On Thursday, the city's public prosecutor gave the go-ahead for an auction of the striped uniforms worn by concentration camp inmates before they were led into the gas chambers. The proposed sale, organised by a Berlin collector who has sympathies with the extreme right, was immediately condemned by the Jewish community as "tasteless".
Jens Lau, the collector who runs a shop selling Nazi memorabilia, wants to hold auctions in Hamburg, Munich and Berlin. The uniforms, with a reserve price of about DM300 (pounds 100), are currently stored in the basement of his shop.
The origin of the clothing is not clear but Mr Lau has business connections with 10 museums, including Washington's Holocaust Museum. Some reports suggest that Mr Lau had obtained the controversial items from private collectors, including some in the United States.
Jewish leaders called on the authorities to stop the sale, but so far in vain. "In what kind of an age are we living, that such a perverse, inhuman auction can take place?" asked Michel Friedman, a member of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.
Nevertheless, on Thursday the authorities dismissed the complaints as legally unfounded. A spokeswoman for Berlin's justice ministry said all possible criminal charges that could have been brought against the auction house had been explored, including desecration of the memory of the dead, and the use of outlawed symbols.
"The prosecutors have examined every possible charge, but were unable to find an offence they could prosecute," she added. "Whether the auction is moral or not is an entirely different question."
Yesterday, the public prosecutor's office rowed back, announcing a second inquiry. The matter must be investigated again, said Bernd Wolke, the city's chief public prosecutor. But he reiterated that no regulation appears to have been infringed.
Under German law, the sale or display of Nazi symbols is banned, unless the owners can prove that their actions fall within the domain of academic inquiry. There is no law specifically forbidding trade in items that had belonged to Nazi victims.
The only escape route from this legal quagmire might be the civil courts. But for that, relatives of concentration camp inmates would have to bring a law suit. The German state itself is powerless.Reuse content