Wednesday, May 23, 2007

What's in a symbol?

When we moved Rossana's father to Ohio there was a box of old papers that was left in the trunk of our car. When I pulled it out I found old deeds, family pictures, immigration forms from Rossana's great grandfather. And a dagger.

It was old, the blade was about five inches and had a slightly rusty metal sheath. I pulled it out and noticed that it was made in Solingen. Good steel. It was dull, with no point whatsoever. I thought that with a bit of cleaning it would make a nice utility knife. I turned it over in my hands, wondering where it came from.

And then I saw the Swastika.

It was small, set into well worn and dirty handle. It seemed so incongruous. The knife didn't look particularly threatening at all. I googled 'Nazi Daggers' and found an image that matched it exactly.

The knife was a Nazi youth dagger, given to members of the Hitler Youth. When it was new, it would have had "Blood and Honor" etched on the blade.

I took it to my wife.

"I found this in that box in the trunk. Do you know where it came from?"

She looked at it and smiled. "I remember that, I think dad got it from Uncle Lou. I have some fond memories of that knife."

She saw the look on my face. I handed it to her and told her what it was.

"I don't remember the Swastika. We used to use it when we'd go to Atlantic city when I was a child. I used it to pry open Oysters. It was just a handy knife. I guess my Dad kept it because he thought it might be valuable some day."

I took it out to the shop and put it on a table. I looked at it. I honestly didn't want it in the house. I didn't want it near me. I checked militaria sites and found that in good condition it could be worth a bit of money. I considered selling it, but stopped myself.

Who would buy this thing? Who's hands would it go into? Some mild mannered military history collector? I know at least one person who collects and sells WWII models and toys, including a fair number of German items that have the same symbol on them. He's no Neo-Nazi. My own step-brother had a love of WWII era tabletop strategy games and German military models when he was a teenager. He certainly didn't turn out to be a racist or a holocaust denier.

But I didn't sell it. I couldn't.

Humans tend to imbue inanimate object with meanings and powers they simply don't have. We believe that items in close proximity to people are 'infected' by that persons personality. Their essence. Witness people who collect autographs, or items owned by famous people, or Christians. They believe that a piece of bone or a sliver of wood is holy and might even perform miracles, simply because Jesus, or someone who lived three hundred years after Jesus might have touched it, even when we almost certainly know that the item never came within a thousand miles of him.

So this knife, which very likely was never involved in harming anyone, is just a thing. It has no 'bad mojo'. Except that that's bullshit. The rational mind is over ruled by emotion all the time. Say someone killed your mother with a knife from your kitchen. Would you want the knife back? Hell no you wouldn't. I don't know the history of this knife, but I know the history of the Nazi's. I know very well what they did and the very symbol of that evil is set in the handle of this knife.

So what's in a symbol?

Rossana told me I could do whatever I wanted with it. That was six months ago. It still sits in the shop in a drawer. Do I sell it, praying that it doesn't end up in the hands of some fucked up skinhead? I could use the money right now. What if I sold it and donated the money to the Holocaust museum? Would that be wrong? Should I just destroy it? That way no one profits from it. The world isn't loosing anything important here. This knife won't add anything to our understanding or the war and its horrors. This should be a hard decision. But it is.

What would you do?


Ed Dale said...

The power of symbols comes from what we give them. Maybe you should remove the symbol, change the handle and use the knife. Another option is to send it to the Holocast museum as a donation, let them decide what to do with it. I understand that Munich has a new one that might need some reminder that this was something people did as part of their everyday work-a-day world. Third, and more likely, is to destroy the knife in a symbolic way. Don't just shred it, or toss it, instead make a ritual of it's destruction

Anonymous said...

Pity they took a very benign symbol which meant "Well Being" and turned it into something hated, feared and revered.

There is a Jewish Museum in Beachwood that might be interested in it, should you decide to donate it...

Apart from that, as you said...symbols have as much power as we instill in them and perhaps it will take us changing our energy to change the energy of those things that represent the darker side of man’s inhumanity to man...a thing is a thing, until we say otherwise and it is amazing how “things” change us...not the other way around.

I’m sure you will find your answer....

Anonymous said...


Perhaps I am being politically incorect here, but just because an individual was Hitler Youth does not mean they were (or are) horrible people. Not all children joined the Hitler Youth because they believed in death and destruction. The fact is, in the early years of the organization, it was an organization that was very similar to what we in the U.S. know as the Boy Scouts!

It wasn't until the year 1939 that it became compulsory to join the Hitler Yough at Age 17, and by 1941 it was deemed mandatory for all (boys and girls) over the Age of 10. The boys were prepared for survival in war and battle, and the girls prepared for motherhood (domestication, obedience, self-sacrifice, discipline, duty and physical self control - to be the future mothers of the future leaders and peoples of Germany).

Before you pass judgment over the item in question, keep in mind it can only be mankind that is evil, not an inanimate object itself.

We have swords, daggers, spiked flails, crossbows, maces, firearms, etc. that were all created for reasons of war. And used in thousands of such instances. Heck - even kitchen knives have been used in horrendous acts of violence! Should we hide away and/or sell all of our kitchen knives?

I say keep it. History cannot and should not be destroyed. It just "is." And now you own a real piece of it.

-Nyneve (Erika)

Steve said...

Indeed, there is every chance that there is no 'history' to this dagger at all. And it's quite true that many of the Hitler youth weren't keen on the mandatory membership. If I am not mistaken, the current Pope was forced into becoming a member of the Hitler youth.

But it's the nagging thought of 'What if?' I have tons of swords and knives, but I know for a fact that none of them were used in a crime or were carried by some kid who's mind was twisted by an evil ideology.

My rational mind is quite aware that it is merely an object with no powers or mojo, but when you look at it, when you hold it in your hand and know that this thing was there at that time and was proudly worn by many Nazi youth...

I'll look into the local Jewish museum and see if there is any interrest there.

Anonymous said...


You could give it to Pope Benedict XVI. I heard that he lost his...


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