Two weeks ago, the Lebanese-born Swiss real estate mogul Abdallah Chatila purchased Nazi memorabilia at auction to take the items off the market. He was in Israel to comment on the action.
The items having belonged to Adolf Hitler that were bought two weeks ago by a Swiss-Lebanese businessman at a controversial auction in Germany are to arrive in the next few weeks at the Israeli Holocaust memorial center Yad Vashem.
Abdallah Chatila spent around €600,000 ($664,000) on the items to take them off the market. "Many people asked me why I did it. It was important for me to stop the items from landing in the wrong hands," Chatila said at a press conference in Jerusalem on Sunday. "We should all stand up for more tolerance and do the right thing."
Despite their efforts, Jewish organizations had failed to stop the controversial auction in Munich. Chatila said that he reached his decision very quickly in reaction to the news. From a hotel lobby in Paris, he followed the auction over the phone while negotiating with a business partner. In the end, several of Hitler's personal items, including a top hat, a cigar box, a special edition of Mein Kampf dedicated to Hermann Göring, as well as personal letters, were purchased.
Two Nazi-related items were, however, acquired by another buyer due to a misunderstanding. The items in question and their purchaser were not revealed publicly.
Surprising gesture for Yad Vashem
"It was a surprise and above all a very generous gesture from Mr. Abdallah Chatila," Avner Shalev, director of Yad Vashem, told DW. "We did not know who would buy the items, so it was good news when we heard that Mr. Chatila had bought them." The businessman had initially planned to destroy the objects, but then decided to donate them to the Israeli organization Keren Hayesod, which then organized the transfer to Yad Vashem.
Rabbi Menachem Margolin, chairman of the European Jewish Association, had also registered for the controversial auction of Nazi memorabilia. His plan was to burn the objects in the center of Berlin to show that "no symbol may remain in connection with Adolf Hitler." Grateful that the items were bought by Chatila to be donated to Yad Vashem, the money he had planned for the auction will be dedicated to a social project instead.
Chatila, who was also welcomed by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, says that he has received many positive reactions, including from Lebanon, where he was born. Chatila was only two years old when his family fled to Europe during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). "Some Lebanese friends told me they were very proud of me — but there were others who called me a traitor and told me not to go back to Lebanon."
Chatila lives in Switzerland, where he runs a diamond and real estate business. He said he never goes back to Lebanon, but his parents still do, making the backlash difficult for his family. Still, he said the donation was "the right thing to do.'' Israel and Lebanon have never signed a peace agreement, and relations between both countries remain hostile.
Lebanese-Swiss businessman Abdallah Chatila (2nd L) and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin (C) at their meeting at the presidential compound in Jerusalem
Nazi items should be shown only to a limited extent
The items are to arrive in Israel in the next few weeks. They will be stored at Yad Vashem, Israel's official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust in Jerusalem. "These are very delicate items, even for Yad Vashem, but in our collection, we of course have things related to the perpetrators," said director Avner Shalev. Yad Vashem is dedicated to preserving the memory of the victims of the Shoah and to researching Holocaust history and the phenomenon of genocide in general.
The Hitler items are not expected to be shown as a collection in public. But in the right context, individual items could be exhibited in the museum to tell the story of the perpetrators.
Yad Vashem sees the trade of Nazi memorabilia as extremely problematic: "We are strictly against any trade of items related to the Holocaust, whether they belonged to victims or perpetrators," said Shalev.
Such items do not belong in the hands of private individuals, said the Yad Vashem director, but in museums or public institutions, to prevent them from being glorified by Nazis and neo-Nazis.
The remembrance work done by institutions like Yad Vashem is essential, but it's also important to be aware of what is happening here and now, added Chatila: "We have to do something about what has been going on in Europe over the last five years, with the rise of anti-Semitism, the rise of populism and racism. We need to talk about it."