Saturday, November 2, 2013

Ebay Removes Holocaust "Memorabilia" From Its Website. Why Do They Continue to Sell Artifacts Related to the Enslavement of Black Americans?

Online auction site eBay is facing an international storm of outrage after it was revealed to be profiting from the repulsive trade in Holocaust memorabilia.
Items for sale include the clothes of concentration camp victims. Among dozens of sick souvenirs on offer last week was a striped uniform thought to have belonged to a Polish baker who died in Auschwitz, which was on sale for £11,200.
It was one of dozens of offensive items uncovered by a Mail on Sunday investigation. And within hours of being alerted to the item by this newspaper, eBay removed it from sale after conducting an ‘urgent investigation’.
The internet giant apologised and vowed to give £25,000 to a suitable charity, before removing more than 30 other death camp souvenirs which it said had evaded its strict vetting process.
eBay, the world’s largest online marketplace, admitted it had no idea how long it has been helping sell items linked to genocide, but one Nazi memorabilia dealer boasted of selling an Auschwitz victim’s uniform for thousands of pounds on the site last year.
The company receives a commission on items sold, as well as charging a listing fee.
Who owns history? This question is philosophical: how are all human beings part of a larger global family? The question of "ownership" and "history" is also practical: are there some objects which are so sacred and personal to a particular group's experience(s) that only its members should own such items?

Apparently, eBay has decided that "memorabilia" related to the Jewish Holocaust--and which eBay sells for profit--violate norms of good taste and the site's rules regarding how it will not profit from genocide.

The Daily Mail has spearheaded an effort to pressure Ebay to remove items such as:
A pair of shoes belonging to a death camp victim advertised for £940. 
Yellow Star of David armbands singling out Jews for persecution. 
A Holocaust victim’s battered suitcase priced at £492. 
A £145 ‘concentration camp toothbrush’. 
Meanwhile, other sites were offering gas chamber ‘handles’ adorned with swastikas from Dachau concentration camp in Germany.
The most offensive item on eBay was a complete Auschwitz prisoner uniform, including striped shirt, trousers, cap and wooden shoes, with the seller including an armband from Dachau along with the sale.  
The item was accompanied by a haunting image of a pile of garments from camp victims.
The seller, Viktor Kempf, a Ukranian now living in Vancouver, Canada, claimed the uniform once belonged to a ‘Wolf Gierson Grundmann’ whose serial number ‘9489’ is stitched to the breast of his shirt. Mr Grundmann’s name can be found on a database of concentration camp victims held by the Yad Vashem centre for Holocaust research in Jerusalem. 
It says Mr Grundmann was born in 1912 and lists his occupation as ‘baker’.
On We Are Respectable Negroes, we have discussed how eBay provides a space for selling artifacts related to the chattel slavery of Black Americans. Our original plan was to purchase some of the chains, slave tags, and other physical artifacts related to the Black Holocaust. Such an effort was more complicated than I had imagined at the time.

Public pressure has forced eBay to pull items related to the Jewish Holocaust. I wonder if similar means could be used to compel eBay to remove artifacts related to the enslavement of Black Americans?

The Jewish Holocaust was a crime against humanity; there are many people, in the United States and elsewhere--black, white, and other--who will not acknowledge that the many millions killed by the Middle Passage and centuries of slavery across the Black Atlantic also constitutes one of history's great crimes.

Some of them are ignorant. Others are ashamed that their people were held as slaves--thus, to acknowledge such a crime, brings even more embarrassment and denial. And there are many individuals who are so wrapped up in the socio-political-historical knot that is white victimology, white privilege, white racism, and American Exceptionalism that to admit to the particular and special crime which was committed against black people in this country, is a personal affront, one tied to a sense of racial supremacy and a mistaken belief in the inherently benign nature of Whiteness.

Consequently, an "I take responsibility for my connection to this history in the present", and/or "black enslavement in the United States was a crime against humanity", are simply impossible statements for some people to utter, accept, and own.

eBay can sell the sacred objects of black Americans because the latter's enslavement in the Americas was (apparently) not a real crime. eBay should remove those items related to the Jewish Holocaust because to sell them is distasteful.

It would seem that racism and shame are great aids for reconciling what should be contradictory statements, that together, ought to generate a state of profound cognitive dissonance in the psyches of reasonable and moral human beings. 


Bryan Ortez said...

wow. this gives me quite a bit to think about this morning.

First of all, who should own these artifacts of history and who should gain profit off of them? I wonder if the sellers of these items of American slavery are the inheritors of this misfortune. I can't tell you how often my white friends will mention their 'old family farm' of hundreds of acres which their parents gained as an inheritance.

It also spawns thought of the UN resolution to create Israel. The notion that these to national identities would not be able to live side by side, an old American tradition.

Liberia also comes to mind, and their troubled history of bringing 'civilization' into a wild untamed landscape (and people).

Discussions of slavery are difficult.

To make a cheap investment in history provides a very poor return in knowledge of said history. We make American history pretty cheap in public schools, especially in relation to American slavery. The ignorance, shame, fear, and denial surrounding conversations of American history I think are the result of this cheap investment.

You cannot have a solid discussion about slavery without committing various forms of degradation on black and brown bodies. I think this is a difficult pill to swallow which may rather be ignored by large populations of all persuasions. Whites also want to know that they have some form of redemption in the narrative. So the central narrative that takes place leaves whites with a feeling of accomplishment, overcoming their enslavement and others, and tries to neutralize, like an antiseptic, the pain from the various ideologies of white supremacism and the actions to enforce those ideologies.

Learning is Eternal said...

I'll just ride the wave on this one. Great response to a great post. As you were.

Bryan Ortez said...


i thought it was an okay response. I am really digging Chauncy Devegas blog here. I love his observations which give me some challenging reflections.

I also like your user name on here. Learning really is eternal.

OldPolarBear said...

I learn so much from this blog. This was another thing I really wasn't aware of (I guess I was vaguely aware of the existence of Nazi/Holocaust items), and in a way I can say I would have happily remained ignorant. But I am, in fact, glad that CDV brings these things to our attention.

One thing I thought of was that maybe such things could be made illegal or very regulated to own, so that only bona fide museums, etc., could own or display them. There are restrictions on some kinds of cultural artifacts, art, etc. If not illegal to own, at least regulate trading in them. I suppose that would be objected to because FREEDOM!!!!

If Ebay won't budge, maybe Anonymous or some suchlike tech geeks (I am definitely not one) could hack into Ebay and get the real identities of some of the sellers, publish the information and publicly shame them.

chauncey devega said...

how kind. just trying to share interesting things that come along. i don't know if any item should be illegal--that is a violation of free speech among other things. but, eBay is a private business and are free to set their own policies. I just wonder why some objects are unacceptable and others okay.

OldPolarBear said...

Yes, you are right; I was thinking about the 1st Amendment, which is why the part about freedom was a little sarcastic. Still, I meant it half-seriously. There are things, like archaeological artifacts, whose trade is at least regulated, if not banned. but most outright bans on trade have to do with endangered animals, not things.

Private pressure and shaming would probably be preferable to government sanction. I don't know how much pushback Ebay has had in this area. When I first started reading, I thought you were talking about racist household bric-a-brac, pottery and tchotchkes and suchlike. Ebay has plenty of that, too.

DanF said...

I can actually understand where a black American might want to own a slavery artifact just as a holocaust descendant might want to own a piece of that horrific event. I think humans are wired to have powerful tactile emotions. Holding the shackles and feeling their weight and how they cut into your skin as opposed to seeing it hang on the wall. Putting the arm band on your own arm, knowing it could easily have been you. Powerful stuff.

I also think these artifacts should be in more museums and depicted in ways that show their full brutality and oppressive nature. That requires more than just an item sitting on a shelf.

I'm completely gobsmacked at crap like this though:

Who invented the term "Black Americana"? Is this type of thing collected by African Americans? Or just wanna be plantation owners?

chauncey devega said...

i hear you. One of the artifacts I would like to own would be a pair slave manacles or a slave tag. That would be powerful history, something real. Based on the far from scientific survey of posts and comments on the subject I think most are objects sought out by white racists. Have you ever seen the "notions" sold at fairs and swap meets--racist memorabilia, etc.?

I have. Enraging.

chauncey devega said...

I may have overlooked it. I get notifications for all the comments.

Bryan Ortez said...

I also thought that many of these items would do far more good to be in museums as well as college campuses, and even public schools. It would be great if our county had a collection of historic artifacts that social studies teachers can borrow for lessons and such.

I have actually been to a flea market and seen a table full of these "Black Americana" items. I was a little shocked to see it sitting there. Recently though I looked up some items on eBay to prove a point with a conservative in an online argument. I told him this stuff still sells and he shrugged it off and said it wasn't that offensive and probably not common. I sent him a whole page of eBay listings.

However, it also reminds me of a scene from Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. An old black couple are getting evicted from their apartment in the middle of winter and there is a crowd of people watching as the sheriffs department throws out all of their stuff. The protagonist notices some of the 'black Americana' items and immediately feels a sense of shame and revulsion, but then turns that into compassion for these two poor souls who are getting thrown out onto the street. It was a pretty powerful scene in what became one of my favorite novels.

Jason Evan Mihalko, Psy.D. said...

I remember about ten years ago stumbling into a store in Kentucky, owned by a person of color, that sold items like manacles and tags. It was an overwhelming and powerful experience to be so close to something that for me, a white man, seems as remote as anything else I might read about in a history text book. I must have just stood there for 20 minutes looking silently. I don't even know if I moved. The owner of the store ended up standing next to me silently as well. The distant was no longer distant for me. Slavery was a tangible experience through those manacles that someone once was forced to wear -- and strangely (or not) the oppression our country engaged in became even more incomprehensible for me.

I thought about buying the manacles. I thought about touching them and holding them. I ended up doing neither. It didn't feel like they were mine to touch or own. It felt like it would have been a violation to have done either.

15 years later I'm still thinking about that store and experience. I guess this is all just a long winded way of saying, as others have, that I can see the complicated ways in which items from the Holocaust or Slavery plantations might be powerful items/tools for people to make deep and transformative connections to a distant past. I also worry, and believe, that very few people would actually respect these objects for what they are: a piece of a human being that was discarded that should be honored, revered, and remembered.

chauncey devega said...

I would want to touch and hold those sacred objects. I would also like to have them in my home. But, do I have with wisdom too? And they are all of our shared legacy; but simultaneously, some more than others.

Hell of a puzzle.