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.
The Laws and "Mein Kampf" languished in a Huntington Library vault until last June, when they were turned over to the Skirball Cultural Center on indefinite loan. Officials at the Huntington seem simply to have ignored the historic significance of the Nuremberg typescripts, which fell far outside the library's specialization in British and American history and art.
Patton dictated a somewhat fanciful account of the discovery of the documents when he gave them to the Huntington Library:
"Some troops of the 90th Infantry Division fighting through the town 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. That was all that was in the vault."
Patton went on to say "these soldiers of the 90th Division were very fond of me, and I was very fond of them. They thought they would like to do something for me, so they sent for me, and we had a great public presentation.
"So it is my property," Patton declared.
Dannenberg remembers it quite differently.
"That's really funny," he says. "We had no hand grenades. We had no troops."
And he's checked several sources but he can't find any basis for the "great public presentation."
"Nobody seems to have ever heard of it," he says. And the 90th Division wasn't anywhere around Eichstatt at this time, whether or not they were fond of Patton.
Finding the documents
Dannenberg was special-agent-in-charge of the 203rd CIC Detachment, which was billeted in Regensburg, Bavaria, next door to a beer hall that dated from the 1600s.
So he's having a beer on an April afternoon in 1945, and everyone's leaving because the curfew was on and all civilians had to be off the streets by 5: 30 p.m.
"Except one man sitting in the back," Dannenberg says. "And he keeps looking at us."
Finally Dannenberg called him over and demanded to know why he was staring.
" 'I know the whereabouts of a document I think you Americans would like to have,' he said," Dannenberg recalls. " 'I'll tell you where it is if you will see I get to my home, which is near a town called Eichstatt."
Dannenberg, due to go to Eichstatt in a day or two, told the German to meet him at 7 o'clock the next morning.
The German showed up with a little bag and they took off with Perls, the interpreter, in a Jeep driven by another agent, J. Maxwell Pickens, a metallurgist from Bessemer, Ala. "Now tell me about these documents," Dannenberg said to the German, whose name he recalls as "Drittich."
" 'You've heard of the Nuremberg Laws?' he said. He spoke some English. I said 'Yes.' "
"So we explained that the Nazi storm troopers under Hitler's direction were molesting and maltreating Jews and other 'undesirables.' But when Hitler became chancellor he wanted to 'legalize' the oppression."
"So [the German] told us the original signed copy is in the bank vault in Eichstatt."
The Nuremberg Laws had apparently passed from the Lord Mayor of Nuremberg to an SS officer, who gave them to the German's uncle, a functionary in the Finance Ministry named Hans Rauch, to hide in a safe place.
"He had selected this bank near his home. He had a farm near Eichstatt."
Dannenberg's party drove out a dirt road to the farm where a woman was hanging up clothes near a stone house with a red tile roof.
"I remember the scene distinctly. So 'Drittich' jumps out of the Jeep and embraces Tante Gretchen."
He convinces her the Americans don't mean any harm. They simply want to ask Oncle Hans about some papers.
"We go into the barn and she leads a horse out of a stall and takes a rake and rakes some hay away. Raps on the floor. Door opens. It's like 'Phantom of the Opera.' Out pops Oncle Hans."
He was hiding from the Gestapo, not the Americans. He had offended his superiors by conceding the war was lost and saying they ought to prepare for the future.
They all piled into the Jeep and went to the country bank in Eich-statt where Oncle Hans opened the "vault," more a cabinet than a safe. He took out the manila envelope sealed with swastikas and put it into Dannenberg's hand.
Dannenberg took the Nuremberg Law typescripts back to his room in the house next to the beer hall.
"I'm now pondering what to do with it," he says. "The first thought that crossed my mind was that this would be a helluva souvenir" to take back to Baltimore.
But he quickly dismissed that idea and he took the packet to 3rd Army headquarters.
"We turned them over to one of Patton's staff. That was the last I saw or heard of the Laws until six weeks ago."
When he got home to Baltimore, he went back to his job at the insurance company and he gave talks about the Laws to various groups for a few weeks until interest lagged.
"Every returning G.I. had a war story," he says. But not many of them were as good as his.