Sam McManis

Discoveries: Hitler memorabilia in Orange County

Some people are larger than life. Hitler is larger than death.

– Don DeLillo, novelist

The passenger-side door was swung wide open, the front seat flipped up. So inviting. Sure, the sign said “Please Do Not Touch” but, really, what would it hurt if I briefly – just for a few seconds, honest – hopped into Adolf Hitler’s Mercedes-Benz and stood where the Führer once did to greet crowds on the streets of Berlin?

Fleeting though the thought was, the urge to insert myself into a slice of World War II history was strong. Something about Hitler, even after all these years, brings out the curious in people.

As a respectful museumgoer, of course, I refrained from acting on my impulse and contented myself with merely gazing upon the G4 touring wagon, one of three the Nazi leader used for parades and to address the troops before the vehicles were seized by the French army at Hitler’s mountain retreat at Berchtesgaden. So while I ogled the original black leather upholstery, the bullet-proof windshield and side windows as well as the numerous pistol holders (what, no cup holders?) in the Benz, several questions buzzed around my neocortical region.

Among them:

• What is Hitler’s car doing at an aviation museum at the John Wayne Airport in Orange County?

• What is the enduring, macabre fascination with Hitler ephemera, the bidding on everything from his toothbrush to mustache trimmer reaching six or seven figures?

• Are we unintentionally glorifying a horrific era in history by fetishizing these items, or is soberly noting them as totems of evil a way of never forgetting?

The first question, naturally, is the easiest to answer.

All I had to do was chat up Herb Guiness, the docent on duty at the Lyon Air Museum. It seems that in addition to being an aviation collector, Gen. William Lyon – later to make billions as a Southern California home builder – had a thing for vintage automobiles, too. Couple that with his fascination with military history and, voilà, Hitler’s touring car stands next to bombers such as the Douglas A-26 “Invader” and Boeing B-17 “Flying Fortress” in a hangar across the runway from the airport terminal.

Guiness wasn’t sure what Lyon paid for Hitler’s wagon – high six or low seven figures, probably – but he did know that it was one of three Hitler routinely rode in from 1939 onward.

“The other two were sold and are in Russia,” Guiness said. “The interesting thing about the car is, when (Lyon) got it, the tires were all torn up. These were special bulletproof tires, and General Lyon wanted to restore the car just the way it was built. Well, it turns out, the only maker of these bulletproof tires he could find was a company in Israel.

“I bet Hitler’d be turning in his grave if he knew that.”

Guiness, 92 and a former World War II bomber pilot, proceeded to tell me stories of the airplanes that dominate the museum. Great stuff. Fascinating. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the Benz in the corner and the trove of Hitlernalia on display at museums and private collections around the world.

In the United States alone, you can visit Hitler’s toilet in Florence, N.J., Hitler’s silver tea service in Anniston, Ala., Hitler’s telephone in Fort Gordon, Ga., and the bathroom mirror from Hitler’s Berlin bunker at the 45th Infantry Division Museum in Oklahoma City.

In fact, the Oklahoma City venue boasts, according to museum historian A. Michael Beckett, the world’s largest collection of items once owned by Hitler on public display. The museum has a cape worn by the Führer, another tea service, fine china engraved with “AH” and a box holding foreign editions of “Mein Kampf.”

Beckett emphasized “public display,” because Hitler and Nazi mementos apparently abound among private collectors.

“A guy in Houston just sold on eBay for several hundred thousand dollars a pen and pencil set of Hitler’s that he used to sign documents,” Beckett said. “He offered it to us for a million dollars. We don’t have that kind of money. But, oh, my gosh, yes, it’s huge. Hitler-owned items, if you can prove it, is very profitable.”

Might that be the answer to my question about people’s motivation?

Not that simple. Some organizations purchase Hitler items to preserve history and provide access to scholars. The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, for instance, in 2011 acquired what many believe is the original copy of the Gemlich Letter, the first record of Hitler’s anti-Semitism. It is on display at the center’s Museum of Tolerance.

Yet, that same year, when a Munich auction house sought to sell off a cache of Hitler’s personal effects, including his reading glasses, a diamond-encrusted Hitler Youth Badge, and a monogrammed silver cigarette case, public outcry led to the sale being canceled. Jon Benjamin, former CEO of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, told the London Express the “collection of memorabilia” about Hitler “needs to be a balance between honest historical inquiry and a sensitivity that avoids the glorification of the Nazis and their barbaric actions.”

Adam Cleveland, who works at the Berman Museum of World History, in Alabama, which houses the Hitler tea service as well as items once owned by Nazi officials Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler, said the museum’s namesake, Farley Berman, who was Jewish and served in World War II, “saw it as a spoils of war thing. For people like Colonel Berman, they don’t want to forget the savagery the Nazi party brought upon the world.”

Cleveland adds, though, that some are drawn to the museum “for the same reason they turn their neck and look at a car accident. They are just drawn to anything Hitler.”

At the 45th Infantry Division Museum, Beckett said, all World War II items were donated by veterans. Hitler’s mirror, for instance, came from Lt. Col. Horace Calvert, an Oklahoma City native, who, the story has it, was the first American to join Russian troops when they stormed Hitler’s bunker after he killed himself.

“There’s a photograph of Calvert (at the bunker) holding the mirror in his right hand and a tiny mirror in his left,” Beckett said. “I went into the archives and found that the smaller mirror was one he found in Eva Braun’s room. No one knows what happened to that mirror.”

Beckett said the museum display is tasteful and presents proper historical context, lest “we worry that neo-Nazis will turn it into a pilgrimage. We don’t want that.”

But in Florence, N.J., 12 miles south of Trenton, auto repair shop owner Greg Kohfeldt, who boasts the toilet seat salvaged from Hitler’s yacht, the Aviso Grille, says owning a piece of the Führer’s possessions is mere happenstance. (He got it when he bought the business 19 years ago. How the previous owner acquired the throne is too long a story to delve into here.)

“Right now, it’s just sitting here on the floor,” Kohfeldt said by phone. “People still stop by and take a look. They can’t use the toilet anymore, because I took it out. But people love it. We had a TV crew from London a couple of weeks ago.”

Road trip to Jersey, anyone?