Los Angeles’ Skirball Cultural Center today will begin displaying the original text of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s infamous Nuremberg laws--which codified the exclusion of Jews from German society--in the hopes educators will use the document to provoke reflection on one of the great questions of the 20th century: How did one of the world’s greatest countries give rise to one of history’s most heinous crimes?
The Skirball museum has acquired the original German-language text of the Nuremberg laws on indefinite loan from the Huntington Library, which made the surprise revelation last weekend that it possessed the documents, whose whereabouts were unknown.
Uri Herscher, the center’s president, said the museum wants to make a viewing of the decree, which was signed by Adolf Hitler in September 1935 in a prelude to the death camps of the Holocaust, an important part of its regular morning tour for senior high school students.
Herscher said the viewing will be scheduled to follow the students’ tour of the Ellis Island Gallery, an exhibit that emphasizes the struggles of immigrants coming to the United States. He said he believed that the document will underline the tour’s focus on the preciousness of democracy, help illustrate the perils of depriving a people of individual rights and spotlight the power of hateful words.
“We need to take words very seriously,” Herscher said. “Six million Jews lost their lives because of the power of the pen in the hands of a monstrous autocrat.”
The document was welcomed by Jewish historians as a refutation to the claims of some fringe revisionist movements that argue that the Holocaust never took place, he said.
“You cannot, any longer, say the Nuremberg laws were a fabrication or an abstract theoretical document,” Herscher said.
The Skirball center has hosted about 1 million visitors--40% of them non-Jewish--since it opened three years ago. On mornings it has been open to tours by 200,000 public school children, he said.
Jewish scholars say that the Nuremberg laws, whose stated aim was to protect “the purity of German blood,” effectively redefined Jews, not just as a religious group but as a separate, alien race.
It explicitly prohibited sex or marriage between Jews and “citizens” of Germany. Jewish historians say that the documents marked an important legal step in segregation that would lead to the mass executions in Nazi death camps. Herscher said the Nuremberg laws prompted his parents to leave Germany and contributed to the deaths of 18 family members in Nazi camps.
“This document is not hypothetical,” Herscher said. “It meant the destruction of a third of the world’s Jewry.”
The Nuremberg laws, drawn up in two nights and typed on four pages of white paper, were discovered by U.S. troops in a town 40 miles south of Nuremberg and were donated by Gen. George Patton to library founder Henry Huntington.
At a news conference Monday the library’s president, Robert Skotheim, said it was never displayed because it did not fit the library’s British and American history focus. He did not fully explain why the library never revealed that it possessed the documents.
“I didn’t ask for an explanation,” Herscher said. “I was more concerned that these documents be presided over by a Jewish institution. These documents that were meant to destroy us would [otherwise] not be in our hands as a reminder that Hitler’s final solution was not the final word.”
One of the reasons that the Nuremberg laws did not provoke the kind of universal uproar and outrage they would today is because intellectual theories of racial and genetic inferiority were then common, historians say.
Marriages between white Americans and blacks or others deemed inferior were prohibited in many U.S. states, and Catholic and Jewish immigrants from Europe were viewed by some as belonging to a separate--and inferior--race from American Protestants.
The Nazi-era German sterilization law itself was modeled on a California law adopted during the eugenics movement, a pseudoscientific theory that some people were genetically inferior, said Dan Kevles, a Caltech science historian who is the author of the book “In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity.”
“There were a lot of intellectual movements that were quite anti-Semitic in Middle America, but we wouldn’t be here if they had taken hold,” Herscher said. “I have a lot of confidence in the democratic process. I’m hopeful that these documents will motivate us even more to perfect our democratic values as we enter the next century.”