenwald just days after liberation. Some of them he's seen again, firsthand, behind closed and locked doors, inside the US National Archives in College Park, Maryland, and the Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington. Some were used as evidence or mentioned in testimony during the Nuremberg and Dachau trials, incriminating Ilse Koch, the wife of Buchenwald commandant Karl Koch. But all have been forgotten by nearly everyone but Kipperman. And he wants this to change. "No one has any idea these specimens exist," says an obsessed Kipperman. Since he found them he's rarely pursued his art, much to his wife's dismay. His relationship with his family has suffered as well. Most of his free time and more than $10,000 in cash, photocopy and long distance phone bills, he says, have been put toward spreading the word of these remnants of torture and genocide. He's written numerous letters and placed repeated phone calls to members of Congress and the Knesset, to Holocaust museums around the US and Israel, to local, national and international Jewish organizations. "When I started doing research at the National Archives, I realized these specimens were in Washington. I thought 'I have to tell the Jewish community what it has here,'" Kipperman says. "I would imagine that judges, when they see the specimens, would be convinced to give severe sentences, even death, to some of these Nazi bastards that were put on trial." His goal is to get a museum - he's hoping for either Yad Vashem or the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington - to take ownership. "If these specimens are put on display, these people, whose body parts are part of these specimens, they will live for all eternity." But Kipperman still must convince the institutions to release the artifacts and others to accept them. For all his time, money and effort, Kipperman has reaped little. His media campaign hasn't gained much ground, though The Washington Post published an article in 2001. A German film company's detailed documentary, released in 2005, was rejected by most theaters, television and film festivals. Local television has aired two segments on him, and there have been stories in smaller newspapers and magazines. "I need international coverage," he says, lamenting that another another Holocaust Remembrance Day will pass with the artifacts behind closed doors. "We again are going to see the same documentaries on Adolf Hitler and the concentration camps. And we'll hear survivors of the Holocaust and others claiming 'we must never forget, we must never forgive, we must remember the victims.'" He talks in a quirky calmness, often repeating stories he's told before, presumably many times to many other people. Sometimes sentences break off incomplete, a new stream of thought he must share about himself, the Holocaust or his mission. "It's taken over my life," he says of his mission. KIPPERMAN SPENT most of his first eight years in a displaced persons camp in Italy with his parents and younger brother. Though his family's past is little more than a sketch to him, what he's been able to find out is his mother's parents and three sisters were killed in the Holocaust. Her three brothers survived (one was a metalsmith in Buchenwald), but have since passed away. Kipperman knows little of his paternal grandparents, aunts or uncles. His father's first wife and two of his three sons were killed in the Holocaust. His remaining half-brother moved to the US, but has also died. His father died in 1974. His mother and father didn't talk about the Holocaust. "Never," Kipperman says. "I have no idea why. This is 2007. My mother's going to be 90. She still thinks that the Nazis are going to take her away." His parents' silence has sent Kipperman on a search for answers. He found out about an older sister while flipping through a photo album, asking his mother about a picture of a baby girl. She had caught the measles and died, his mother said. A friend of the family from the displaced persons camp recently told him his mother accidentally suffocated his sister while hiding in the safe room of a house the Nazis were searching. He's not even sure where he was born. Poland, according to his mother and official birth certificate; his father argued it was Germany. Two years ago a cousin told him it was in the former Soviet Union, what is now Kazakhstan. It was after Kipperman's family moved to Coney Island in 1954 that he began his Holocaust education, through documentaries, television and newspapers. Still his parents tried to protect him from what they witnessed firsthand. "I kept hearing the words 'Holocaust,' 'the Jewish people,'" Kipperman says. "But I was eight years old. It was vague to me." One time, when he was still a preteen, a visiting relative shared a black-and-white photograph album with him. Inside were pictures of the dead in a concentration camp. His father snatched it from him and scolded the relative. "He said, 'I don't want him to see these things,'" Kipperman recalls. Television fascinated him, especially documentaries. And he noticed one scene was common, a rectangular table with items on display he didn't yet understand. His parents' refusal to explain aroused his curiosity. He remembers watching footage of a man, authority figure, hair parted tight to one side, a distinct toothbrush moustache, yelling in German. "We had three small rooms in a cockroach-infested apartment building in Coney Island. So he's yelling and screaming at the top of his lungs - you know us kids, we put the television on very loud - my mother and my father came walking into the room and they started physically spitting at the television set," Kipperman says. "And that's when I realized something isn't right. I said, 'Why did you do that?' They said, 'He was a horrible monster.'" KIPPERMAN BELIEVES in symbolism. He wears a silver hoop bracelet around one wrist, around the other a tightly bound leather watch, the face the shape of an artist's palette. Different colors represent each hour. He wears his wedding ring and another silver ring with Stars of David. His large, chapped hands cut the designs of US stamps and currency; he engraved the portrait of America's first treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, found on the new $10 bill. Kipperman exits the subway on his way to work and walks past the US Department of Agriculture. Stretching horizontally along the entire building, just above eye level, is a maze-like design etched into the stone blocks. But he sees the two intersecting lines in the middle of each block as resembling a swastika. "I'm always reminded of the Nazi era," he says, "every day of my life." And then he turns the corner and passes by the Holocaust Museum, right next to the Bureau of Printing and Engraving. Kipperman says he followed media accounts in the 1980s of the inception and building of the museum. Part of the appeal, including what brought Elie Wiesel on board, was that the buildings the museum was to be created inside were constructed of red brick, like those in the buildings in Auschwitz or Buchenwald. But museum organizers realized their plans were too big, a new building was designed and slowly the red brick ones were torn down. On June 18, 1987, Kipperman turned the corner, carrying his lunch, and saw the last of the buildings, a tall brick chimney, being readied for demolition. The symbolism was too much for him; if nothing else is to remain, the chimney must, he thought. He convinced construction workers he was an artist, climbed into the building and refused to leave. Authorities thought his lunch was a bomb. The area was cleared and a three-hour standoff ensued. He was charged with a felony but took a plea bargain for a suspended sentence, a year of probation and 100 hours of community service. He was suspended from work without pay for 30 days. Then an anonymous tipster told his employer that in a 1986 etching of Bernard Revel on a $1 stamp, Kipperman had hidden a tiny Star of David. Kipperman thought he'd be fired. He was suspended from his engraving duties for a year. A psychologist found Kipperman was not a threat and was not crazy, but diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder. KIPPERMAN FELT like an outcast when he first moved to the US. He knew little English and had only a few months of formal schooling. On his first day of school, his mother presented him to his teacher. But she couldn't pronounce his name, Chaim. "She looks at me and says, 'He's in America now. He can't have a Jewish name,'" Kipperman recalls. "She looks me up and down. She says, 'He looks like a Kenneth to me. Let's call him Kenneth.' And then it stuck. She initiated me right then and there, right by the doorway before I went into the classroom." They didn't teach about the Holocaust in school, Kipperman says. Instead he found anti-Semitism. He excelled only in art class and later dropped out of high school. Without friends, picked on by bullies, Kipperman was attracted to others shunned by society. "As I grew a little older, I would go over to the amusement park and I noticed all the tattoo studios in Coney Island and the sideshows," he says. But there were also other tattoos that caught his attention. "When I saw people on the subway in the summertime with the tattooed numbers [on their arms], this is when I really became fascinated with what those numbers were. I learned that they were concentration camp survivors. This is how the whole thing evolved." Decades later, after he married his high-school sweetheart Paula, an immigrant from Russia, studied art, served two years in the army, moved to Washington and began his successful, though sometimes rocky, career, he again found himself fascinated by the tattooed numbers. Inside the Holocaust Museum is a large photographic mural of elderly survivors with their tattooed arms touching. Kipperman had to know about the numbers. Who gave the order to mark prisoners and why? He was referred to Robert Wolfe, an expert at the National Archives, who offered him merely a copy of an Auschwitz visitor's booklet with some relevant text. "And as I was leaving his office, he said, 'Oh, by the way, you might like to know that we have a tattooed skin downstairs in the vault. We have a shrunken head downstairs in the vault. And we have a lampshade made out of tattooed skin down in the vault.'" Wolfe agreed to let Kipperman view the items, though that wouldn't happen for more than a year, after Wolfe retired and said he was mistaken about all the items but one. KIPPERMAN WAS allowed to view and photograph the single item - a piece of tattooed skin - the National Archives says it houses, for 15 minutes, in 1995. "There are urban legends that we had all sorts of other similar things, including a shrunken head and stuff, and I can find absolutely no evidence we ever did," says Tim Nenninger, its chief of modern military records. The Jerusalem Post's request to view it was denied. Only three people have access to the "treasure vault," Nenninger said, "in which we keep documents that are of high intrinsic value," like the surrender documents from World War II. But in a custom-made box is Exhibit No. 252 from the Nuremberg Trial: a piece of skin. On it is "a female image with butterfly-like wings in flight," Nenninger said, citing documents that accompanied the skin when it was sent to the archives in the late 1940s. "While it is described as a human skin lampshade, it probably is human skin but there's no evidence it was ever a lampshade," Nenninger said. In 2004 the archives sent minute pieces of the skin to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, which runs the Museum of Health and Medicine, to be tested to verify it is human skin. (Nenninger said the AFIP is too busy with the Iraq war to conduct the test yet.) All evidence from the post-Holocaust trials points to that. "It looks like a chest, because there are nipples that are visible," Nenninger said. Kipperman's search didn't end when he saw that tattoo. Wolfe told him the artifacts were from Buchenwald, so Kipperman explored all the documents and photographs the archives had on the camp. "I saw photographic material and newspaper articles dealing with this table, and I immediately recognized it as the table I saw when I was a young person," Kipperman says. On the table, among the human organs experimented on and preserved, are two shrunken heads and 14 tattooed skins - including the naked butterfly woman Kipperman had recently held. Also on the table was a lamp, though there are no visible tattoos on its shade. Despite persistent rumors and allegations that some skins were used for a lampshade, there has still been no proof. And next to the lamp was a report of some kind. Using his engraver's magnifying glass, Kipperman made out the German printing on the cover, tracked down its origin and had the report, a doctoral dissertation on the sociology of tattooing, translated. The dissertation, "A Contribution to the Tattooing Question," was written by Dr. Erich Wagner of the Institute of Forensic Medicine and Scientific Criminology at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany. A translated copy is now in the Washington Holocaust Museum's library. Wagner studied the non-numerical tattoos of inmates at Buchenwald and found 3 percent of Jews in the camp were tattooed. Kipperman kept hunting for more evidence and documentation. He found two films, shot by the US Army Signal Corps in the days following Buchenwald's liberation. In one, the table is prominent. Citizens of the nearby town of Weimar were ordered to walk the roughly eight kilometers to Buchenwald. They are marched passed the table. They arrived with smiles and departed in tears and with long faces. The other film captured other specimens from Buchenwald's Pathology Section, including a bisected head preserved in some form of liquid. Both films are still in the US National Archives' collection. And then Kipperman came across official correspondence between an army medical laboratory in New York, which tested three tattooed skins found in Buchenwald, and the army's judge advocate-general. "All three specimens are tattooed human skin," Chief of Pathology Maj. Ruben Care wrote May 25, 1945, including one large piece featuring "a large bird... a black dragon, with fire coming from the mouth..." and a man "with a sword being apparently stuck in the dragon." Another memo, from Deputy Judge Advocate for War Crimes Lt.-Col. C.E. Straight, to the War Crimes Branch of the Army, dated February 19, 1948, detailed numerous items found at concentration camps,including "one shrunken, human head... an exhibit in the Buchenwald Concentration Camp case... three pieces of tattooed human skin," also evidence at the Buchenwald case, and "one bisected human head, preserved in alcohol in a glass jar." And a third memo, from Col. Edward H. Young, chief of the army's War Crimes Division, to the commanding general of the European command, dated October 3, 1949, offering evidentiary assistance for the trial of Ilse Koch, said "that several pieces of tanned human skin and a shrunken preserved human head... are in the Army Medical Museum in Washington, DC.," now the National Museum of Health and Medicine. TODAY, FIVE tattooed skins preserved by the National Museum of Health and Medicine in acrylic resin, and two bisected heads preserved in wax, are stored in a baby blue, climate-monitored museum cabinet, No. 24. Brian Spatola, anatomical collections manager for the museum, says there is no way to verify the heads are from the Holocaust and warns testing could merely ruin them. A shrunken head, which documents say was sent to the museum in the 1940s, is nowhere to be found, Spatola said. The skins, however, are both verified human and from Buchenwald. One smaller piece, a native chief in a feathered headdress, is also visible on the table from Buchenwald. The largest of the tattooed specimens is a fire-breathing dragon slain by a knight and attacked from above by a hawk. Two nipples and a bellybutton protrude from the skin. Spatola says there's no way to be sure these skins were from Jewish prisoners at the camps. While Jewish law forbids tattooing as a desecration of one's body, Wagner's dissertation on prisoners at Buchenwald found 3 percent had tattoos. "Tattooing was only done because the Jew had the desire to adapt to his environment and not to deviate from his role among his comrades of another race although he dismissed tattooing as nonsense and anathema to his religion even before the procedure." Wagner doesn't mention anyone being killed for the tattoos, though numerous claims from Buchenwald survivors insist they were. The Allied Forces' Psychological Warfare Division, in collaboration with Buchenwald prisoners, wrote "The Buchenwald Report" in April and May 1945. It detailed the rule of Ilse Koch, whose "collection of human skin and tattoos received extensive publicity" at her trial. (Her life sentence at Nuremberg was later reduced to four years, since the main hearsay evidence, a lamp with a tattooed skin lamp shade, was never found. A German court then found her guilty and sentenced her to life in prison. She hanged herself in 1967.) Buchenwald prisoner Eugen Kogon, in his book The Theory and Practice of Hell, wrote that prisoners were routinely "selected according to the magnificence of their tattoo markings, and sent to the hospital. Soon afterward the finest skin specimens would appear in the Pathology Section, where they were prepared and for years exhibited to SS visitors as particular treasures... Hundreds of human skins, prepared in different ways, were sent to Berlin." This was corroborated by Dr. Kurt Sitte, a physicist and Czech political prisoner forced to work in the Pathology Section. He testified at Ilse Koch's two trials and a US Senate hearing into why her original sentence was reduced. "I have seen hundreds of skins," Sitte told a hearing on December 8, 1948. "We had to prepare the tattooings, and then had to deliver them to the SS." Sitte said Wagner's research lacked "scientific value," but merely recorded those tattooed. "They were killed because they had picturesque tattoos." He also explained the orders for shrinking a decapitated head, which were done according to the traditions of the Jivaro Indians. (Sitte worked in universities in England and the US before moving to Israel. In 1961 he was convicted as a spy "to a state friendly to the United Arab Republic," according to an April 3, 1963 article in The New York Times. Sitte spent two years in prison before president Yitzhak Ben-Zvi pardoned him.) WHEN KIPPERMAN visited the specimens in 1995, he put on a yarmulka and read the Mourner's Kaddish. "It's my way of remembering the victims. I don't forget them. I don't remember them just once a year," he says. Kipperman says he wants the artifacts put on display instead of being locked away. "In general, this is not the kind of thing that Yad Vashem would display," Estee Yaari, Yad Vashem's foreign media liaison, said in an e-mail. "If it is in fact discovered to be Jewish, we believe that it should be buried, according to Jewish tradition." Diane Saltzman, current director of institutional stewardship and the former director of collections at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, said human remains are "not things we'll accept into the collection... we don't see them as having any educational value." Saltzman said she doesn't think there's any mention of killing people for their tattooed skin in the museum's exhibits, though it does feature prominently the medical experiments conducted in Buchenwald, usually behind a taller partition to prevent young children from witnessing. The Museum of Health and Medicine said "it is highly unlikely" they'd loan the specimens for exhibit. The National Archives said "definitely" not. Jewish law would forbid it regardless, according to Halacha experts The Jerusalem Post contacted. "I think that the issue according to Halacha is really clear here: All body parts should be buried, even if they've been separated from the rest of the body," said Dr. Dvora Weisberg, an associate professor of rabbinics and director of the Beit Midrash at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. "Its primary concern from the moment of death onward is dignity, since everybody is an image of God." Weisberg said putting human remains on display at a museum would be "most offensive." The medical study of bodies, such as an autopsy, is permitted, said Rabbi J. David Bleich, professor of Talmud at Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in New York City, "if there would be some immediate need, not maybe sometime in the future somebody might discover something that you might learn from it - that's far too iffy - but if there would be an immediate need to study them they should be studied and whatever's left over should be buried." The tattooed skins, he said, "hardly qualify." Halacha may not be applicable, though. It is confirmed the tattooed remains are from concentration camps. And while most Buchenwald prisoners were Jews, non-Jews were more likely to have tattoos. Before a decision is made on the future of the skins, both Weisberg and Bleich said, consensus should be reached on whether it's likely the skins are from Jewish bodies. FOR KIPPERMAN'S FAMILY, it's too much. He presses his mother for more answers about the Holocaust. "She says to me, 'Anything that I tell you, can you bring anybody back? Any research that you do, can you bring anybody back?'" Kipperman says. "She has the answer that makes sense: I can't bring anyone back." "It's very frustrating for me," says Paula, his wife. Her high-end shoe stores went out of business after "his protest" at the chimney drove customers away. She supports him, though not his mission. "If he put as much emphasis on creating artwork as he does with the Holocaust, the whole family would be a lot happier." Kipperman is a painter, aside from his engraving, and is taking up sandblasting Judaica into glass. His art supplies, half-finished caricatures and cartoons, paintings and even tattoo designs, are tucked into corners of basement closets. "He's just on this mission. It's unstoppable," she says, "like a train wreck. I don't know what kind of closure he needs." "We both feel like we don't know when it's going to stop," says his daughter, Deanna Silverman. "When is it going to be enough? What is the goal?" She's now married to her high-school sweetheart, living in Virginia, and has made Ken and Paula grandparents threefold. "He's an incredible human being. He's one of the kindest people that I know," Silverman says. "He's artistic. He's loving. He's an incredible grandfather. He has so many wonderful qualities." After his protest, her life in high school was ruined. "People thought that my father was crazy. And I knew that he wasn't crazy. He's a very passionate person," said Silverman, now 36 years old. No one would talk to her. She lost nearly all her friends. She says she has a better relationship now with him than ever before, but "I tell him 'you never asked me how it affected me.'" And she sees the mission's toll on her parents' relationship. "It's always about the Holocaust and there's so much more to them and their life than the Holocaust," she said. "My father was not in the Holocaust, which is a very interesting point, and yet he's taken on this emotion and this compassion and this whole thing as if he was actually there." The diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder means he suffers as if he was. He talks of his mission as if it is something he must accomplish, as if to ease his suffering. "How is it possible that 62 years after the liberation of the concentration camps we still have them here?" Kipperman asks. "The only way I'll have a sense of peace is when these artifacts have an honorable resting place."