Behind the Headlines: Evil Goes on Display After Original Nuremberg Laws Are Rediscovered

After resting 50 years in the vault of a small California library — its existence unknown even to Holocaust scholars — the original manuscript of Germany’s Nazi-era Nuremberg Laws will go on display this week at a Jewish museum in Los Angeles.

The Skirball Cultural Center was expected to officially announce Monday that it has received on indefinite loan the four-page document bearing Adolf Hitler’s cramped signature, which in 1935 deprived Germany’s Jews of all legal protection.

“It is like finding an original copy of the U.S. Constitution — but unfortunately a very evil one, signed by the man who instigated it. There’s a strange emotional power that comes with the original — some of the terror and horror is attached,” said Saul Friedlander, a professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles and a child survivor of the Holocaust who has written about the early Nazi years.

The document had remained in the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., since June 11, 1945, when Gen. George Patton Jr. presented the document to the library.

Patton, whose family home adjoined the Huntington estate, had a few weeks earlier given another present to the library — a deluxe, ceremonial copy of Hitler’s “Main 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 the German town of Weimar and inscribed by the general, also disappeared into the Huntington Library’s vault.

During the next 50 years, Huntington presidents and librarians knew what was in the vault, but 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, who believed that Patton’s presents were not appropriate for display, never thought of offering them to a more-appropriate institution.

What triggered a change was the opening of the Skirball museum in 1996, when Rabbi Uri Herscher, its founder and president, invited Robert Skotheim, president of the Huntington Library, for a tour.

Despite their different backgrounds, the two men hit it off. Their friendship deepened after Herscher invited his colleague to a family seder, and the idea of transferring the contents of the Huntington vault gradually ripened.

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,” recalled Herscher recently in an emotional 90-minute interview with JTA. “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.”

For Herscher, the document has personal meaning as well.

“It was the publication of the Nuremberg Laws that convinced my father and my mother, who had not met at that time, to separately leave Germany and emigrate to Palestine,” Herscher said.

The exposure to the Skirball has also affected the Huntington president. In a recent handwritten note to Herscher, Skotheim wrote, “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.”

Receiving the original Nuremberg Laws triggered another line of thought for Herscher. “We have a small Holocaust exhibit at the Skirball, but it shows only the results of what happened there. Here I held one of the causes of the tragedy, a missing link,” he said.

The three parts of the Nuremberg Laws were hastily drafted at a police station over a two-day weekend for presentation, and instant enforcement, at the massive “(Nazi) Party Rally of Freedom” on Sept. 15, 1935. They were typed on black-bordered, but otherwise nondescript, paper.

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.”

UCLA historian and political psychologist Peter Loewenberg said the 1935 edicts had long-range consequences.

“The Nuremberg Laws represent a major step in the increasing marginalization of Jews from German life,” he said. “In order to carry out the program of `The Final Solution,’ the target group first has to be marginalized, dehumanized, and removed from the code of citizenship. This is a critical moment. This legally excludes them. The next step is humiliation — Kristallnacht, 1938 – - then the wearing of the yellow star, then deportation and finally the death camps.”

Almost 10 years after the laws were passed, on April 28, 1945, men of the 203rd Counter Intelligence Corps 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 (underlined) 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.

The Nuremberg Laws and “Mein Kampf” are on display at the Skirball museum from June 29-Sept. 5. Following a renovation and expansion of museum galleries, the document will be on permanent exhibition starting in December.

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