(March 19, 2014 / JNS)
San Diego militaria expert Craig Gottlieb recently got his hands on what he says would have been on his “most wanted” list had he even thought it existed a few years ago: the Italian passport used by one of World War II’s most notorious criminals, Joseph Mengele.
“The provenance of a thing like this seems irrefutable,” he says of the finding, his latest in a string of artifacts from World War II that he buys and sells out of his warehouse in Solana Beach, Calif.
“When you look at it, it looks pretty real, but it’s a fake ID, [so] everything about it is that much harder to authenticate because of that,” says Gottlieb, who runs a website called “History Hunter” and appears regularly on the History Channel series “Pawn Stars.”
The passport was issued to Gregor Hellmuth, one of many aliases Mengele is purported to have used after leaving Germany for Argentina. The photo is none other than the “Angel of Death” himself, yet all other documentation seems to be falsified, down to the date of issue.
“It’s issued in 1947, and we know Mengele didn’t escape until 1949,” Gottlieb says. “He wasn’t in Italy [then], so it’s backdated. It’s got a fake name on it. It is a false identity document, almost certainly not issued by the Italian Government to Mengele, but produced on the black market for him by altering another original passport. That’s why looking at the photograph is important, its why looking at the paper is important, and why looking at the ink is important, to determine if the passport is a product of the 1950s, or a modern forgery.”
In addition to examining the passport himself, Gottlieb has enlisted the help of several museums. In February, the passport, along with signed affidavits and photographs of the previous owner, Elsa Havarich (Mengele’s personal secretary in Argentina), turning over the documents—was sent to a museum on the east coast for assistance with the project. Gottlieb says it would be “the shock of his career” if the passport turns out to be a modern forgery.
“Everything points to it actually being a passport that he carried with him and got [into Argentina] with… But why did he have this?” he asks. “Was it made in 1952 because he needed a cancelled passport in his file to show someone for a visa? Did he really get this in 1947 or 1953, and was the immigration stamp a forgery? There are so many unanswered questions, so it’s a process, and the important thing about this work [is that we get to ask] those questions.”
Gottlieb’s work has made headlines in the past. In 2011, he sold Adolf Hitler’s desk set, on which the Nazi leader signed the Munich Pact. At one time, he sold one-of-a-kind portraits of Klara and Alois Hitler, parents of Adolf. Nazi military uniforms, iron crosses, swastika flags, and German military propaganda line the walls of his warehouse. But the Jewish-born Gottlieb says dealing in what some may call the macabre, dark past of the Holocaust is an important part of our shared history.
“Most people don’t understand the importance of Nazi artifacts, but for me, part of the excitement of dealing with these things on a daily basis is that it connects me to the history of the Holocaust,” he says.
Gottlieb says he was raised a “gastronomical Jew.” His father, a World War II veteran, was born to parents who emigrated from Russia around the turn of the century. His mother was raised Protestant but converted to Judaism after marrying his father. The family celebrated “the major holidays, but it wasn’t an intense thing for any of us.”
Yet Gottlieb says he and his siblings were aware of their Jewish roots, and never shied away from their personal history. Today, he makes a living dealing in military artifacts from all over the world, but is known for his expertise in, and fascination with, World War II. He says this work has deepened his connection to his past.
“My religious roots have grown by doing what I do, and I didn’t expect that,” he says. “What was previously just a part of my past is something that I connect to now.
Gottlieb’s love of all things military began at a young age, when his father gifted him a bayonet. He still has that bayonet, among others in his warehouse that is filled to the brim with military items from all over the world. He runs an online auction company, Craig Gottlieb Militaria Auctions, where he deals in military antiques and firearms, and has written four books based on these items.
“I am a big believer in the power of an artifact,” he says. “The power of an artifact to instruct us or teach us about history is bigger than the power that one experiences by going through a museum, reading a book or watching a documentary, because all of those things are laden with a bias. As great as museums are, they are curated, and the experience is designed and presented. … [But] when you hold a significant piece of history in your hands, as a human being, you can make a very first-person connection to that period or that event or person in a way that you can’t by just walking through a museum or reading a book.”
But there are questions that come with housing a warehouse full of Nazi memorabilia. Even more questions arise when someone wants to buy or sell these items, though Gottlieb says he has almost never had a problem with any of his clients—many of whom are history buffs or people looking for information about their family history. While he does deal in “collector common” items, sometimes the personal affects of war’s most notorious criminals are the most fascinating. He says it’s a way to look at the cause, rather than the effect, of something as horrifying as the Holocaust.
“It’s the transition from good to evil that is really important,” he says. “We should remember what Mengele did, and remember what Hitler did, but it’s so much more important to grab a hold of these artifacts and really start to think about who they were and how they got to that point.”
Not all people recognize the significance of these pieces, however. Years ago, when he sold some of Hitler’s personal family portraits, Gottlieb says he offered part of his commission from their sale to a museum, which refused the donation on the grounds that dealing in those items would “humanize Hitler.”
“It’s wrong to refuse to look at a particular side of someone because you don’t think it’s right. So it’s a bias against looking at the whole picture—and it’s not looking at the ‘good’ in Hitler, it’s looking at his early life, looking at baby pictures to see who he was before he became what we all know him to be,” he says.
For Gottlieb, the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich is much more important than the fall because we can look at the events that led up to the Holocaust and use that knowledge to inform future generations.
“There is a disconnect in the Jewish community, and I think in the Holocaust community as well, that does a disservice to the concept that we can really learn from these artifacts and that they are very important,” he says. “All [most people] look at is the effect. We don’t look at the cause, and I think that’s what’s missing in our education as people and as Jews is the context.”
Gottlieb says looking to the past also has the power to inform us about how much the world has changed.
“If you compare what Mengele was able to do, which was to escape justice for 30 years under the nose of just about everyone, to today… technology has solved that problem. Because today, two kids can walk into the Boston Marathon with bombs in their backpacks and thanks to video surveillance and Facebook, we were able to find them not even three days after the event,” he says.
While our world has changed, it is important to remember that people have not, according to Gottlieb, who likes to say that we are “a generation away from anything.”
“The Germans didn’t invent genocide; the word was used after World War II to describe what the Germans did, but it’s been happening for thousands of years, and it can happen again,” he says.
Although Gottlieb has gotten myriad offers to buy the Mengele passport since news of its discovery broke, he hopes to donate it to a museum so that its power—to inform people about the past—can be felt by the general public for years to come.
This article first appeared in the San Diego Jewish Journal.