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Needham

Family loans ‘Mein Kampf’ to area school

By Erica Noonan and Jason Woods
Globe Staff | Globe Correspondent / April 15, 2010

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The book was part war loot, part history, part blueprint for horror.

Now a copy of “Mein Kampf,’’ Adolf Hitler’s autobiography and political manifesto for Nazi Germany, will become a tool to teach local Jewish schoolchildren about their history.

For decades, it has belonged to the Mandell family of Needham, who found themselves deeply divided on what to do with the book they believe may have been seized from the body of a German soldier by a relative who fought for the US Army in World War II.

On Monday, the Mandells opened a new chapter in the book’s tumultuous history by presenting it as a long-term loan to the South Area Solomon Schechter Day School in Norwood.

“This book is a historical document that can be used to educate younger generations of all faiths about the events surrounding it — about how to avoid such events in the future, about how to reaffirm the humanity in each of us,’’ said Fred Mandell, who inherited the volume from his uncle, Eddie Cohen. “Our family has wrestled with whether to keep the book or get rid of it.’’

Their dilemma became public when Mandell’s daughter, Hinda, wrote two articles for Globe West describing the book’s history. “Whether we should continue to keep it, as an unusual heirloom, or donate it — we are Jewish, after all — remains a question far from settled,’’ she wrote.

The book will be displayed at the school’s Israel Arbeiter Gallery of Understanding, where children and adults gather to discuss the causes of prejudice and how to combat it.

The ceremony was planned in conjunction with Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Yom Hashoah, which was commemorated worldwide on Sunday.

Mandell, 67, a retired advertising executive, has displayed “Mein Kampf’’ — always upside down — among his large collection of Jewish history books for most of his adult life. Hinda and her brother, 34-year-old Jake, thought it belonged in the family library, but their sister Becky, 26, found it repellant.

And their mother, Karen Mandell, 61, was always deeply uncomfortable with its presence in their home, and its position near precious prayer books.

A descendent of Holocaust victims, she wouldn’t touch the volume, and urged her children to wash their hands after they did.

“I thought it was a great idea to lend it,’’ she said after Monday’s ceremony. “I always hated that it was there, and it’s a great relief. I was always afraid I’d touch it by accident.’’

She said she was pleased to learn that Israel Arbeiter, the 85-year-old Newton resident for whom the gallery is named, thinks the book should remain displayed upside down, as it had been in the Mandell home.

At Monday’s ceremony, Arbeiter praised efforts by students to learn tolerance and social justice.

“I look around the room at your faces, and I don’t see any bullies,’’ he told the students a few yards away from the exhibition, which traces “The Life Lessons of Israel Arbeiter,’’ the journey from his childhood in peaceful prewar Poland, through war-torn Europe, and to his new life in America. “That is what I hope, when I go to schools and speak, that we can educate people to move beyond bullying.’’

The decision to let the copy of “Mein Kampf’’ join the exhibition honoring Arbeiter, a survivor of the Auschwitz death camp, seems like the right move for now, Hinda Mandell said in a telephone interview Monday.

“I feel uneasy letting it leave the family, but my mom feels very good about it, and wanted the book out of the house so badly,’’ said Mandell, 30, a graduate student at Syracuse University.

The book bears a 1938 inscription to a married couple, the Tefs of Lubeck, Germany, and appears to be a wedding gift from a local official. Cohen, who fought in France and Germany, brought it home from Europe along with the Purple Heart he earned when he was wounded in battle.

For Hinda Mandell, the book is less a symbol of the dangers of totalitarianism and religious prejudice than “a very personal family story about the oddities of war, violence and brutality,’’ she said. “You never know where things wind up, and even with the most horrific things life goes forward. To me, the book symbolizes the continuity of humanity.’’

She has hopes of taking photocopies of the inscription to Germany to help trace its origin, perhaps meet the German soldier’s relatives, and, as she wrote in her second essay, “build bridges that history tried to destroy.’’

“In my mind I want to take the book to Germany, but I don’t know when,’’ said Mandell, adding that her father is fiercely against the idea of the book returning to its homeland.

Benefactors of the Schechter Day School saw Mandell’s articles in the Globe and contacted the family about displaying the book, said school headmistress Jane Taubenfelt Cohen.

“Our school has very close relationships with the survivor community. They felt it was a lesson our kids needed to learn,’’ Cohen said after the ceremony. “As the child of a Holocaust survivor, I have very mixed emotions about this, but I decided that you expose and teach instead of hiding. If you come out of hiding, you open the power of discussion and open new doors.’’

Fred Mandell said he “was surprised at the level of interest and conversation’’ triggered by his family controversy over the book, but called it “a positive thing.’’

“I see it as a springboard for educating people about the Holocaust and tolerance.’’

Erica Noonan can be reached at enoonan@globe.com.

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