I love it when people die. Specifically when the dead guy was an ornery old bastard whose family hated him, because those guys own the best shit, and I want to get my hands on it.
I realized this when I was living in Cologne, Germany, and noticed the inordinate amount of flea markets in the city. In every hamlet or village, you'll find that Germans are very serious about their weekly Flohmärkte, which are markedly different from the ones you might find in North America. At the Brooklyn Flea in NYC or Junction Flea in Toronto, you're more likely to find original jewelry designers or indie fashion labels than you are unique antiques or vintage bric-a-brac. Sure, you can find typewriters, but they'll charge you $500 for an ugly 1979 Corona with no platen or spools and missing keys. At the German flea markets, there are virtually no hipster entrepreneurs trying to sell you peacock earrings, and the typewriters cost only $13. All the vendors are greasy, old curmudgeons with snaggleteeth who smell like Eau de Czech Republic. It is the smell of paydirt. Their foulness informs me that I have come to the right place.
I got to know one such vendor from Düsseldorf named Winnie who, like almost all flea market vendors, also worked as an estate liquidator. These are the people hired by families to remove all belongings and furnishing from a deceased person's home in order to sell the property. Winnie told me that happy families will keep all the good shit like Davenports, credenzas, love letters, and sentimental photo albums, but unhappy families will just want to get rid of the entire lot. And included in Winnie's fee is the right to do what he wishes with the belongings. Once he's sold all the big items like refrigerators and Chesterfields on eBay, he hawks the smaller stuff, like china tea sets and old radios, at the flea market.
What that means for sickos like me is that I get to buy the weird shit that these people kept secret in their hidden drawers for years. Shut-ins, hoarders, agoraphobics, sex offenders, and Nazis are rare and special finds, and without fail, my brain gets off when I discover them.
There was the postcard dated January 30, 1933, the day the Nazi party came into power. It depicted the propaganda march that was held under the Brandenburg Gate, and featured a stamp with both Hitler and Hindenburg in profile. The caption was the first line from Germany's national anthem, "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles," which is no longer sung upon pain of criminal prosecution.
Then there was the postcard from the 1938 Third Reich Party Conference in Nuremberg, signed "Heil Hitler" on the back, which came with a sheet of perforated stamps featuring Adolf in profile. The caption read, "He who wants to save the people must think heroically."
When I moved to Berlin, my favorite flea market was held at Rathaus Schöneberg, where I bought several wallet-size photographs from someone's personal family album. One featured a Nazi propaganda parade. In it, you can clearly see swastika flags hanging from the buildings and bunting, and spectators are Sieg Heiling as the soldiers parade through the village. Another photograph clearly features low-level officers saluting in line, shovels by their sides. What they were digging with those shovels, one need not imagine.
Another photograph showed a family of children waving hello from a window, the swastika flag clearly visible beside them. The photograph was dated March 1933, only two months after the Nazi Party came to power, so you can see just how quickly that propaganda took hold of the city. Buying these items from Rathaus Schöneberg struck me as rather ironic, as this is where John F. Kennedy gave his famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech.
There were endless hardcover first-edition copies of Mein Kampf strewn about the vendors' tables. There was the SS typewriter that was manufactured with a special key featuring the SS symbol. There were Third Reich medals of honor, and I once even found an entire Wehrmacht uniform in pristine condition for sale.
Oddly, to sell or purchase Nazi memorabilia in Germany is not illegal, but displaying the swastika is—so most of these items were buried at the bottom of the boxes, forcing me to dig. In some cases, the swastika was covered with a small sticker.
The vendors at the flea markets at Rathaus Schöneberg, Boxhagener Platz, and Ferhberlinner Platz in Berlin all began to recognize me after a while: that weird Canadian who bought the Nazi stuff. They couldn't understand my fascination; after all, they were used to seeing this shit. Most Germans have parents or grandparents who fought in the war or supported the Nazis. In many German households, it would be easy to find this stuff buried in a drawer.
Everything in the 1930s had to carry a Nazi stamp, from birth certificates to driver's licenses to teaching permits. They all bore the eagle gripping the swastika. What they don't understand is that, for Canadians, this is not something we ever see. When we learn about World War II and the Holocaust in school, it is always something that happened on the other side of the planet a million years ago. We never see swastikas or Hitler stamps. So when a Canadian gets the chance to stand in the place where books were burned, where war was declared, and to hold a relic from one of the most frightening eras of modern times, it grips us with an undeniable power. For me, these items are dark, disturbing, mysterious, haunting, and impossible to ignore.
For balance, and for my own sanity, I have also bought many photographs and love letters from those who survived Nazi atrocities. At a Brussels flea market, I bought a dirty and terribly yellowed letter written during the occupation of Belgium. As I read it, I translated it from the original French in my head:
My dear little cousin. We still haven't heard news from you. You must know we are worried. We have done nothing but think of you since the invasion of Belgium. I hope you're no longer in Brussels. You are no doubt a refugee in Ypres. If you could come to Saumur, we could mutually comfort each other… Belgian refugee trains arrive daily and more than once we have had tears in our eyes to see them… Oh, how victory will be beautiful; Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, England, and France are fighting for peace and annihilating Germany… We hope this day arrives quickly, we pray with fervor that the Good Lord will not remain insensible.
Why would such an historical and personal letter be for sale at a flea market for a measly euro, let alone be dumped without care at the bottom of the box, soaked with rainwater and doused in dirt? I assumed that when the recipient of this letter died, he was probably not on good terms with his family, and they had no desire to keep anything of his that remained. Who was this person? How did he survive the war? Whom did he love? Why was he hated in death?
There's no way to know. So I have framed all of these family photographs and letters and I hang them on the wall of my bedroom. These people took such great care to fashion these letters and keep these memories, so I figure somebody ought to remember them. I may be the last person on earth to appreciate these lost moments in time. So yes, I don't know who they are, and I never will, but that can't stop me from collecting their stories.
As for my Nazi items, I keep those tucked away in a drawer where I hope they will remain until an estate liquidator smelling of mud and BO comes into my room and wonders what kind of person I was.
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