Collector seeks buyer for jewelry crafted from Jews teeth

No, Ron Peterson does not deny the Holocaust. On the contrary, he carries the epitome of it in his briefcase.

On a recent visit to j.’s office, the strikingly tall, thin retired software engineer from Saratoga gently unwrapped a gift jewelry box and deftly pulled out a gold cross the size of a silver dollar. On its ornate face, numerous pinhole-size black diamonds encircle a swastika centerpiece.

But it is the text hammered on the reverse side — “Von Juden Bar,” or of the Jewish bar — that is most remarkable and revolting.

Let the full meaning of those words sink in for a minute. If the cross is authentic, it was made from melted-down gold teeth yanked from the mouths of gassed Jews, and from the gold jewelry pried from their hands and necks.

“This is one of a kind. This is history. I’m holding the German concentration camp Bergen-Belsen in my hands right now,” Peterson said.

“This is a German medal made with Jewish teeth — how outrageous is that?” he continued. “This is an Iron Cross given to SS soldiers for bravery — well, not bravery, for all the atrocities they committed. This is not necessarily the fun part of history, but it is history. This medallion captures so much.”

It also captured a great deal of derision when Peterson attempted last week to hawk it — for $10,000 — on the local Web site Craigslist.org. With the heading “18K Nazi jewelry” and an explicit mention of “gold taken from teeth of Jewish prisoners after gassing but prior to cremation,” the ad was quickly flagged by the Web page’s visitors as offensive and removed from the site.

Peterson agreed to an interview in hopes of drumming up “some publicity.” The Santa Barbara-born non-Jew has been collecting “high-end” Third Reich memorabilia for about 35 of his 62 years. He recently handed over dozens of his pieces to Greg Martin Auctions in San Francisco in hopes of walking away with hundreds of thousands of dollars.

When queried about the origin of his unusual hobby — into which he estimates he has poured upward of $1 million over the years — Peterson replied that he’s half-German.

He gravitates toward material from the SS — “they’re Satan,” he said of the elite Nazi force. “The bad things they did are absolutely outrageous. It’s just incredible to think people could actually do this stuff and keep their sanity. The fact that they were so well organized and able to do what had to be done during a world war, with precision organization, that’s one of the things I really admire about Germans. They have that precision organization.”

Peterson’s attempt to sell the medallion also induced discomfort among some members of the Jewish community. Jonathan Bernstein, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, chided Peterson for attempting to “make a buck” rather than making an offer to a Holocaust museum directly.

Yitzhak Santis, the Middle Eastern affairs director for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, went further. “It’s disgusting. Why doesn’t he just donate it? He’s trying to make money off of murdered people.”

“I’m a businessman,” Peterson said in his defense. “This is going to shock you, but this stuff is worth money. You wouldn’t believe how many people collect this stuff.”

Peterson produced an invoice from 1973, when he claims to have purchased the medallion (and other pieces) in Brazil from Frederico Conc, the son of former SS soldier Fritz Conc.

The elder Conc reportedly indulged in a practice common among camp soldiers — he skimmed a little of the Jewish gold that was supposed to be shipped to Berlin and had a Jewish goldsmith in the camp’s workshop make him some trophies.

Peterson is selling a significant chunk of his collection in expectation that Tom Cruise’s upcoming film “Valkyrie” on the Nazi plot against Adolf Hitler will drive up interest and prices. After Greg Martin Auctions last year sold a globe allegedly owned by Hitler for $100,000 — 10 times the anticipated price — hundreds of former U.S. soldiers who carried home Nazi booty contacted the auction house.

“I was inundated with calls,” said Jemison Beshears, the World War II and firearms specialist at the auction house, who said there will be an auction of largely Third Reich material in June.

Beshears said that if all of Peterson’s pieces sell, he could earn a couple hundred thousand dollars (Peterson is hoping for half a million). But the auction house wouldn’t consider for a second selling the gold medallion. “It’s just distasteful,” Beshears said.

That’s not a concern for Peterson.

“Here’s another item I bought that if I tried to sell on Craigslist, it would make your customers vomit,” he said, referring to j. readers. He displayed a handwritten invoice from Frederico Conc. The invoice was several pages long and listed many items, including a bill of sale for two lampshades and a wallet, all crafted from human skin.

He bought the lot for $3,000. He sold them through a go-between several years later for $25,000. “The wallet had a Star of David on it,” he noted.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a columnist at Mission Local. He is also former editor-at-large at San Francisco Magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.