My Favorite Artifact

Twenty-five years ago, the Iowa Jewish Historical Society was founded to preserve the history of the Jewish people of Iowa and share our story through educational programs and exhibits. At the heart of preserving our history and culture is our collection—the objects, photos, and documents that bring the past and the present to life for visitors of all ages and backgrounds here in Iowa and around the world.

With thousands of artifacts in the IJHS collection, different objects have special meaning to many of our visitors, whether they see an artifact in person or learn about it online from our searchable collections database.

As part of our 25th Anniversary, IJHS is introducing a new series entitled ‘My Favorite Artifact.’ To kick off the series, IJHS board members are picking their favorite artifact and sharing with us what that item means to them and why those chose it as their favorite out of all the objects in the IJHS collection.

Schindler’s Cup: by Jan Hockenberg

Enamel Cup
Jan Hockenberg

I have served on the IJHS board since 2006. Through my involvement as a board member, I have become increasingly grateful to those people, past and present, who have passionately given their time, talent, and financial support to preserve Iowa’s Jewish history.

I am very proud of our Iowa Jewish Historical museum and our collections. One of my favorite artifacts in our museum is the “Schindler Cup.” The cup, which has been labeled with the historically significant Schindler name, belonged to Phyllis and Irvin Karp. It was used during the Holocaust by the Karp family, who survived the forced labor and death camps, immigrated to the US, and put down roots in Des Moines. That makes it a very special treasure! Phyllis Karp, when asked why she saved this cup and brought it to the United States, said: “This will remind me, every day, that there is a better tomorrow.”

Oskar Schindler, through his factories and his now-famous list of “workers,” saved the lives of 1,100 Jews, including the Karp family. Workers in Oskar Schindler’s munitions factory received cups (and bowls) such as this one, to use for drinking and eating. These functional pieces were produced in Schindler’s enamelware factory.

Phyllis and Irvin Karp lived in Des Moines for fifty years and produced three more generations, who have generously shared and continue to share their memories, support, talents, and friendship with our community and our state. (Check out all our past programs and watch for more!)

During this time of social distancing, the Karp family story and their “Schindler Cup” remind us to be grateful for what we have, and even if our cup is currently only half full, better days are ahead.

P1908 Luger German Pistol: by Jerome Thompson

In one of the cases focusing on veterans at the Iowa Jewish Historical Society Museum is a German pistol, specifically a P1908 Luger.  It is clearly marked 1918, which was the year it was manufactured.  It was definitely made during World War I but this type of handgun was also issued during World War II.

I enjoy military history.  After I retired from the State Historical Society of Iowa in 2015, I became a volunteer at the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum at Camp Dodge in addition to serving on the IJHS board.  At the Iowa Gold Star Museum, I work in the archives organizing and cataloging letters, diaries, scrapbooks and artifacts.  Several years ago I transcribed my wife’s grandfather’s World War I diary.  Grandpa Joe was always making a deal.  While he was part of the occupation forces in Germany following the armistice, he somehow acquired two Lugers but traded or sold them to other soldiers in his unit.  None came home.

 I wanted to find out more about this Luger; accession number 2005.060.01.  According to collections records, the pistol was donated by Arnold Caplan in 2005 or possibly before, but little else.  The number is the year it was recorded. 

So, who was Arnold Caplan? 

A search through the Des Moines Register and Tribune archives located his obituary from 2009.  Arnold was born in 1928 in Des Moines and after graduation from East High School in 1946 he joined the Navy. He served in the Pacific aboard the U.S.S. Springfield.  After his service he went to the University of Iowa and played football.  He also taught in the Des Moines public schools for 35 years.  Service in the Pacific after World War II is not a likely place to come home with a German Luger.  Is it possible his father was a World War I veteran?

Arnold’s obituary did not mention his parents’ names, so I checked the 1940 census and found Arnold living with his family at 610 Lyon Street in Des Moines.  Arnold’s father’s name was Charles.  A check of World War I Draft records showed that Charles registered for the draft as required.  The draft record show his birthplace was Russia (the census indicates Lithuania) in 1888.  But draft registrations don’t guarantee service.  Both of my grandfathers registered for the World War I draft, but they were not called up.  One was a farmer and the other a rancher.  In today’s terms they were essential workers and were part of the wartime supply chain.

Charles requested an exemption because he had to support his wife and a child.  A check of service records at the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum yielded a Caplan, but not Charles.  So he was not inducted into the service during World War I.  So, how did Arnold obtain this German pistol?  I guess we won’t know for sure.  If his children read this perhaps they can contact the IJHS with what they know.  It remains an interesting artifact.

There are often mysteries in museum collections.  This is why it is so important to get as much documentation from donors at the time a gift is made and to record it.  In that way museums can provide more robust stories through their exhibits.

Jerome Thompson