Enigma, wrapped in a paradox, inside an exhibit
Sometimes the truth behind the lovely lies of the movies is closer than you think.
If you’ve seen “The Imitation Game,” the multi-Oscar-nominated World War II drama about mathematician-cryptographer Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), you know the story line hinges on the Enigma machine, Nazi Germany’s code-maker and a piece of hardware that looks like a typewriter possessed by Satan. But did you know that starting on Saturday you can see and play with one of eight actual Enigma machines — the largest collection in the United States outside of the National Security Agency — at the Museum of World War II in Natick?
Wait a minute. There’s a Museum of World War II in Natick?
There is, and it’s rather an enigma itself. As much as we like to be seduced by the gauzy Hollywood version of history, the real thing can pack a punch that’s both more prosaic and more powerful. And this place is the real thing.
The passion project of Kenneth Rendell, a recently retired dealer in historical letters and documents, the private nonprofit enterprise has sat for 15 years on a quiet road behind the Route 9 Miracle Mile, directly in back of a Travelodge and Dick’s Sporting Goods. Down the street are a cabinet-making company and the central office of the Massachusetts Parole Board. You can’t miss the museum: It’s the low-slung building with a 105mm howitzer parked out front.
Inside is 10,000 square feet of what the British Imperial Museum has called the most comprehensive collection of WWII memorabilia in the world and what Tom Hanks has labeled “the holy grail of WWII museums.”
While government-owned institutions focus largely on their respective national experiences, Rendell — who has never served in the armed forces — has made it his mission to collect memorabilia and documents across the entire span of the conflict, from its roots in pre-World War I Europe all the way through Hiroshima and beyond.
There’s a section on how the Nazi Party won over the German people that includes children’s games like a Parcheesi board in the shape of a swastika. There are Nazi uniforms designed by Hugo Boss and a German Army vehicle built by Volkswagen. Realistic mannequins of Eisenhower, Churchill, Field Marshal Montgomery, and others stand in corners, their accurately tinted glass eyes selected by their grown children after the latter donated personal memorabilia to the museum. (“I picked out Hitler’s,” says Rendell.) You’ll find the original plans for the invasion of Normandy, rabid anti-Japanese US propaganda, Ike’s personal letters to his wife, Mamie, and a bust of Hitler that General George S. Patton used as a doorstop and taught his dog to pee on.
Rendell is a nattily dressed, urbane man in his early 70s, a native of Somerville — “the Somerville of the 1940s and ’50s, not the Somerville of today, where Bono comes to Davis Square.” He says of his brainchild, “This museum is not about glory. I think in the end it’s an antiwar museum.” Right there is a more sophisticated understanding of the past than several decades of war movies.
Which isn’t to say that Rendell’s career hasn’t overlapped with Hollywood from time to time. He introduced Clint Eastwood to a WWII medic whose story ended up in “Flags of Our Fathers,” collaborated with Dan Aykroyd on a documentary about the museum, and is buddies with Hanks. Just as “Saving Private Ryan” introduced a harsh new realism to depictions of WWII in 1998, so the movie transformed Rendell from an outlier in the historical community to a prophet. Where “The Imitation Game” (a movie Rendell likes very much, to the point of downplaying its much-discussed inaccuracies) fabulizes the tale of Turing and makes a cinematic fetish object out of the infernal Enigma machines, the museum’s exhibition brings it all back down to the life-size necessary for genuine understanding.
Oh, yes, the Enigma exhibition. Rendell tours me through the corner of his museum temporarily devoted to the machines. He introduces the history of cryptography with an 1814 coded message from Napoleon and a cylindrical code-maker designed by Thomas Jefferson. There’s a wrecked Enigma machine, blown up by retreating Germans, and several three-rotor machines of the type seen in “The Imitation Game.” Rendell has a few four-rotor machines — much harder to break than their earlier cousins — and one behemoth of a 10-rotor Enigma built during the war by Siemens. Touring these objects, you feel like you’re in a back office of the movies, where the secrets are kept.
In keeping with the museum’s hands-on mission, you can tap out coded messages yourself, watching the corresponding letters light up on the panel above the keyboard. The machines are in terrific condition; they look as if you could have bought them at Best Buy last week, if Best Buy were run by the Nazis. In an adjoining room, a man sits at a worktable with pieces of an Enigma scattered neatly in front of him, cleaning the electrical contacts. This is Dan Perera, from Hancock, Vt., and he makes his living buying, selling, and repairing Enigma machines.
“This one has a serial number of 3110,” Perera says of the machine he’s working on, “so it would be prewar, mid-’30s.” He points to another Enigma on the table. “This one has a serial number of 16,665, so it’s 1944.” About 300 to 500 Enigma machines survive, out of upward of 25,000 made during the war. Says Perera, “Until 25 years ago, these sat on flea market tables because people thought they were grandpa’s typewriter. They either got thrown out or sold for short money. People didn’t even know what they were.” If you can find one at auction these days, and it’s in pristine working condition, you can expect to pay from $125,000 to $200,000. “Under $100,000, they’re really crap,” says Rendell. Because our movies make stars out of things as well as people, the price of the machines is expected to rise in the wake of “The Imitation Game.”
But Rendell’s collection really supports the idea of things as supporting players in a larger human drama, one that you can stitch together if you just amass enough stuff. Gray cardboard boxes line the shelves of the museum’s workroom, with handwritten labels like “KGB coat,” “Trench Art,” “B-17 Nurse Flack Jacket,” and “French Resistance — Germane Leleu ‘Black Widow.’ ” A nearby men’s room has an Army anti-VD poster on the door and, facing the toilet, a US propaganda poster of a looming Nazi soldier with the warning “He’s Watching You.”
There is nothing in this unprepossessing building that does not have provenance, including the chair in which I sat in Rendell’s office that came from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New York home. The entire building is another world, a bygone world, 100 yards from a strip mall and bristling with history made present.
Maybe you’ll come here because you liked “The Imitation Game,” but it’s with war’s inglorious reality that you’ll leave.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.