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Judgment At Pasadena
The Nuremberg Laws Were in California Since 1945. Who Knew?

By Sharon Waxman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 16, 2000; Page C01

LOS ANGELES—Martin Dannenberg, 84, has plenty of war stories, but there's one he's never been able to put out of his mind. Because he wasn't sure of the ending.

Until now.

In 1945 the Baltimore native was a counterintelligence officer roaming through the wasteland of Western Europe with two other officers, gathering information for postwar trials, digging out suspected war criminals for prosecution.

Occasionally he would come across something unexpected. Like the day he was approached by a young German in a pub near Nuremberg. "He said he knew of something of great importance that would be of interest to us. That he would take us to it in exchange for transportation," recalls the white-haired veteran.

The informant led the agents south to the home of his uncle, an official with the German Finance Ministry, who led them to a bank vault in the town of Eichstaett. The official opened the vault with a key, and handed some documents in a yellow envelope, sealed with red wax swastikas, to the American soldiers. "I slit the top of the envelope and pulled it out," says Dannenberg, who is Jewish. "The first thing I see is this signature, 'Adolf Hitler.' "

Sgt. Frank Perls was one of two officers accompanying Dannenberg. A German-born Jew from Los Angeles who joined the Army after fleeing his homeland, he translated the text: "Marriages between Jews and citizens of German-related blood are forbidden. . . . Jews are forbidden to raise the Reich or national flag."

The documents were the infamous Nuremberg Laws, drafted hastily over a weekend in 1935 to legalize discrimination against Jews. The four typed sheets of paper were nothing less than the legal blueprint for the marginalization and, ultimately, the destruction of European Jewry.

Perls grew teary-eyed. "You'll never know what this is unless you've lived through it," he told Dannenberg.

Dannenberg took the documents, but didn't sleep much that night. "I was thinking where on my wall this would look best. But these were historical documents and were not in the right of any individual to own them personally. It had caused more misery than just about any document there is," he observes.

He turned them over to his commanding officer, who ordered Dannenberg and Perls to deliver them to Gen. George S. Patton, commander of the Third Army, who was about 100 miles south in Bad Tolz. The discovery was featured in articles in the New York Herald Tribune and Le Monde.

That was the last Dannenberg heard of the Nuremberg Laws until last June, when the Huntington Museum in Pasadena, Calif., revealed that the documents had been hidden there for 54 years.

"I thought they were with other documents used in the Nuremberg trials. It never dawned on me that they'd been sidetracked somehow," he said.

He was wrong. The Nuremberg Laws merely went from one private vault to another.

And the reason why that occurred has touched off an inquiry into questions of racism and secrecy in our own country, a faded echo of the ill intent enshrined in the document itself.

Not on Display

When the Huntington Library announced last June that it was donating the original text of the Nuremberg Laws to a Jewish cultural center on the west side of Los Angeles, there was surprise, and there were many questions.

Why were the Nuremberg Laws in Pasadena? Why did the Huntington never disclose their presence?

The answers were vague and incomplete. Patton, America's larger-than-life war hero, had donated them to the library, Huntington officials said, on a visit home in June 1945. As a child, Patton lived next door to Henry Huntington's estate, which later became the museum, and the two families were friendly. The document, accompanied by Perls's translation, did not fit the museum's collection of English art and antiques, and so was filed away and forgotten.

But these answers left many other questions in their wake. Why did the museum never publicly acknowledge receiving the documents? Why were they not formally made part of its collection until 1999?

Dannenberg, on reading the news, had one thought about his commanding officer. "I thought: 'That scoundrel,' " he says.

Tony Platt, a social work professor on fellowship at the Huntington at the time, was similarly struck by the news. "In the original press release they never talk about how Patton got the laws, or why. They avoided those topics," he says. "That made people like me curious about why they avoided the most obvious things on people's minds."

He dropped his research on California history and began looking into the story of the Nuremberg Laws in this country, which became the subject of a book he's writing.

In the months since the Nuremberg Laws were placed in a glass display case at the Skirball Cultural Center, researchers have concluded that Patton had no right to take the documents and apparently invented the story of how they came into his possession. The center has removed his error-laden letter of donation from its display.

Was the Huntington reluctant to display a document certain to draw Jewish visitors to Pasadena in 1945, a city where Jews and other minorities were not especially welcome? Or was it wary of the documents' dubious provenance? Platt believes that both are probably the case. The Huntington of 1945 "would not particularly want to make a public show of an icon that would explain to people racism against the Jews," he says.

Huntington President Robert Skotheim, who has been at the institution for 12 years, says both notions are mere speculation, and disputes that there would be a desire to discourage visitors of any kind.

"There's no doubt there was pervasive antisemitism," he says. "But I can't imagine not doing an exhibit so as not to attract certain people to the Huntington. All cultural institutions are interested in people coming to see them. I think that's absurd."

Instead, he insists, "It was clearly a case of amnesia."

But the decision to allow the Nuremberg Laws to gather dust for five decades leaves Holocaust historians mystified.

"The whole fact that Patton got it and gave it to a friend of his is strange. But that's not so strange, since Patton is Patton," reflected Saul Friedlander, a UCLA history professor and author of a seminal work on the Holocaust, "Nazi Germany and the Jews, Years of Persecution 1933-39." "But the strangest thing is that the Huntington didn't immediately forward it either to the National Archives or another institution for which it would be relevant.

"If in 1945 they couldn't understand the importance of the text, they certainly couldn't miss it after the Nuremberg trials" in 1946, Friedlander observed.

"And the more time went on, the more those issues became important for historians and survivors."

Community Standards

The answers may lie in the cultural and social norms of Pasadena and neighboring San Marino, a small city where the Huntington is located. In the 1940s, these towns were bastions of white Protestant culture. Minorities were prevented from living there through restrictive covenants enforced by homeowners' associations and, after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the covenants in 1948, through individual land deeds.

San Marino "was truly a racist little community," says Skirball Center President Uri Herscher. "It was packed with oil lords, and no Jews and no Italians lived there."

The millionaire barons--the Chandlers, Mudds, O'Melvenys--made their homes here. And Nobel-winning physicist Robert Millikan, chairman of the Huntington trustees, proudly considered his region "the westernmost outpost of Nordic civilization . . . [with] a population which is twice as Anglo-Saxon as that existing in New York, Chicago or any of the great cities of this country."

Millikan, president of the California Institute of Technology, was a Social Darwinist and an active board member of the Human Betterment Foundation, a group engaged in eugenics research. In the 1940s the foundation was documenting the medical sterilization of mentally ill people, and exchanging correspondence with Nazi scientists.

What would such a man do with the Nuremberg Laws, which outlawed marriage, cohabitation and relations between Jews and Aryans? Certainly not put them on display, Platt concludes.

In searching the Huntington's archives and reviewing Patton's papers, Platt found not only new evidence of the general's antisemitism, but indications that the Huntington studiously ignored these documents of seminal historic importance.

The three Nuremberg Laws--the first titled "Law for the Safeguard of German Blood and German Honor"--were drafted at a police station over a frantic two-day weekend just ahead of a major Nazi Party rally in 1935. Signed by Hitler and a few Nazi officials, the laws stripped German Jews of their German citizenship, barred marriage and "extramarital sexual intercourse" between Jews and other Germans, barred Jews from flying the German flag and from employing German domestic help.

Patton's writings are peppered with derogatory remarks about blacks and Jews. For instance, in a diary entry from Oct. 1, 1945, he wrote, "The Jewish type of DP [displaced person] is, in the majority of cases, a sub-human species without any of the cultural or social refinements of our times. . . . I have never looked at a group of people who seem to be more lacking in intelligence and spirit."

Patton also donated a massive, ceremonial copy of Hitler's "Mein Kampf" to the Huntington in April 1945--one of many war souvenirs he gave the museum--with the curious notation in an accompanying letter that it was given "as a slight tribute to the memory of my father."

Two months later, the hero came to Los Angeles and was greeted by parades and huge crowds. He also visited the Huntington, next door to his childhood home, and gave the Nuremberg documents to Millikan. A photographer captured the moment, but the photo was never released, the donation never announced and the document not formally made part of the Huntington's collection.

And Patton dictated a letter to a Huntington clerk on June 11 that seemed tailor-made to deflect questions over ownership:

"These soldiers of the 90th Division were very fond of me and I was very fond of them. They thought they would like to do something for me, so they sent for me, and we had a great public presentation. The former commanding general of the 90th Division . . . General Van Fleet, he actually made the presentation to me. So it is my property," it read.

Neither Platt nor anyone at the Skirball or the Huntington has found any independent evidence of such a ceremony.

Just as significant is what is not in the Huntington's official records. In the months and years after the documents' donation, there is no mention of the Nuremberg Laws in the notes of trustee meetings, highly unusual for such significant documents. A sole reference from a 1951 trustee meeting to "certain documents which General Patton turned over to us during his visit to the Library in June, 1945," never mentions the laws by name. Patton, the trustees noted, wanted the documents preserved "but with no publicity about them."

The idea, says Skotheim, might have been to hold the papers for Patton, though he acknowledges the documents were loot that probably should have been handed over to a government body. "I assume our motivation for accepting the documents, other than just a conquering hero returning and giving the booty of war to the Huntington, was they hoped to have Patton's private and military papers," he says. The Huntington did not get the bulk of Patton's papers, however, after the general was killed in a car accident in December 1945. Skotheim says the laws were forgotten after that.

Platt finds such a conclusion disingenuous. "Antisemitism was a regular pattern of the attitudes and behavior" of Patton, Millikan and other Huntington fixtures. "Antisemitism and racism blinded them to seeing this as important."

The Light of Day

The Nuremberg documents were ignored for three decades. But by the latter part of the 1970s, museum officials recall seeing them. The current curator of rare books, Alan Jutzi, remembers seeing the papers around 1976. The curator of rare manuscripts, Mary Robertson, was shown them in the late '70s or early '80s. Skotheim recalls an inventory turning them up sometime in the 1980s.

Still, the museum was exceedingly slow in deciding what, if anything, to do. In 1991 Robertson wrote a memo to the chief librarian saying that the Huntington might want to "review our policy" regarding the Nuremberg Laws.

She wrote: "Largely because of the uncertainty over title," the previous librarian was "hesitant to accession them formally as part of our collections and open them up to research in the general way. Presumably they have been in our vault since 1945, and have been quietly ignored for all of that time. . . . It seems proper to me that at some time the material should be made available to scholars."

It was Skotheim who finally acted. In 1996 he visited the new Skirball Center, and determined to entrust the Nuremberg Laws to the Jewish cultural institution. It took another three years before this could be accomplished. The document was permanently loaned, with the copy of "Mein Kampf," to the Skirball last June.

'A Full Accounting'

The lessons of history loom unexpectedly, to discomfit and instruct, again and again. Here in the shadow of the Santa Monica mountains, Skirball docents are anything but reticent to tell visitors about the full history of the Nuremberg Laws. They even point out what they take to be a mystical coincidence: the reflection of the photographs of Holocaust victims, installed across the way, in the glass of the display case.

However uncomfortable, Platt believes it is important to trace the path of the Nuremberg Laws, both before and after World War II. "I'm not trying to embarrass the Huntington. I'm trying to understand what happened," he says. "There should be a full accounting of what took place over the 50 years they had the document. They had a responsibility to check out who owned it, and to understand the history of the document in their own institution."

He adds: "The seeds of antisemitism and fascist ideas are here as well as over there. If you don't look at that, you say it's only a problem of Nazism as opposed to a real issue in the United States as well."

On this point, Herscher, the Skirball president, passionately agrees. "History is not just about Hitler and his documents," he says. "It's important to know that America is not pure of racist characters. This is still one of the greatest countries in the world, but let's not forget the warts. That only makes this country stronger."

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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