Do toilets have a heaven? Have they an underworld?
These are questions beyond our ken. We can, however, posit a place of Potty Purgatory: the great state of New Jersey.
In 1934, shipbuilders in Hamburg constructed a decadent new yacht for the recently installed Nazi German government. On this ship was a toilet. The toilet bore marks of its makers—its handle, according to Tablet, had words in the “old-looking” Blackletter font preferred by the Nazis. It was designed to be—and we’ll call it—“Hitler’s toilet.”
Named the Aviso Grille for most of its operational life, the ship was the largest yacht in the world at the time. It visited Norway, led training exercises in the Atlantic, and even steamed to England for the coronation of the new king and queen. More than once, the Grille even bore the seasick-prone Hitler.
Then war came, and the Grille found new uses. It laid mines. It ran patrols. At dock in Norway, it served as a command center for arctic U-Boats.
After the war, the Grille changed hands again and again. Eventually, it wound up in New Jersey, in a shipyard owned by a man named Harry Doan. The United States government and Doan himself were keen to keep the Grille from becoming a monument to the Nazi leader. The Grille was disassembled, its parts sold for scrap.
Except for one part. A car repairman named Sam Carlani was good friends with Doan. Carlani owned a shop in nearby Florence, New Jersey.
Carlani needed a toilet. There was a working one on the Grille. And so—according to the Burlington County Times, the local paper—it came that Hitler’s seafaring toilet came to live in a New Jersey auto shop.
That toilet is still there. It worked for more than half a century. Day in, day out, flush, flush, flush. When Greg Kohfeldt bought the shop from Carlani in 1994, he didn’t remove the still-functioning commode. Kohfeldt didn’t care about the toilet’s origin.
“I kept it because I needed a working toilet,” he told the BCT in 2013. “Why spend $100 on a new one when I had one that worked?”
Anyway, the toilet had become famous. People came to see it.
Then, in the fall of 2011, a British TV company got in touch with Kohfeldt, asking if they could spotlight it on a show. The toilet—and Kohfeldt—were removed from New Jersey, flown to the United Kingdom.
The show, alas, never aired. Both potty and possessor were flown back to New Jersey. The toilet now resides in the basement of the repair shop it once so faithfully served. Earlier this month, Kohfeldt said that he’s still looking for a buyer.
But until then, it rests. In Norway and New Jersey, it did what it was built to do.
Except the story of the toilet never really rests. From time to time, the Internet's viral vacuumers stumble upon the tale of the toilet. A roadside guide to America has long noted the throne as a worthwhile attraction. In 2010, TIME ranked it among the world’s 10 most famous toilets. (Also on the list: Duchamp’s Fountain.) In early 2013, there was another flurry, when Tablet discovered it.
So the toilet’s tale splashed across the web: Gothamist covered it, as did Boing Boing, NJ.com, and TIME, again. A celebrity gossip site distinguished itself by its use of the phrase “the Turd Reich.” Already, in 2014, the Daily Mail covered it again, revealing Kohfeldt’s desire to sell. That news prompted posts at Hypervocal and Haaretz.
But interest in the toilet isn’t inscribed only in the web’s attentional sine wave. According to a column written during last year’s flurry of attention, Kohfeldt has long known the press’s peaks and valleys. Says Phil Gianficaro in that Burlington County Times story (the paper where—full disclosure—my mom works):
Years would pass without a hint of interest. Then someone would talk about it, and a newspaper, radio or online reporter would catch wind of it and do a story. And before long, interest in the toilet would spread.
“People are more interested in the history of the toilet than I am,” Kohfeldt tells Gianficaro.
He almost sighs: “I never contact the media about it.” They come to me.”
The toilet has been going viral before there was an Internet for it to go viral on. There’s something special in Hitler’s toilet, an attentional alchemy. The commode represents both the totally evil and the totally mundane.
Last year, in the Jewish magazine Tablet, Alexander Aciman wrote of the device:
Kohfeldt’s toilet is a thing worth flying to London or a sight worth driving across the country to see precisely because even when standing before it we are unable to concretize in our minds the image of Hitler sitting on it.
Tools pass from place to place. Some are horrific—loose nuclear material—and others are humble. Some are both: The best history of the Grille I could find, the one used above, came in an encyclopedia of Third Reich tableware.
English common law long maintained the idea that an object could be deodand. If an instrument was used to murder someone—even if it wasn’t owned by the murderer—it was forfeited to God and became ownerless. This special power didn’t extend only to knives or guns.
“If a man fell from a tree, the tree was deodand,” explained Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1881. “If he drowned in a well, the well was to be filled up.”
Back in our century, Aciman writes:
Even when presented with the fact—the hard, white, glassy truth that is Hitler’s toilet, it is nearly impossible to accept the reality of what the object is simply because the notion of Hitler doing normal things feels apocryphal.
Objects are abject in their apathy. They are used as their owners treat them. Sometimes, they give us a view into their original users and makers—or they deny them.
Stories, on the other hand: We get to choose which ones we tell, and how. And we are captivated, again and again, by a mass-murderer’s toilet.