August 26, 2010
Nuremberg Laws: Skirball’s loss is National Archives’ gain
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“I feel that the documents that meant to destroy us are now in the hands of the persecuted. The Final Solution turned out not to be the final words in Jewish life.”
A special, prominent display case within the museum’s galleries was designed by architect Moshe Safdie to hold the documents and “Mein Kampf,” where they have been viewed by some three million visitors over the last decade.
However, because of the fragility of the original Nuremberg Laws papers and their sensitivity to light, they required frequent conservation treatment. As a result, the original documents were displayed only three months of every year and replaced at other times by facsimiles almost indistinguishable from the originals.
Several months ago, Skirball senior curator Grace Grossman and Huntington library director David Zeidberg agreed that the documents needed extensive conservation work at the Huntington facilities.
The next development took Herscher and the Skirball staff by surprise. On Monday , Aug. 23, two days before the news conference, Huntington president Steven S. Koblik paid a visit to Herscher and told him that the Huntington board had decided to permanently transfer the documents to the U.S. National Archives, in effect terminating the “indefinite loan” agreement with the Skirball.
In an interview with The Journal, Herscher conceded that the National Archives might well be the best home for the documents. Indeed, if Patton had followed orders, they probably would have been placed there in the late 1940s.
However, Herscher was clearly upset by what he viewed as a breach of contract and at not having been brought into the discussion until the last moment, as well by as the possible effect of the documents’ removal on his institution.
“The loss of these artifacts to the Skirball is a profound one —to our visiting public, to our educational programs and communal outreach activities, and to the fulfillment of our mission as a Jewish cultural institution. It is in this last respect—our commitment to Jewish life and civilization — that the loss is most keenly and painfully felt,” Herscher wrote in a letter to Koblik that he shared with The Journal.
In an interview, Herscher acknowledged that the most hurtful part of the loss was a personal one.
“The Nuremberg Laws documents meant so much to me, because they had marginalized my grandparents [who perished in the Holocaust],” he said. “In a sense, by having the documents in a Jewish setting, we were honoring the memory of my grandparents and the other Jewish victims,” Herscher said.
In an interview following Wednesday’s news conference, Koblik said that “as a Jew and Holocaust scholar,” he could understand Herscher’s sentiments, but he insisted that Herscher’s criticism and letter were “a private matter” which it would not be appropriate to discuss further.”
However, at the news conference, the three participants—Koblik, Archivist of the United States David Ferriero, and Greg Bradsher, senior archivist at the National Archives, repeatedly lauded the stewardship of the documents by the Skirball center.
“The Skirball handled the documents in brilliant fashion,” Koblik said.
Skirball museum director Robert Kirscher has notified his staff that the Nuremberg Laws exhibit will remain, but using facsimiles copies. Herscher said he has decided not to keep the copy of “Mein Kampf”, and to return it to the Huntington.
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