Jewish Journal

In Their Rightful Place

After 54 years in the Huntington Library's vault, the infamous Nuremberg Laws go on display at the Skirball

by Tom Tugend

Posted on Jul. 1, 1999 at 8:00 pm

The first part, titled "Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor," forbade marriage and sexual relations between Jews and "citizens of German blood." (This section contains the only handwritten change in the typed text, when someone crossed out the word "sexual" in strictures against "extramarital sexual intercourse.")

In the second part, those not of German blood are stripped of their citizenship, and the third part designates the swastika as the official German flag. (Jews are forbidden to fly the national flag but are permitted to display the "Jewish colors.")

To no one's surprise, the laws were passed unanimously by the Reichstag, the rubber-stamp German parliament, and then signed by Hitler, the ministers of the interior and justice, and Hitler's deputy.

Almost 10 years later, on April 28, 1945, and during the final days of the Thousand-Year Reich, men of the 203rd Counter Intelligence Corps detachment arrived at the town of Eichstatt, near Nuremberg.

As Patton described the action later, "They came to a stairway which they went down with grenades, in case there were any Germans. There were no Germans. They found a vault, not open, and persuaded a German to open it for them. In it they found this thing. That was all that was in the vault."

The "thing" was a large Manila envelope, secured with the wax seals of the Third Reich. Inside the envelope were the Nuremberg Laws.

Patton, whose family home adjoined the Huntington estate, had, a few weeks earlier, dispatched another present to his neighbor.

It was a deluxe, ceremonial copy of Hitler's "Mein Kampf," bound in white leather with bronze clasps, embossed with a gold swastika and weighing 35 pounds. The book, captured by Patton's troops near Weimar and inscribed by the general, also disappeared in the Huntington Library's vault.

Over the next 50 years, succeeding Huntington presidents and librarians were certainly aware what was in the vault, but they couldn't figure out what to do about it.

The Huntington complex, consisting of the library, art collection and botanical gardens, is primarily devoted to British and American history and art. Its officials thought that Patton's presents were not appropriate for display, nor did they think of offering them to a more appropriate institution. "They viewed the documents as artifacts that didn't relate to their collections," said Herscher. "They weren't aware of their emotional impact."

What triggered a change was the opening of the Skirball in 1996, when, as a professional courtesy, Herscher invited Dr. Robert Skotheim, president of the Huntington Library, for a preview tour.

The Skirball and the Huntington are located some 20 miles apart, but the institutions and their presidents existed in different worlds. The Huntington is situated in old-moneyed, Protestant San Marino, and its president is an old-line American of Norwegian descent.

The Skirball was created to interpret the Jewish experience in America. It is located between West Los Angeles and the southern San Fernando Valley, both centers of vibrant Jewish communities. Its president was born in Palestine, the son of Jewish refugees from Germany, and is a rabbi and former executive vice president of the Hebrew Union College.

Skotheim acknowledges that before he met Herscher, he had never been to a Jewish or Holocaust museum, neither in Washington nor the nearby Museum of Tolerance. Herscher acknowledges that before he met Skotheim, he had never been to San Marino.

Yet, despite their different backgrounds, the two men hit it off, and their friendship deepened after Herscher invited his colleague to a family seder.

Gradually, the idea of transferring the content of the Huntington vault ripened, helped along by influential mutual friends. Both institutions share several board members. Robert Erburu, chairman of the Huntington and the Getty Museum, is a member of the Skirball Board of Directors. "It is," said Herscher, "all about relationships."

The mechanics of the loan transfer took some time, but, last March, Herscher was invited to the Huntington to inspect Patton's gifts.

First, Huntington librarian David Zeidberg presented Herscher with the copy of "Mein Kampf."

"As soon as he handed me the book, I fumbled and dropped it," said Herscher. "I felt that I was holding a death warrant in my hands. Then I started crying. Then I went to the bathroom and for 10 minutes washed my hands over and over again."

Receiving the original Nuremberg Laws triggered another line of thought. "We have a small Holocaust exhibit at the Skirball, but it shows only the results of what happened there." Herscher said. At the Skirball, the documents will be contrasted with the vibrancy of Jewish life in America. "We can contrast this evil with the result of the democratic fabric.

"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 word in Jewish life. We now preside over the very documents that were meant to destroy us."

Although the Skirball stands mainly as an immigrant's tribute to Jewish life in America, the Holocaust is never far from Herscher's mind.

His spacious office is devoid of the usual testimonial plaques and honorary degrees. Instead, its most noticeable object is a large framed display with the photos of 18 family members who perished in the Holocaust, with the dates of their births and deportation to death camps.

"I was born into a mournful family, and the memory, especially of the grandmothers I never knew, has had much to do with the shaping of the Skirball," Herscher said.

The exposure to the Skirball has also affected the Huntington president. In a recent handwritten note to Herscher, Skotheim wrote in part: "We Norwegians are not very expressive. But I must confess my deep satisfaction at being in a position wherein I could make the transfer of documents happen. There is no doubt that the Holocaust is the governing event for our generation ... [it] assaults all of us, spiritually and intellectually, even though most of us were not attacked literally or physically."

The Nuremberg Laws and "Mein Kampf" are now on display at the Skirball Cultural Center through Sept. 5. Following renovation and expansion of museum galleries, the document will be on permanent exhibition, starting in December.

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