KEN KIPPERMAN HANDS OVER THE FILE, apologizing.
"I have to warn you," he says. "What you're about to see is not easy to look at. I'll start with the least offensive."
We are having lunch at the Old Ebbitt Grill. Sunlight pours into an atrium filled with the noise of conversation and flowing water. At a marble fountain nearby, streams shoot from the mouths of golden lions. It is a strange setting for the task at hand.
The first photograph shows Kipperman holding a framed object. It appears to be an ink drawing on parchment: a knight slaying a dragon with an eagle overhead. "This is the largest tattooed human skin found in Buchenwald," he says. "It was physical evidence in the Nuremberg trials. You can see the two nipples -- there's a medical term for them" -- he pauses, can't think of it -- "and the belly button. Here."
There are more photographs of the worst objects from the camps. More skin with tattoos. A severed human head, bisected to show a cross-section of the brain. Kipperman is in most of the pictures, posing with what he calls "these artifacts," wearing his yarmulke and a slightly dazed look.
A Jew from Poland born a year after the Holocaust ended, Kipperman has spent the better part of a decade hunting such artifacts in various government repositories in the Washington area. He found one tattooed skin in a vault not far from the U.S. Constitution at the National Archives.
Now he wants some of them put on public display as documentary evidence of the Holocaust, others buried with honor. He has pleaded his case to members of Congress. And to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology at Walter Reed Hospital, Elie Wiesel at Boston University, Yehuda Bauer at Yad V'shem in Jerusalem, Israel Singer at the World Jewish Congress, Ted Koppel at "Nightline" and Mike Wallace at "60 Minutes."
"My name is Kenneth Kipperman," he writes in the letter he sends everybody. "Lying in government vaults in Washington D.C., I have discovered the actual BODY PARTS of Victims of the Holocaust. These horrible artifacts have been lying in dust in Federal government vaults for over Fifty Two years -- what should we do with them? Should they be put on display at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum or at other Museums for the world to see, or should we have a religious service were [sic] we would have members of all the clergy gather and have these artifacts buried?"
Nobody wants to touch it. Journalists don't want the story, politicians don't want the publicity, museums don't want the artifacts, the Jewish organizations don't want any part of what seems like one man's troubled obsession.
For those who would dismiss Kipperman as a crank, there is evidence. But the question he has raised persists. What should we do with them?
Table of Portents Kipperman says it began when he was 8. He was watching television with his younger brother in a Brooklyn tenement. On-screen, an angry man was shouting in a foreign language. Suddenly his mother and father rushed in and spat at the TV. They said the man was evil, the worst who ever lived. What came on next changed his life, he believes: film of a table guarded by American soldiers as a long line of German civilians passed by. He could sense that there was something awful on that table. But he could not make out exactly what it was.
He learned from his parents that the footage was taken at a liberated concentration camp. It was his first knowledge of the Holocaust.
Born in 1946 in Lodz, Poland, Kipperman had just missed the apocalypse that befell the country's Jews. After the war, he and his family spent more than six years in a displaced persons camp in Italy before moving to the United States and settling in Coney Island. Until that day in 1954, his parents had talked of the war as a great upheaval, but never spoke of their own experiences or the killing of millions of Jews.
The truth shocked him. He became angry at his parents for not telling him. At the Jews for being victims. At God. From then on, he went to synagogue only because his father forced him to. He felt oppressed by secrets. His parents would not discuss the years before his birth, or ever tell him what happened to his baby sister, who died mysteriously during the war.
It all made him feel different, a strange kid in a strange land. On his first day of school, his teacher, unable to pronounce "Chaim," had renamed him "Kenneth." He couldn't read or write. Bullies preyed on him. In response, he took up weightlifting and made himself into a muscled hulk, a tough kid who dreamed of becoming a Hollywood stuntman.
A loner, Ken liked to go to amusement parks and the "freak shows" on Stillwell Avenue. For an extra quarter you could see the most unusual stuff, which was kept behind a curtain. Kipperman always liked to see what was behind the curtain.
As a youth, he moved through a progression of obsessions: the Holocaust, the weights, the stunt work and, finally, art. At Lincoln High, only his art classes interested him, and he eventually was expelled for skipping school. But he rode his artistic talent to a job with the American Banknote Co., a 10-year engraving apprenticeship in which he learned the exacting craft of cutting, by hand, the lines and dots that constitute a design or portrait into steel printing plates.
He got married, then was drafted into the Army. After an honorable discharge, he took a job with the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and eventually entered the elite circle of 16 people responsible for cutting the designs of U.S. stamps and currency. (Kipperman would go on to engrave the image of Alexander Hamilton that appeared last year on the new $10 bill.)
In the 1980s, he became intensely interested in the movement to establish a national Holocaust museum. Every day he passed the chosen site, near the Bureau of Engraving -- a complex of aging red-brick buildings. A debate emerged about the buildings: One side wanted them torn down, while the other wanted them preserved, because they resembled the brickwork of some of the concentration camps. Kipperman sided with the preservationists, but they lost. Demolition took two years and, finally, only the chimney remained. In it, Kipperman saw a potent symbol: the chimneys for the ovens.
On June 17, 1987, on his way into work, he saw a bulldozer chipping at the chimney. "I said, 'Well, Washington is the protest capital of the world. I'm going to try and save the chimney.' So I stopped [the bulldozer operator], I waved at him, I said, 'I'm an artist, Can I draw the inside of the chimney?' "
Using the scoop, the bulldozer operator lifted Kipperman onto the chimney. He promptly refused to get down. The result was a three-hour standoff with police, who feared the lunch bag he carried contained a bomb. The story made the front page of The Post's Metro section:
Md. Man Arrested in Standoff Near Mall
Museum Site Cleared During Bomb Threat
There was no bomb, but he was charged with a felony and faced 20 years in prison. After a day in jail, he held a news conference. "I have been accused of wanting to destroy property when, in fact, I wanted to save property," he said, flanked by his wife and daughter.
He plea-bargained for a suspended sentence, a year's probation, 100 hours of community service and counseling. His psych exam found him open, truthful and non-threatening. The examiner said he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, related to an event he had not experienced directly: the Holocaust.
A month later, an anonymous caller alerted the Bureau of Engraving that a tiny Star of David, invisible to the naked eye, had been hidden in a postage stamp featuring Bernard Revel, founder of New York's Yeshiva University. "I placed a little Star of David on his mustache," Kipperman said later. "It was just a symbolic gesture. He's Jewish, I'm Jewish. No big deal."
It was a huge deal. Millions of stamps had been printed. The story made The Post's front page. Kipperman, already suspended for 30 days without pay for the chimney incident, managed to keep his job, but he was suspended for a year from his engraving desk. Things slowly returned to normal. But he kept tilting at windmills.
The Table, Again In April 1993, Kipperman talked his way into the gala opening of the Holocaust Memorial Museum. Inside, he was overwhelmed by a mural of photographs, each of a Holocaust victim's arm showing an identification number tattooed on the skin. It stirred a deep interest that dated from his childhood, when he saw the numbers on men riding the Brooklyn subways. He roamed the museum, seeking information. How was it done? By whom? With what inks and tools? But the museum had few details.
Kipperman's search for information eventually led him to Robert Wolfe, an expert in captured German war documents at the National Archives. Wolfe gave him a booklet on Auschwitz that mentioned tattooed numbers. It wasn't enough. Kipperman went to the Archives repeatedly, and finally, he said, Wolfe mentioned that the archives had vaults containing a tattooed skin from a lampshade, a shrunken head and human soap.
It was Kipperman's first glimpse behind the government's curtain. He asked Wolfe if he could be "an eyewitness" to the artifacts. "He said, 'Why don't you call me next week?' " Kipperman recalls. "I called him next week. He said, 'Why don't you call me next month.' I called him next month. Then he went on vacation. Then it went on for half a year. Then he told me, 'I don't think it really was human skin. I don't know what it is we have.' "
Wolfe eventually retired. But Kipperman kept calling and writing the Archives, asking to see the artifacts. Finally, on June 23, 1995, a bureaucrat wrote back: "We hold only one of the artifacts that you requested in your letter. It is the 'section of human skin lampshade' labeled 'USA 258.' I decided that you may view that artifact, for no more than 15 minutes."
Kipperman had his 15 minutes with a large tattooed skin from Buchenwald that had served as evidence at Nuremberg. It showed a nude woman flying with butterfly wings. It did not appear to be part of a lampshade, because it was not properly shaped and had no perforations for stitching. He had his picture taken with it.
He still wanted to find the soap and the shrunken head. In September 1996, he contacted the office of the Archives Inspector General, which wrote back that the Archives "was never in possession of a shrunken head or human soap."
Kipperman followed the trail to the Archives II building in College Park. He worked his way through Record Group 153, which contains material on the Nazi war crimes trials and on Buchenwald, the first major concentration camp liberated by the Americans. There were dozens of boxes, full of U.S. Army reports and press clippings. And photographs.
One day he saw a black-and-white photo of a table. "I said to myself, 'Oh, my God, this is what I saw when I was 8 years old.' "
He could finally see the things on the table: the skin in the vault. Body parts, including two shrunken heads. And the object he had heard about for years, the fabled lampshade made from human skin. He made it his mission to find the missing pieces.
The Commandant's Wife In the boxes of documents, he soon found an Army report dated Feb. 19, 1948, on the "Disposition of Articles Taken From Concentration Camps": one shrunken human head, three pieces of tattooed human skin and one bisected human head, "preserved in alcohol in a glass jar, weight about 30 lbs."
Some of the items were shipped out to become exhibits in various war crime trials, but by 1951, according to Army reports, they all wound up at the Army Medical Museum on the Mall, at Ninth and Independence.
Kipperman contacted the museum, now renamed the National Museum of Health and Medicine and relocated to Northwest Washington. He eventually spoke to Paul Sledzik, curator of anatomical collections, who said his records were sketchy but agreed to a meeting. It was mutually beneficial. Kipperman gave Sledzik the Army records, helping him document the provenance of the items in the museum's possession. In turn, Sledzik produced all that he could find for inspection: a bisected head and three tattooed skins. Kipperman had his picture taken with them. But the shrunken head, referred to in Army documents as "Little Willie," was missing.
The search for the lampshade took a different path. It led to Ilse Koch, the "Bitch of Buchenwald," the redheaded wife of the camp commandant. When the Army liberated the camp in 1945, the first reports appeared about Koch's fondness for things made of human skin. It was said that she rode through the camp on a chestnut stallion, eyeing prisoners in search of tattoos. War correspondents described her as a Dresden secretary turned nymphomaniac and sadist. In 1947 she was tried by the United States War Crimes Tribunal in Dachau and received a life sentence.
Kipperman found the trial transcript at the Archives. Interestingly, prosecutors couldn't prove the lampshade allegation. On the stand, Koch testified: "I never heard of any lampshades of that type at that time, and never have seen any."
Prosecutors challenged her with the film of the lampshade on the table, the film Kipperman saw when he was 8. Koch denied that the lampshade had ever belonged to her. But now, 50 years later, Kipperman found evidence that she had lied. He had a still from the film enlarged so that he could see details of the lamp. Then he compared it with another exhibit from Koch's trial, her family photo album. In one of the photographs there is a lamp. It matches exactly the lamp on the table.
In October 1948, Gen. Lucius D. Clay, the U.S. military governor of Germany, commuted Koch's life sentence to four years in prison. He did it, he said, because her trial failed to prove the skin-collecting charge. His action caused an international furor, leading to U.S. Senate hearings and headlines like one Kipperman found from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Ex-Officer Has Human Skin From Ilse Koch's Home.
The article quoted Lorenz Schmuhl, who as a U.S. Army major commanded Buchenwald upon liberation. Schmuhl, the article said, had taken home camp souvenirs and kept them in a glass-covered bookcase in his basement in Michigan City, Ind.: two large tattooed skins, a human-skin book cover and "most pieces of the famous lampshade." Kipperman found a photograph of Schmuhl's souvenir skins that had run in the Indianapolis Star in 1949. The picture was blurry, but the skins, sectioned into trapezoids, appeared to have holes along the edges, as if they had been strung together around the frame of a lampshade. He found another picture showing the top of the lampshade on the table at Buchenwald. He could see two oddly cut corner pieces that clearly matched two of Schmuhl's souvenirs.
The German court retried Koch on new charges in 1951 and sentenced her to life in prison for inciting murder, but also "expressed no doubt that skin lampshades had been made." Holocaust deniers have seized on the missing lampshade, citing it as "proof" that the Holocaust never occurred.
Rooting through the boxes, Kipperman discovered an old newspaper clipping quoting Schmuhl saying the lampshade skin "was later sold to a collector but he has since gotten rid of it. He found he couldn't stand looking at it."
Going Public In 1997, Kipperman began trying to publicize the existence of the artifacts. His goal was to prompt a congressional investigation that would turn the archives inside out to find the missing items. He contacted CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, even C-SPAN and the Discovery Channel. Only Channel 5, the local Fox station, ran the story. They did a 3-minute 51-second segment, including a brief interview with Kipperman saying, "This is physical evidence that we have in Washington, D.C., and should not be lying in a vault collecting dust for 50 years." He said he wanted the skins displayed in the Holocaust Museum and the heads buried after a ceremony.
There was a brief rebuttal from Michael Berenbaum of the museum saying, "Making lampshades out of human skin is another manifestation of evil. To see it in reality runs the risk of almost being pornographic. . . . it's such a human violation that we didn't want to have to do it in that way. We also wouldn't display a corpse . . .. because that corpse should be displayed with appropriate respect, which is burial."
The publicity came and went in a flash.
Kipperman contacted everybody from the National Enquirer to the New Yorker. The New York Post and Jewish Forward ran short articles. A rabbi told the Forward that the remains should be buried: "This is an issue of respect for the dead."
Kipperman got a much longer article published in Tattoo Revue magazine, complete with photographs: "The Tattooed Skins of Buchenwald, Hidden Horror of the Holocaust." It looked decidedly low-rent. And nobody noticed.
From Jewish leaders and organizations, he got the polite brushoff. "I believe only the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum can handle this matter," Elie Wiesel wrote him on Nov. 8, 1999. "Other than send your materials to them -- I don't know what to do."
The next month the museum informed Kipperman that it had decided not to pursue the artifacts. "However, I admire your knowledge and dedication, and I wish you well in your efforts to find another organization or institution that will be able to aid you in your efforts to preserve the artifacts," wrote Paul E. Thomas, the museum's copyright lawyer.
This angered him. All these people saying, Never Forget, Never Forget, and nobody wants to remember the worst part of it, nobody wants to pull it into the light and really look at it, so nobody will ever forget.
The Interview Eventually, Ken Kipperman finds his way to me at The Washington Post. One day a large, padded manila envelope arrives bearing his photographs and his letter. When I show the pictures to colleagues, hardened reporters, they blanch. But for me, his search has its own fascination. Is he a quixotic figure on a lonely personal quest? Or is he just a misguided soul?
I agree to meet him for an interview. As the hours tick by, he tells me everything, about Ilse Koch and Lorenz Schmuhl and the Holocaust Museum and the Star of David. Then he tells me about his earliest memory.
He was a young boy at the displaced persons camp in Italy. "We had quite a few people in the camp itself, and my parents, my mother, never told me there were certain people you had to be careful being near. Apparently, there were two young men who were predators and -- what they did -- they were involved in sexual molestation of children. I was a victim. I want that to be known."
He chokes up.
"About seven or eight years ago, my mother found out I was doing research on the Holocaust. She was very shocked. My mother to this day believes that the Nazis are going to be coming to the house. She says, you have to be very careful. She still believes that the war isn't over. So my mother says to me, why are you doing research on the Holocaust? There are books on the Holocaust, there are films on the Holocaust, the whole world knows about the Holocaust. Why are you doing research on this topic? I said, 'Because you never spoke to us about it.' "
I have a long talk with his brother. "When he first raised the issue, I thought it was interesting. When I saw the article [in the tattoo magazine] I thought it was fascinating." But Michael Kipperman was eventually worn down by his brother's intensity. Now, he says, "I have no interest in the topic." But he added, "He's a good brother. He's a wonderful guy. He's an artist. But he sees things differently than I do. And probably other people, too."
I talk to Ken's wife, Paula, who is also a child of Holocaust survivors. Though she thinks he's raising valid issues, she finds it a hard subject to live with. The research, she said, has consumed thousands of dollars and taken priority over everything else in her husband's life. "I really resented him for starting this. It's very, very painful for me. I don't want him to talk to me about it."
I talk to Robert Wolfe, the archivist whose words launched Kipperman on his search years ago. "He wanted more from me than any archivist could give, and that's drawing a conclusion," he said.
Still, Wolfe insists that pieces of the lampshade are at the Archives. "The lampshade I certainly saw," said Wolfe, now 80. "Four pieces. They were shaped in a trapezoid form." Wolfe said he saw them 10 to 15 years ago at the main Archives.
Wolfe said a question remains about whether the lampshade is actually made of human skin. Gen. Clay said in interviews long after the war that it was goatskin. "As far as I can see," Wolfe said, "that leaves it up in the air and there's only one way to find out. Have an expert look at it. I never got around to it."
I call the Archives. Tim Nenninger, Wolfe's replacement, consults his file labeled "Kipperman" and finds a photograph of the skin with the winged woman that Kipperman posed with in 1995. Someone has attached a note: "This is the only one we have." Nenninger says the museum does not have the lampshade. His explanation: "With the passage of time, I think staff members associated seeing photographs of the things with actually seeing the things themselves."
The Museum A few months after our lunch, Kipperman invites me to go with him to the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Paul Sledzik has found something new to show him. In the taxi he retells his story as if I had never heard it.
Our cab pulls up to a low-slung government building on the grounds of Walter Reed Hospital. The museum, established in 1862, is home to some of the strangest things in the government's possession: a preserved and blackened smoker's lung, seven small bone fragments from Abraham Lincoln's skull, hairballs that had to be surgically removed from human stomachs, the massively swollen leg of an elephantiasis sufferer. These things, called the museum's "icon pieces," are displayed in the exhibit room. The Holocaust objects are not. They require a specially arranged viewing.
We wait in the lobby until Sledzik arrives, earnest-looking and friendly. With him are two people from media relations. They swiftly take us into a back room where, on top of a table, surrounded by banks of blue cabinets, is a human head attached to a pedestal. It has been preserved with wax.
It's not the right head, Ken Kipperman says immediately.
He is looking for a bisected head from Buchenwald preserved in formaldehyde in a glass box. He found a photograph of it at the National Archives. He shows us the photograph.
"I know this collection," Sledzik says patiently. "I've been here 14 years. There's nothing like that, in fluid, in our collection."
But Sledzik is about to provide us with an answer.
A hush falls over us. The room is antiseptic. I notice the orange carpet. Sledzik hands us a report he wrote on the "specimens" in the collection. "A lot of this information, Ken provided us," he says. The report addresses the mystery of the bisected head, but it adds another mystery. The head before us is AFIP 207851. But it turns out that the museum found two heads with the same number. So Sledzik in his report calls the one before us 207851B. The second head, not yet before us, is 207851A.
The museum can find no records that explain where either of the heads came from.
Sledzik's report notes that Kipperman has found film of what appears to be the second head. "This footage is from Buchenwald," the report states. That is the head in the fluid, the one Kipperman has the picture of from the Archives; Sledzik speculates that it was taken out of the formaldehyde at some point, preserved in wax and labeled 207851A.
Now we are about to see it.
At this point, Kipperman starts retelling the story of his research, as if it were his stump speech ("I feel like I'm a guardian of these objects"), and after a while I interrupt. "Ken, why don't we let these people show us what they have?"
Sledzik unlocks Cabinet 20, right next to the table we have been crowded around. Inside is a climate-controlled chamber with a digital readout registering 72.1 degrees Fahrenheit and a tray bearing five tattooed skins and 207851A. Three of the skins Kipperman saw when he first came to the museum. Two are new ones the museum people -- spurred by Kipperman's questions -- have just located in a manila file folder.
I can see that this second head, 207851A, is bisected, cut in half down the middle. It is far more human-looking than its companion head. It has a thin layer of hair on top and brain tissue preserved in the skull. As Sledzik removes it from the cabinet, I detect a faint organic smell.
Kipperman continues his story, about Buchenwald and Ilse Koch. He shows the museum people his photos.
207851A is waxy-looking. When Sledzik turns the head toward me I see half a human face, and it hits me what this is. The room feels very quiet, and the media relations people appear to be leaning toward me. I look back at the face. It has a glass eye. The eyelid is open, suspended in wax, as if the man was caught in an ice storm and froze to death.
Kipperman is going on about Maj. Lorenz Schmuhl.
I have seen enough.
I look around the room. Chairs are stacked on top of each other. There is a picture of a skull and a poster announcing the Fifth National Art Exhibition by the Mentally Ill. There are giant rolls of bubble wrap lying around.
I shift onto more familiar territory. I ask Sledzik what he thinks of Kipperman's questions.
"The impact of his inquiries to us is major," he says. "It's good for us, because Ken provided a lot of information on our pieces that we didn't know existed."
I ask him what he thinks ought to be done with the specimens. He looks slightly uncomfortable.
"I think that's an issue that's much bigger than we are as an institution," he says. "I don't think we should have the final say on that, or even the beginning say."
He puts the head back in the cabinet and locks it up.