A Swiss-Lebanese business tycoon purchased items that once belonged to Adolf Hitler to get them off the market. He told DW that it was a spontaneous decision — and it is inspiring him to do more.
Abdallah Chatila, a businessman who was born in Beirut and operates in Switzerland and throughout Europe, spent some €600,000 ($660,000) on Nazi memorabilia sold at a controversial auction in Berlin. Among the items, Chatila bought Hitler's top hat at €50,000, a rare copy of Mein Kampf for €130,000, a silver cigar box of Hitler's, personal letters and more.
Right after the auction, he announced that the items would be donated to a Jewish foundation, which plans to transfer them to Yad Vashem, Israel's official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.
DW reached him at his office in Geneva to discuss how he came up with the idea.
What motivated you to acquire the Hitler-related items at the auction?
I was reading a few articles about Rabbi Margolin [chairman of the European Jewish Association] who was complaining about the fact that he couldn't stop the sale of those artifacts, saying that it was unmoral to have those items that had been in the hands of people who had done so many bad things to the Jewish people. And seeing that he couldn't stop it, I said to myself the best thing I could do about it would be to make sure that those items do not fall into the wrong hands by acquiring them myself. From there it all happened very quickly.
What was the reaction of the Jewish association Keren Hayesod when you informed them that you would be donating the items?
The thing is, when I wanted to buy them, my first idea was that I wanted to destroy them. Then in the 24 hours I had to think about this, I realized it wasn't my right and my position to decide what to do with them so I said I should give them to a Jewish association. And because I already had some contacts with Keren Hayesod, I figured they would in the best position to support me in determining to whom the items should be donated to. So half an hour before the sale, I called them up and I told then what I was going to do and sent them an official letter, because I did not want my name to appear in the market alongside those items without advising why I was buying them. And then, the minute I bought the last lot, I immediately sent a press release explaining why I had done it, because I was also very scared, because of my name, that people would think I did it for the wrong purpose.
You feared that people would react with racism because of your Arab name…
That, and there was also the risk of the opposite reaction as well, that people would think I was getting too close to the Jewish community. I wanted to explain that I did it for humanity, not just for the Jews.
Were the items more expensive than you expected?
I did not know what the prices were at the beginning, because I didn't see what I was buying and I didn't know what I was buying. I just told the auction house to make me a list of the things that belonged to Hitler, which they gave me the night before. I didn't even look at them. I didn't really care about the price.
But did you have any second thoughts about the fact that the person who was selling these items would be making a lot of money off them?
No, I didn't care who was selling them, I didn't care why they were selling them. I just knew that they were for sale and the concern wasn't about the guy who was selling them; the concern was more about who would buy them.
What would be in your view the right approach surrounding the trade of Nazi memorabilia?
The sale of such memorabilia should be forbidden and there should be an entity in charge of collecting them, like it's done for arms or munitions.
Was this something you had already done in the past?
No, it was the first time I even heard that such items were for sale, and it was the first time I did something like this.
Would this inspire you to take more measures against the far right?
More to promote tolerance — not just against the far right. I think that, considering the state of the world today, if there's one area in which I can be of help, it's definitely by promoting tolerance.
You come from a Christian family from Lebanon, but do you also have personal ties to the Jewish community?
I have ties because I have many Jewish friends, I work with many Jewish people — but I work with many people, with many Christians, with many Muslims. I give charity to Muslims, Christians… I'm not very selective on the destination of my charities. I found it very strange to hear all those stories about people not understanding why I did it, because for me what counts first is helping humanity, not the origins or the religion or the race of the people I am helping.
Your family had to flee Lebanon during the civil war [1975-1990], when you were still very young. Did this experience influence your view on religious and political extremism?
I guess that, subconsciously, there must be of course something coming out of the war, something tragic. Also my father was always giving me valuable advice, which helped me become who I am today.
Was there a particular moment when you started worrying more about growing anti-Semitism and racism?
I don't think there was a moment. We live in a situation where right-wing populism, racism, anti-Semitism as well as Islamophobia are becoming so big and all this intolerance in the world is making things very dangerous. It's driving people to use religion to do bad things — fanatics killing in the name of religion, not just in the Middle East, right here in the Occident as well. You see it unfortunately everywhere.
After this episode [with the auction], I realized the importance of tolerance in the world, and I'm thinking about creating a foundation for tolerance, not linked directly to the cause of any religion, but more about tolerance.
The European Jewish Association is inviting you to receive an award at the Auschwitz former German Nazi extermination camp in January. Are you planning on going?
I am very honored by this award and I will be very happy to do that. I think that the claims of the Jewish people, to be able to live their religion freely and safely, is a righteous act — and it's something that should be safe for everybody.