Martin E. Dannenberg dies at 94

Insurance company chairman found rare copy of Hitler's Nuremberg Laws as a sergeant in World War II

August 27, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

Martin Ernest Dannenberg, who as a young World War II Army sergeant discovered a copy of the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws, one of Nazi Germany's most infamous documents, died Aug. 18 in his sleep at his Guilford home.

He was 94.

In a 1999 interview with The Baltimore Sun, Mr. Dannenberg, who was a special agent in charge of an Army counterintelligence team, recalled the moment April 28, 1945, when he realized the significance of the documents he had found in a small-town bank in Eichstatt, Germany.

What he held was a rather ordinary brown manila envelope sealed with red wax and embossed with swastikas.

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

Mr. Dannenberg carefully slit the top of the envelope and withdrew the typescript documents. The first thing he saw was Adolf Hitler's signature.

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

Mr. Dannenberg was not alone. He was accompanied by Frank Perls, a U.S. military translator, the son of Jewish art dealers in Berlin and a refugee from Nazi Germany.

He said that tears filled Mr. Perls' eyes when both men realized the historic implications of the document they had discovered, and that it was two Jews who had unearthed them.

"I knew the significance of it, and Perls did, too," he told The Sun.

A few days earlier, Mr. Dannenberg had experienced firsthand at the Dachau concentration camp the consequences of what the Nuremberg Laws had set in motion, as he gazed at the emaciated bodies stacked like so many railroad ties.

With Hitler's signature in September 1935, the Nuremberg Laws formally legalized anti-Semitism and persecution of the Jews.

"Their importance," Mr. Dannenberg said, "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.' "

Hitler unveiled the content of the Nuremberg Laws at the annual Nazi Party Congress rally in Nuremberg in September 1935. One of the more chilling edicts was the "Law for the Security of German Blood and German Honor," which forbade marriage or extramarital intercourse between Jews and "citizens of German or German-related blood."

The laws also excluded Jews from Reich citizenship. They could neither vote nor hold public office.

Jews were not identified by religion but defined as persons who had three or four Jewish grandparents. Jews who did not practice Judaism or had converted to Christianity were still considered under the new law to be Jews.

"Jews will not be permitted to employ female citizens of German or related blood who are under 45 years as housekeepers," according to the Nuremberg Laws.

Jews were forbidden to display the German flag or German colors, but were allowed under the edict to fly the Jewish colors. "The exercise of this right is protected by the state," the document said, ironically.

"The originals Mr. 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," wrote a Sun reporter in the 1999 article.

"The first thought that crossed my mind was that this would be a helluva souvenir to take back to Baltimore," he recalled in the interview, but he decided instead to turn it over to 3rd Army headquarters.

It was the last that Mr. Dannenberg saw of the envelope until more than a half-century had passed.

The envelope that he found eventually made its way to Gen. George S. Patton Jr., commander of the 3rd Army, who made it his personal property. In June 1945, during a trip home to California, the general donated the envelope to the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, a suburb of Los Angeles.

For the next 54 years, they remained undisturbed in a library vault until being discovered and placed on permanent public display at the Skirball Cultural Center, a Jewish museum in Los Angeles, in 1999, where Mr. Dannenberg was a guest speaker at the opening ceremony.

At the time, Dr. Michael Berenbaum, who was then president of Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual Foundation, told the Los Angeles Times that "each time I look at original material I am struck how ordinary it is, how lethal the consequences."

Late last year, the Nuremberg Laws were removed from display at the Skirball for analysis and conservation, said Susan Turner-Lowe, vice president for communications at the Huntington, in a telephone interview Wednesday. During that time, said Ms. Turner-Lowe, the issue of a permanent home for the documents was explored.

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