CHARLESTON — A lonely fireplace chimney sprouts 2 dozen feet high from a tidy vacant lot, not far from the tidal push and pull of the Ashley River. The only heat it gives is from being at the center of a dispute over that most mundane of issues, zoning.
But this chimney is like a controversial art installation. Seen from one angle, it is a rare historical artifact that should be preserved. Seen from another, it is a memorial to evil that should be knocked down or carted off.
Fueling these hot embers of emotion are the chiseled words on a concrete plaque at the top of the chimney:
A true story: This chimney, planted like a limbless live oak on a residential street, was built by imprisoned German soldiers during the final year of World War II.
City officials and preservationists want to protect the chimney as a piece of a forgotten America. But the property’s owners, members of a prominent Charleston family, see it as more than just an obstacle to their development plans.
They are Jewish, and they want it gone.
“Every time I see the structure, it makes me think about the ovens,” says Mary Ann Pearlstine Aberman, 79, who co-owns the land. “I don’t see any reason to make a shrine to Nazis.”
Some memories need prompting, it seems, and some do not.
The story begins at the beginning, with the English charter that established the Carolina colony in 1669. Written by the philosopher John Locke, the charter granted liberty of conscience to its colonists, including “Jews, heathens and dissenters.”
By 1750, the Jews of Charleston had established a synagogue; by the early 1800s, they represented the largest Jewish population in the country. Among them were the Pearlstines, whose grocery and hardware company grew into a well-known beer distributorship.
Milton Pearlstine, Aberman’s civic-minded father, embodied the bond between family and place. He graduated from the Citadel military college, played a vital role in developing the state port, and, in 1935, donated to the city the old Planter’s Hotel, which is now the popular Dock Street Theater.
Less than a decade later, German soldiers — serving a dictatorship bent on annihilating Jews — came as prisoners of war to his beloved Charleston.
During the war, more than 400,000 captured enemy soldiers were shipped to the United States to live in guarded camps and provide much-needed labor, especially on farms and in mills. As many as 10,000 were sent to South Carolina.
The largest of the Charleston camps was in the West Ashley section. Built for 500 inmates on an 18-acre tract near the Ashley River, it had barbed-wire fencing, 25-foot-high guard towers, a few buildings and 30 large tents.
At the dedication ceremony in 1944, the camp’s guards lost a softball game to a Father Sheedy, who was pitching for the local Knights of Columbus. Entertainment also included a corporal doing magic tricks and three soldiers performing as a hillbilly band called the “P.O.W. Wows.”
These camps initially caused apprehension and anger on the home front, according to Fritz Hamer, a curator and historian in the University of South Carolina’s library system. “But it became clear that the vast majority of these prisoners were glad to be out of the war,” he says. “They were getting three meals a day, and many liked having a different routine out of the camps.”
Their Atlantic voyage did not cleanse all German soldiers of Nazi loyalties. A local newspaper later reported that the camp’s POWs once carved swastikas in a large shipment of tomatoes, and that on weekends, a Nazi sergeant “donned his Panzer uniform and, with boots polished to a high gloss, paraded around the prison as though at any moment Rommel might pass in review.”
For a brief, surreal period, these German soldiers were part of rural Charleston life. The POWs would be signed out to farmers in the morning, and returned in the evening. Their incarceration was comfortable, considering.
The camp was torn down after the war. For a while, its multipurpose clubhouse was used for local supper clubs and Boy Scout meetings, but soon, all that remained of the enemy’s stay was this mortared stack of brick.
Charles Means, 59, who lives nearby, says that his grandfather, Cotesworth P. Means, owned the land used for the camp, and that the family used to hold neighborhood get-togethers around the old POW fireplace.
After developing most of the property, the Means family sold the chimney parcel in 1994. Two years later, it was sold again, to the Pearlstines, who owned a contiguous waterfront parcel and were thinking of building a driveway through the lot for better access to a main road.
In the small world that is Charleston, Milton Pearlstine and Cotesworth Means, both dead by then, had served together on the state port authority, and were friends. Pearlstine had lived his last years on that property behind the chimney plot, from which he could gaze across the river at the white buildings of his alma mater, The Citadel.
Since then, the Pearlstines often came close to knocking down the chimney. It just never happened, in part because attention shifted when the relative who had been handling the matter, Aberman’s sister, Barbara Pearlstine Lemel, died after a protracted illness.
A bulldozer appeared once, but neighbors alerted the county authorities and a violation was issued. Demolition permits were obtained, but never executed; the family says that it was trying to accommodate those who offered to remove the chimney, but never did.
Finally, in January, the Pearlstines requested that their parcel be annexed into the city and zoned for residential development. But when city planning officials learned of the prison camp relic, they proposed a “landmark overlay zone” to protect the chimney.
If the landmark designation is ultimately approved by the City Council, the Pearlstines would have to preserve the chimney unless granted special permission to knock it down. In other words: Jews would be required to keep a Nazi-built relic on their property.
Many neighbors have also chimed in, including Lew Fink, 66, who lives in the white house beside the site. He acknowledges that he does not want the land developed, but he also says that the chimney should be preserved as an educational tool.
“It says that one man did not succeed in governing this Earth,” says Fink, who is Jewish. “It’s an affirmation that we won.”
None of this sits well with Mary Ann Aberman’s son, Mickey Aberman, 57, a lawyer in North Carolina. He cannot shake a conversation he had at a family wedding several years ago with an older relative, who recalled escaping into the woods as Nazi soldiers shot her parents and siblings dead.
Nor can he shake an image of well-treated German soldiers warmed by this fireplace, singing the Nazi anthem, “The Horst Wessel Song.” He would not mind as much, he says, had German soldiers died here.
“If people want to come by and see where the Germans sat around during the war, it just …,” he says, pausing, imagining their relative comfort. “A sort of anger wells up that isn’t there when it’s just a bunch of bricks.”
Several days ago, Aberman stood before the POW fireplace, his disgust evident. The landscaper his mother hired to maintain the property pulled up in his truck to say that the chimney really ought to be preserved.
Aberman began to lecture the landscaper on history, but his words found no purchase. Knowing the answer in advance, he asked the man whether he wanted to buy the property, chimney, fireplace and all.