Heirloom ‘Mein Kampf’: Return to Germany?

By Hinda Mandell
Globe Correspondent / March 21, 2010

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There is a family in Germany that is connected to my family in the Boston suburbs. We don’t know each other’s names or addresses. This family doesn’t even know we exist. They certainly don’t know that the only thing that binds us is a copy of Adolf Hitler’s political manifesto, ‘‘Mein Kampf,’’ sitting on a shelf in my father’s Needham study.

Now I’m thinking of going to Germany to find them.

Yet I recognize that this potential meeting is tangled with layers of trauma, history, and memory.

The book is inscribed to a Mr. and Mrs. Tefs of Lübeck, Germany, a standard wedding present from their mayor.

“With best wishes for happiness and blessings,’’ the inscription reads. It is dated April 29, 1938. Europe was bracing itself for war.

My great-uncle, Eddie Cohen of Brooklyn, N.Y., may have killed Mr. Tefs in battle, but it’s hard to sift family lore from historical fact. All we know for certain is that Uncle Eddie brought home the Tefses’ “Mein Kampf’’ from World War II, along with a Purple Heart he earned when he was wounded in battle.

In January, I wrote about my family’s debate over what to do with this volume. Last fall my father said he was ready to donate it. My mother, who had family members who perished in the Holocaust, was relieved at the prospect of finally removing the book from her home.

But my brother and I balked.

The “Mein Kampf,’’ we argued, was a part of family history. So the book remains in a state of limbo.

This is what we know: In 1942, Uncle Eddie was drafted into the Army. As a private first class, he fought in hand-to-hand combat in France and Germany. And this is where things get murky: In one of these battles, he may have plucked “Mein Kampf’’ from the rucksack of a German adversary he killed in battle.

That’s the story my siblings and I heard as children. It’s also the anecdote my father recalled from his childhood.

In recent months, I’ve been considering upsetting this book’s physical location once again and traveling to Lübeck. Once there, I imagine meeting the descendants of Mr. and Mrs. Tefs.

Then, the children of the couple who received Hitler’s treatise for a wedding present and the Jewish relatives of the man who seized the book in battle could forge a connection.

I’m attempting to build bridges that history tried to destroy but present-day circumstances permit. And I’m compulsively curious about how a single book — and the lives it touched along the way — tells a microstory about war.

But first there’s the hurdle of getting my parents’ consent.

“There’s no way I want that book to be repatriated to Germany. I don’t want to return the book to the country that gave birth to it,’’ said my father, Fred Mandell, 67, of Needham.

My mother was also unequivocal in her response. “You’re not going to do that,’’ said Karen Mandell, 61. “You’re not going to give a book of hate and pass it around.’’

Despite their undisputable discomfort at the prospect of their daughter returning a copy of “Mein Kampf’’ to its country of origin, my parents take no issue with my tracking down the Tefs’s descendants and showing them photocopies of the book.

But there’s the rather significant issue of explaining to them how my family came into possession of it.

“You can’t go to these people and say ‘I’m related to the murderer of your grandpa.’ It’s so circumstantial,’’ said my mother.

My father is also concerned.

“There’s no way of knowing if Uncle Eddie actually killed the German soldier, and if he did, that he took the book off the guy,’’ he said.

The conversation was brief. But it revealed that much of our own family history is unclear. It’s lost to the chaos of war, and Uncle Eddie’s passing. He died in 2001.

And that’s when my mother directed me to speak to a rabbi. She said I needed moral input.

I called up Carl M. Perkins, the rabbi at Temple Aliyah in Needham. He immediately cut to the ethical dilemmas of the situation.

“You start scraping over memories and you may learn things you may not want to know,’’ he said. “As they say, ‘let sleeping dogs lie,’ and this could engender very uncomfortable sorts of questions.’’

Jay C. Perlman, senior rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, urged me to be deferential in my outreach to the Tefses, since my initial contact could stir up unwanted or repressed memories.

“I can only imagine that this could be disturbing news for this other family,’’ said Perlman. “We don’t know to what extent they tried to distance themselves from that family’s chapter.’’

And then there’s the issue of ownership.

“What if they want it back?’’ asked Perlman. “You should be prepared so you can speak to them with grace and not have an emotionally charged response.’’

While it’s clear that my parents want the book to remain in Jewish hands — certainly a reversal of Hitler’s original intent — my father is quick to say we don’t know the role the Tefs family played in World War II. They could have been resisters to Hitler’s regime, apathetic to it, or enthusiastic actors in the Nazi party.

The only thing we know about them is that we have their book.

Sixty-five years after Hitler’s death, his notorious political diatribe holds a tenuous place in German society. On one hand, there are no restrictions on the possession, purchase, or sale of “Mein Kampf,’’ according to Eberhard Jäckel, a preeminent Hitler historian, of Stuttgart, Germany. However, the book is not currently published.

The Bavarian state, a region within Germany, holds the copyright to “Mein Kampf’’ but does not allow it to be reprinted. After the copyright expires in 2015, anyone in Germany can publish it.

More than 10 million copies of “Mein Kampf’’ were printed in Germany from 1925 (the date of its original publication) to 1943.

“I do not know of any [legal or formal] pressure on the Germans to get rid of their copies of ‘Mein Kampf,’ ’’ wrote Jäckel in an e-mail. “It is safe to assume that many threw them away or burnt them [after the war], while others kept them. Still today ‘Mein Kampf’ is not a rare book.’’

In addition to my family’s copy, at least one other volume of “Mein Kampf’’ resides in a local Jewish home.

Mark Shooman of Newton, a part-time chief financial officer in the life sciences and technology field, has a copy of the book that his father brought home from the war. It, too, was inscribed to a newlywed couple for their wedding on May 4, 1943.

Shooman said he does not know the circumstances by which his father, a supply sergeant in the Army, found the book. It came into Shooman’s possession after his father died.

Curious about war loot, I called the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America.

“I can’t speak to whether more Jews took the Nazi-related materials or whether it was more equal across the board as a war souvenir,’’ said Pamela Elbe, the archivist at the Washington, D.C., organization and museum. “Beyond the Nazi significance, I assume it’s a tendency of soldiers in war to take something as a trinket.’’

Indeed, it’s the notion of a war “trinket’’ that has grabbed my family’s interest.

“There’s nothing as epic or as traumatic as the events surrounding this particular book,’’ said my father.

For my sister, it’s unsettling to think the book could leave our household.

“I’d rather keep it here with our family, people we know,’’ said Becky Mandell.

I understand the risk in letting go. But can there be growth and reconciliation in holding on?

T here is a family in Germany that is connected to my family in the Boston suburbs. We don’t know each other’s names or addresses. This family doesn’t even know we exist.
They certainly don’t know that the only thing that binds us is a copy of Adolf Hitler’s political manifesto, “Mein Kampf,’’ sitting on a shelf in my father’s Needham study.