Rules of Evil

A Baltimore Jew recalls recovering the original copies of Hitler's Nuremberg Laws, about to go on public display in Los Angeles.

November 15, 1999|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

A surge of emotion swept over the young Jewish soldier from Baltimore when he first took in his hands the original set of Nazi Germany's infamous Nuremberg Laws.

"I had a most peculiar feeling when I had this in my hand, that I should be the one who should uncover this," says Martin E. Dannenberg, now 84. "Because here is this thing that [begins] the persecution of the Jews. And a Jewish person has found it."

Dannenberg, then a sergeant in the Army Counter Intelligence Corps, held a brown manila envelope sealed with red wax imprinted with swastikas, the Nazi symbol chosen by Adolf Hitler himself.

He slit the top of the envelope and took out the documents. He saw Hitler's signature, written in a cramped, descending scrawl.

"There was his name," Dannenberg says. "One of the few Hitler signatures in existence. The thought came to my mind that this was it!"

Tears welled up in the eyes of his translator from U.S. military intelligence, Frank Perls, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany whose family had been art dealers in Berlin.

They were both immediately aware of the satisfying irony that two Jews had uncovered these poisonous documents.

"I knew the significance of it, and Perls did, too," Dannenberg says. He had been in Dachau, Germany's first concentration camp, only a few days earlier. He'd seen the emaciated bodies stacked "like cord wood."

The Nuremberg Laws, signed by Hitler in September 1935, had made hate and prejudice against Jews national policy in Nazi Germany and began the goose-step march to the Holocaust Dachau represented.

"Their importance," Dannenberg says succinctly, "was that this was the ticket, you might say, for the `legal' persecution of the Jews, which led to `Crystal Night,' which led up to the concentration camps and the `Final Solution.' "

Now, for the first time since Dannenberg found them 54 years ago in Eichstatt, Germany, the Nuremberg Law typescripts will go on permanent public display -- Dec. 5 at the Skirball Cultural Center, a Jewish museum in Los Angeles. He'll travel to the West Coast and discuss the recovery of the documents with Uri D. Herscher, president of the center, on Dec. 12, in the center's Holocaust Memorial Gallery.

Dannenberg retired in 1986 as chairman of Sun Life Insurance Co. A former president of Har Sinai Congregation, he lives in a handsome book-and-mirror-lined apartment in Guilford where he's recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery. He's a relaxed man, white-haired and still handsome, who recounts the story of his discovery with zest, irony, a fine sense of history and considerable narrative skill.

Hitler unveiled the Laws at one of his grandiose, swastika-draped Nuremberg rallies.

They had been written virtually overnight on the eve of the rally and rushed through the Reichstag, the German parliament, by then a rubber-stamp for Nazi ideology that even met in Nazi party headquarters.

The most noxious of these edicts was called the "Law for the Security of German Blood and German Honor."

This law forbade marriage or extramarital sexual intercourse between Jews and "citizens of German or German-related blood." It banned even the employment of female citizens of "German blood" by Jews.

The Reich Flag Law forbade Jews from raising the swastika, which was denoted the national flag.

The Reich Citizens Law made Jews aliens in this strange new wasteland of Nazism.

The originals Dannenberg found are convincing evidence of the banality of evil. They are simple bureaucratic copies typed on black-bordered white paper, unexceptional except for Hitler's signature.

When Michael Berenbaum, president of Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, saw the Laws, he was moved to tell the Los Angeles Times: "Each time I look at original material I am struck by how ordinary it is, and how lethal the consequences."

And Peter Black, a senior historian at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, has said that "of all the documents relating to Jewish policy by the Third Reich, this is the best known and most widely quoted by scholars.

"The combination of that and Hitler's signature on it makes it a compelling piece of history both factually and emotionally."

Through Army channels

Dannenberg was special agent in charge of a Counter Intelligence Corps team when they discovered the Laws on April 28, 1945, in a small-town bank in Germany. The Laws eventually moved through Army channels until they came to Gen. George S. Patton Jr., commander of the 3rd Army, who took personal custody of them.

On a brief tour home in June 1945, Patton presented the Nuremberg Laws to the Huntington Library, in San Marino, a Los Angeles suburb. Patton, whose family home adjoined the Huntington estate, had earlier signed and sent to the library a limited ceremonial edition of "Mein Kampf," Hitler's autobiographical blueprint for Nazism. Patton died in Germany in December 1945, after an auto-truck accident in which he was seriously injured.

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