May 17, 2007
Whose Nuremberg Laws are they?
Skirball display of original typescript stirs questions about acquisition, stewardship of infamous Nazi document
(Page 2 - Previous Page)On July 19, a few weeks after the revelation, a letter appeared in the Washington Post written by Martin Dannenberg, disputing Patton's account. Dannenberg, then 83 and living in Baltimore, said that as a special agent with the U.S. Army's Counter Intelligence Corps, he and two other agents, Maxwell Pickens of Bessemer, Ala., and Frank Perls of Los Angeles, had recovered the laws from a bank vault not in Nuremberg but in nearby Eichstatt and had turned them over to Patton's intelligence chief, with the understanding that they would be forwarded to the Allies' intelligence headquarters in Paris, where documents were being collected for war crimes trials. Dannenberg concluded that Patton never sent the documents but "kept them as a personal souvenir that made its way into the Huntington Library."
Dannenberg also wrote a lengthier account to the Skirball itself. At the same time, Platt and O'Leary interviewed Dannenberg, first by phone, then in person, and, in their words, "vetted" his account, concluding in a letter sent to officials at the Skirball, the Huntington and to Waxman at the Washington Post that they believed Dannenberg's account. They also believed it likely that "Patton had knowingly looted an important Nazi document."
Dannenberg later recalled that the laws were found "by two Jewish boys and a Southern Baptist." Pickens had died long ago and little information was available about him. By contrast, Perls, the son of prominent European art dealers, who as Jews were forced to flee Berlin, eventually opened his own celebrated art gallery in Los Angeles with the support of fellow emigre and art collector Billy Wilder. Although Perls died in 1975, his niece was still alive and provided Platt with access to Perls' papers, which supported Dannenberg's account.
The initial Skirball display said that "the typescript was presented to" Patton who, in turn, "donated" it to the Huntington. In September 1999, when the Skirball's main building was being retro-fitted, the laws' display case was dismantled. Moshe Safdie, architect of the Skirball building, designed a new special case for the Nuremberg Laws, and the Skirball invited Dannenberg and his family to the official unveiling of the new case, which took place on Dec. 12, 1999.
By then, in response to Dannenberg's account and supporting photographs he provided, the informational text inside the case had been changed. Patton's dictated account of how the laws came into his possession had been removed and returned to the Huntington. Also gone was a photo of Patton at the Huntington delivering the envelope containing the laws to trustee Millikan. In its place, was a photo of Dannenberg. The text was also changed. It now read that Patton had "deposited" the typescript rather than donated it.
The Nuremberg Laws continue to stand in Safdie's special wedge-shaped case, as they have since being revealed for the second time. They are still on "indefinite loan" from the Huntington, displayed as part of the Skirball's permanent exhibition, "Vision and Values," a triumphalist account of the American Jewish encounter.
The display does not focus exclusively on America -- it also incorporates both items and elements that Jews from foreign lands brought with them to this country, and it takes detours to include features on the Holocaust and Israel -- to illustrate the consciousness of American Jews. The Nuremberg case is called, "Prelude to Catastrophe," and stands at the entrance to the enclosure that discusses the Holocaust.
In a recent conversation, Robert Kirschner, vice president of special projects at the Skirball, said the museum made the changes to its explanatory label because the Skirball's "only interest is to be accurate." As for the history of the documents, the issues of provenance are "not ours to determine," Kirschner said, "because it is a loan." This opinion is shared by Platt, as well. Given the importance of the signed typescripts and the importance of publicly exhibiting them in a "context of Jewish history and an appreciation of Jewish ideals," Kirschner said, "our point of view is that we are grateful to the Huntington Library."
Platt reserves the brunt of his criticism for the Huntington. Platt's book provides a richly detailed and well-documented account not only of the Nuremberg Laws but of the Huntington itself, its founder and the trustees and officials and their politics and prejudices, and how they informed the institution.
Platt also details Patton's own racism and anti-Semitism. In researching the connections between eugenics in California and racial policies in Germany and between the Huntington family and Patton's, and the history not only of San Marino, where the Huntington resides, but also California itself, Platt reveals not so much a conspiracy as an old boys club of like-minded people.
For Platt, writing about the Huntington and the Nuremberg Laws also became a personal journey. As part of "Bloodlines," he reflects on his own history as a Jewish child in Northern England and the extent to which he disassociated himself from that background, both as a student at Oxford and then once in the United States at Berkeley, and in his academic career writing about racism but never in a Jewish context. All this changed when he found himself at the Huntington, whose formality recalled his early days as an outsider at Oxford, and yet was drawn into the Nuremberg Laws story.
In my conversation with Platt, I chided him that as a leftist professor whose academic activities include editing the journal, Social Justice, he was probably the only person who didn't know he was Jewish. Platt laughed but said that working on "Bloodlines" had caused him to reconsider his academic pursuits in light of his personal history and to think deeper about anti-Semitism as a form of racism. As a result of his book, Platt now found himself talking at synagogues and before Jewish groups and "engaging in all these interesting conversations."
Finally, in light of the Huntington's history and its handling of the Nuremberg documents, Platt has called on the library to be more open and called for it to allow a historian full access to the archives to produce a study of the institution and its history of racism, as well as other issues. Platt has since offered to "meet and do a staff workshop" to discuss the issues raised in the book. Platt's book is critical of the Huntington for never undertaking a serious investigation into the typescript's provenance -- although he admits that in the absence of other claims of ownership, the Huntington's possession "prevails for the moment."