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Whose Nuremberg Laws are they?

Skirball display of original typescript stirs questions about acquisition, stewardship of infamous Nazi document

by Tom Teicholz

May 17, 2007 | 8:00 pm

A Huntington Library photo shows a page of the Nuremberg Laws signed by Adolf Hitler and other Nazi officials dated Sept. 15, 1935. The original text of Hitler's laws that codified discrimination against Jews and set the stage for the Holocaust is on display at the Skirball Cultural Center.  Photo by Chris Martinez/Huntington Library

A Huntington Library photo shows a page of the Nuremberg Laws signed by Adolf Hitler and other Nazi officials dated Sept. 15, 1935. The original text of Hitler's laws that codified discrimination against Jews and set the stage for the Holocaust is on display at the Skirball Cultural Center. Photo by Chris Martinez/Huntington Library

Sometimes we take for granted what is right in front of us. Consider that one of the most important documents of the 20th century is right here in Los Angeles, accessible and on view for all to visit. Few realize it; fewer still appreciate it.

Although originals of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights can be found at the National Archives in Washington, and the Magna Carta and the Rosetta Stone are part of the collection of the British Library in London, how many people know that there is an original typescript of the infamous Nuremberg Laws, signed by Adolf Hitler, Wilhem Frick (minister of the interior), Franz Gurtner (minister of justice) and Rudolf Hess (Hitler's deputy) on display here in Los Angeles at the Skirball Cultural Center and Museum. I've been to the Skirball on many occasions, but how many times have I walked by the case and not paid attention to its contents?

How the Nuremberg Laws came to California in the possession of Gen. George S. Patton, who left them to reside first at the Huntington Museum and Library in Pasadena and now at the Skirball, is a story explored in the recently released book, "Bloodlines: Recovering Hitler's Nuremberg Laws From Patton's Trophy to Public Memorial" by Anthony M. Platt and Cecilia E. O'Leary" (Paradigm).

Platt, a professor emeritus at Cal State Sacramento, and his wife, O'Leary, professor of American history at Cal Sate Monterey Bay, write that "little did we imagine that ... [writing this book] would lead us to an exploration of modern European history, Nazi legislation, the relationship between anti-Semitism and racism, fascist sympathies among California's elite and the cultural politics of libraries ... and [for Platt] would trigger an exploration of contradictions in my own Jewish identity."

Along the way, they conclude that Patton "looted and violated his own orders" in taking the documents as his own, as Platt recently told me. But as to who has proper claim to the papers, how we should regard the Huntington's role in conserving them (and keeping them secret for a half century), the Skirball's choices in displaying them and why we should care about this typescript of the laws is a larger discussion.

First the facts:

The Nuremberg Laws -- so-named because Hitler ordered their passage during the 1935 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg -- consist of three directives:
  • The Reich Flag Law made the swastika the national symbol, and at the same time, prohibited Jews from hoisting the flag. It was signed by Hitler, Interior Minister Frick and Gen. Werner von Blomberg, minister of war.
  • The Citizenship Law prohibited Jews from being German citizens, thereby stripping German Jews of their citizenship in their own country. It was signed by Hitler and Frick.
  • The Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor barred Jews from marrying or having sexual relations with non-Jews. It also prohibited Jews from employing Germans under 45 as servants. It was signed by Hitler, Frick, Justice Minister Gurtner and Hess.

Dated Sept. 15, 1935, these laws were approved unanimously by the Nazi government and printed and distributed throughout Germany the next day.

Almost a decade later, on June 11, 1945, Patton presented an envelope containing the Nuremberg Laws to Huntington trustee Robert Millikan. Patton had grown up in Pasadena, and his father had been a personal friend of Edward Huntington, the library's founder. In depositing the papers, Patton asked that there be no press and that the envelope be safeguarded in the Huntington's vault. Two months earlier, Patton had sent the Huntington a presentation copy of Hitler's "Mein Kampf" inscribed by Patton to the Huntington.

While he was there, Patton dictated a statement describing how he had come into possession of the laws -- he explained that in Nuremberg, the troops of the 90th Infantry "found a vault, not opened, and persuaded a German to open it for them. In it they found this thing." Patton went on to explain that the soldiers arranged for Gen. James A. Van Vleet, commander of the 90th, to make a public presentation of the laws to Patton. "So it is my property," Patton concluded.

Patton returned to Europe. Six months later, on Dec. 21, 1945, Patton died from injuries received in a car accident.

Fifty-four years after Patton's visit to the library, on June 26, 1999, the Huntington revealed to the world that a rare, original copy of the laws, which had been in their possession since 1945, would soon go on public display -- at the Skirball Cultural Center on "indefinite loan." The loan was being made, the Huntington declared, as a gesture of support and friendship to the Skirball, which had opened in its new home in the Sepulveda Pass in 1996. The Skirball revealed the documents in a public display a few days later.

At the time the loan was announced, Huntington president Robert Skotheim said he hoped this loan would be seen as outreach by the Huntington, a traditionally insular institution. "We now feel we have a broader obligation to serve the public," Skotheim told the Christian Science Monitor.

Instead, as Platt recounts, press accounts at the time, most notably by Sharon Waxman (then of the Washington Post; today she reports for The New York Times) were more interested in why the Huntington kept the documents secret for more than 50 years and why they were never displayed or loaned to other institutions. Skotheim offered several explanations: Patton had asked that they be put in the vault, and they were not released or shared or noted because they did not relate to the Huntington's other collections or to the focus of the research done there. The press reports remained skeptical.

At the time, authors Platt and O'Leary were spending the summer at the library as Huntington fellows, researching California cultural history. They immediately became engaged by the unfolding story and began the study that would eventually become "Bloodlines."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."The Huntington Library was originally the San Marino ranch property of Edward Huntington, whose fortunes came from his own family and by marriage and through railroads and real estate. Between 1910 and 1925, he assembled one of the great libraries of the world, acquiring the contents of more than 200 collections, including some of the world's great manuscripts, as well as books, Bibles, Shakespeare folios, presidential papers and rare first editions of poetry and fiction.

In 1919, the library was formally established. In 1925, Huntington agreed to make the library itself into a research institution, and to this day, it remains a place primarily for post-doctoral research.

In 1928, a year after Huntington's death, the estate opened itself to the public. Today, most people know the Huntington for its magnificent gardens, tearoom and Beaux-Arts art galleries, which include Gainsborough's "The Blue Boy."

The Huntington today remains a glorious estate, and its formality and essential WASPy-ness (or goyishness, if you like) is still palpable.

No one contests the Huntington's history of exclusion as detailed by Platt -- not the Skirball, not the current president of the Huntington itself, Steve Koblik, a European history and Holocaust scholar. But they see it as what the Huntington was, not what it is.

As Platt tells the story, the Huntington has evolved over the years. Robert Middlekrauf, its chief executive from 1984 to 1988, began the "democratization" of the organization, inviting more younger scholars and more women to do research there. Skotheim, president from 1988 to 2001, while still a traditionalist, recognized that the institution needed to open its doors by lending materials, inviting a wider range of scholars, as well as hosting a greater variety of exhibits and programs to attract a more diverse audience. The loan of the Nuremberg Laws to the Skirball was ostensibly done in this spirit.

Koblik joined the Huntington in 2001 and is its first Jewish president. He acknowledged in a recent phone interview that the institution's exclusionary past "was very accurate of a Pasadena-San Marino historical culture." However, he noted that San Marino itself is now 60 percent Chinese and, accordingly, very different from what it was in Huntington's day.

"Today the message [of the Huntington]," he said, "is that everybody is welcome." Koblik cited as an example a major series of African American cultural events that the Huntington has hosted over the last two years that "are SRO and 80 percent African American."

As for the Nuremberg Laws, Koblik said: "From the point of view of teaching about the Holocaust, the fact that they are at the Skirball is quite wonderful," He reaffirmed that "the purpose of the loan was to support the Skirball."

As for the question of the actual ownership of the Nuremberg Laws and how the Huntington handled them, Koblik said, "The provenance issue is not a very interesting one."

In reviewing the history of the laws, Koblik offered that "it was during wartime," the laws were "historical materials" and said Patton "liberated them." Koblik pointed out that the U.S. government seized all of the German official documents they could to preserve them. Patton, for his part, instructed the Huntington officials to put the documents in the vault, saying that he would later give instructions. "It's not unusual to get materials with restrictions." Then Patton died. "The family showed no interest in the materials."

"In this case, there was no clarity, no written agreement [regarding the laws]. They were forgotten." Koblik said that "this is not unusual," noting that only recently they had discovered a letter from Christopher Columbus in the vaults.

Koblik suggested that it was interesting to compare the situation with the laws to another case involving the Huntington concerning a photographic copy of the Dead Sea Scrolls. When Israeli researchers denied access to the scrolls to scholars, the Huntington released its photographic copy in the face of threats of suits from the Israeli government (the suits were never filed).

In the case of the laws, the Huntington's is not the sole copy (the other is in Nuremberg); its contents were widely published and are widely known. And, Koblik said, they are now on display to the public at a place where it has "more meaning."

So the laws and their provenance are "not an issue for us," he concluded.

In truth, the ownership of the Nuremberg Laws is not being contested, and no other claims of ownership have been made. As a friend said to me, "basically, it's just you stirring the pot." Fair enough. Nonetheless, I asked the opinion of E. Randol Schoenberg, the Los Angeles attorney who recently successfully recovered five paintings by Gustav Klimt from an Austrian state-owned museum on behalf of Maria Altmann.

"It would be a difficult case to decide," he said. Noting that there were cases where U.S. soldiers who looted artworks were forced to return their plunder; he acknowledged that claims could be made by the city of Eichstatt for the documents' return. The U.S. government, to which the documents should have been turned over, could also make a claim, and Schoenberg offered an opinion that the U.S. claim would be stronger than the German one. Nonetheless, he said it is possible that if the statute of limitations has run out on filing a claim, the Huntington would prevail. Schoenberg concluded that there is "no easy answer."

Still, the Huntington is not giving up the documents. Although Koblik made clear that the Huntington is not concerned about this issue, he said "our job is to collect and preserve" and reiterated that the documents are on loan and that they could consider requests from another institution, such as the Holocaust Museum in Washington.It's interesting that in my conversations with both the Skirball's Kirschner and the Huntington's Koblik, they both pointed out that for historians, the typescripts have little worth. The typescript contains no information not readily available elsewhere -- and they don't in any way advance our knowledge. It was not a secret document -- on the contrary, the Nuremberg Laws were immediately published all over the Germany. The Huntington's copy also is not unique -- another one is in Nuremberg. The document's value resides in the signatures, both said. Its appeal is fetishistic. It is a totem.

Which is exactly why it's important to see the typescript and the signatures for oneself. The laws are just four sheets of typed paper. They look so bland that it is easy for one's eyes to glaze over just staring at them. And yes, it is their apparent banality that makes them so important.

That the Nuremberg Laws were no secret is also part of what makes them so chilling. So much discussion of the Nazi era and the final solution has to do with "secret" plans to exterminate the Jews. So often in discussing the Holocaust, one wonders: Who knew what and when? But here there are no secrets. The Jews are written off, literally in a few paragraphs.

The writing on the paper became the writing on the wall -- heralding the fate of the Jews.

And then there's the fact that they are "laws." One of the main tenets of modern civilization is the regard for the moral underpinning of the rule of law. It is what we cherish about this country -- and what we are willing to fight for in other countries. The just exercise of the law is, we continue to believe, the solution to global, regional and local conflicts. So it is all the more frightening to see how pseudolaws enabled the Nazi regime.

Just as the Nazis built their philosophy of National Socialism on the pseudoscience of eugenics and racial theory, they also built the legitimacy of their anti-Semitic campaign on the foundation of pseudolaws, such as the Nuremberg Laws signed not only by Hitler but by Justice Minister Gurtner.

One is reminded of the final scene in Abby Mann's "Judgment at Nuremberg," in which Jannings, the Nazi judge, tells Haywood, the American prosecutor, that he did not imagine the Nazi's actions would lead to the death camps, and Haywood responds that "it came to that the first time you sentenced to death a man you knew to be innocent." The power of the Nuremberg Laws is that we already know what happened once they were passed.

The lesson, as I see it, is that more often than we would like to believe, things are as they seem: The Huntington, to the visitor, feels like a WASP enclave, inhospitable to outsiders -- turns out it was.

The story of how the Nuremberg Laws turned up in the Huntington's vault and how Patton acquired them seemed too good to be true -- turns out it was.

The Huntington's loan of the documents to the Skirball was a generous act, intended to express a new willingness on the part of the Huntington to reach out to fellow L.A. institutions, and to a Jewish one at that -- it was.

Platt discovered that in telling a story about social justice, racism and anti-Semitism, he reconnected with his own personal history. Born Jewish, Platt discovered he was Jewish (and I don't mean that glibly -- I mean that in a deeper sense).

And finally, the Nuremberg Laws were no secret -- they, too, meant what they said. That Jews were no longer citizens, and their life and lives would no longer be treated as having value.

Go see the Nuremberg Laws -- sooner rather than later. They are at the Skirball, but they are on loan. And the Huntington means it. They may not be there forever.

Take your children and your friends. Don't let their eyes glaze over. Let them know what they are witnessing. Tell them that laws are made by men, but governments can pervert them. Show them the power of a signed piece of paper.

Gen. George S. Patton, right, presents Huntington Trustee Chairman Robert A. Millikan the packet containing the original copies of the Nuremberg Laws on June 11, 1945
Gen. George S. Patton, right, presents Huntington Trustee Chairman Robert A. Millikan the packet containing the original copies of the Nuremberg Laws on June 11, 1945

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.

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