Thomas Wittmann knows well the perils of dealing in Third Reich antiques after years of enduring heckling from people who misinterpret the way he makes his living.
But the latest round of criticism the lifelong Moorestonian has received has him both scratching and shaking his head.
Wittmann’s Main Street home was one of five selected by the Curtis Auxiliary of Virtua Hospital to be showcased during its . By most accounts, Wittmann’s home was a standout, with guests expressing admiration both for the Christmas decor and the impressive collection of historical antiques on display.
However, not long after the tour, word got back to Wittmann that someone who’d been through the home had taken offense to a particular collection of items: a trio of anti-Hitler figurines in a curio in the hallway.
Wittmann said the pieces were produced in the United States during the Second World War. One has Hitler’s face on the body of a skunk, another acts as a pincushion—with the needles stuck in the Fuhrer’s behind—and the third features Hitler’s likeness in the bottom of an ashtray. The items in question are on the top shelf of the curio, which contains other antiques including decorative daggers from various European countries and several German war helmets.
Wittmann, who’s been in the antique militaria business for 30 years, generally keeps items others might find offensive out of sight intentionally. There are no swastikas or obvious Nazi references anywhere on the first floor, which is all Cooks Tour guests saw. Among the many other prominently displayed antiques throughout the house—paintings of historical figures, ceremonial pipes given to German soldiers in the early 20th century, war helmets—the satirical Hitler pieces are in fact, relatively inconspicuous.
A reader who anonymously emailed Moorestown Patch called the material in Wittmann’s home “extremely offensive” and said the Cooks Tour was a “disgrace.” However, when asked to comment on the record, the reader declined.
For its part, the Curtis Auxiliary attempted to get in front of the controversy, issuing a statement that read, in part, “We are deeply sorry that any member of our community was offended and want all to know that it certainly was not our intent.”
“I never saw any harm in displaying them,” Wittmann said. “There’s nothing innately wrong with historical artifacts. It’s just a thing … If you want to get all excited about that, I just don’t feel that that’s fair.”
Preserving history—all of it
Though he’s learned to let the criticism over what he does roll off, Wittmann, who was born at the tail end of World War II, is still very sensitive to people’s feelings about references to Nazism or Hitler.
He goes to great lengths to explain—both in person and on his website—that he in no way endorses or glorifies the Nazi regime with his collection. The people who buy these items from him are professionals—doctors, lawyers, teachers—whom he’s had as customers for years, not radical right wingers or neo-Nazis.
“I’m not interested in people like that,” Wittmann said distastefully. “And besides that, they don’t have the money to afford it. This stuff’s expensive.”
Wittmann buys a lot of his World War II paraphernalia from deceased veterans' families after they discover the stuff in their late grandpa's attic.
“At the end of World War II, when we occupied Germany, our soldiers went looking for weapons,” he explained. “Our guys stole everything that wasn’t nailed down. They ‘liberated’ it. People don’t throw stuff like that out.”
But they do sell it for a tidy profit, which is where Wittmann comes in. Sure, he’s making a living off this—and a lucrative one: “This stuff just appreciates in value … It’s really recession-proof”—but he also sees his job as one of preserving history.
“To me, I don’t feel there’s anything other than history to look at, like a flag. It represents a period of history,” he said. “If you like history, you can imagine all the stuff that happened around it.”
‘A mountain … out of a mole hill’
Denis Mercier, a former professor of mass media and pop culture at Rowan University, can appreciate Wittmann’s situation. Mercier took a good deal of heat himself when he began collecting politically incorrect imagery depicting African-Americans from the post-Civil War period up to the Civil Rights era for a doctoral dissertation on the subject in the '80s.
“I was unprepared for the lack of sympathy this subject would arouse,” said Mercier. “Black people said this stuff should be destroyed … I said, ‘No, you don’t airbrush history because you don’t like it.’”
Through his research, Mercier gained valuable insight into “how the racial divide continued and continued and continued” in America through end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th.
Wittmann stands on the same side of the fence as Mercier. These are pieces of history, however ugly the details behind that history may be.
Wittmann doesn’t understand the mentality of those who object so strenuously to his collection: “The artifacts here today, we should just destroy them because you don’t like that period in history?”
Mercier said references to Nazism understandably touch a raw nerve for many people, most of all members of the Jewish community, for whom “the word ‘Nazi’ connotes so much more.”
Moorestown’s Jewish community has become sensitized of late following a string of incidents starting with the and was followed by a Jewish resident receiving a bigoted letter from another resident, that has since gone viral. Partly in response to these incidents, the Anti-Defamation League held a meeting in Moorestown Monday night.
That said, Mercier believes the finger-wagging over the Hitler caricatures in Wittmann’s curio is “really a mountain we’re making out of a mole hill.”
“This is way out of proportion,” he said. “I would think that satire would be appreciated.”
Indeed, the United States produced a great deal of anti-Hitler/anti-Nazi propaganda both in the lead-up to and during the Second World War, ranging from the Three Stooges “You Nazty Spy!” to Charlie Chaplin’s classic film The Great Dicator to the Looney Tunes cartoon “Herr Meets Hare,” starring Bugs Bunny.
Wittmann may not understand all the consternation, but he learned long ago there's not much he can do about it.
“You can’t stop people from getting mad,” he said.