Martin Dannenberg, an Army intelligence officer, was sitting in a German beer hall in April 1945 when a local man approached him, asking for help getting out of the war-torn country. In exchange, he promised him something that would be highly valuable to the Americans.
Intrigued, Dannenberg followed the man he called Uncle Hans to a bank vault in the town of Eichstatt, where he found a swastika-embossed envelope containing four of the most symbolic records from the war: original copies of the Nuremberg Laws.
The laws, which were signed by Adolf Hitler 75 years ago last month, outlawed marriages and sex between Jews and citizens of "German blood;" stripped Jews of their German citizenship; and established the swastika as the official flag of the Third Reich.
They established the legal underpinnings for marginalization of Jews and ultimately set into motion the Holocaust, historians say.
Dannenberg, under orders from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower to gather Nazi records and submit them for use in the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, photographed the documents with his Minox spy camera and gave them to his superior, Gen. George S. Patton.
But then the documents -- the only surviving original copies -- went missing and never made it into prosecutors' hands for use during the trials or into the collection of Nazi records now held in the U.S. National Archives. For Dannenberg, the discovery became little more than a personal memory which he didn't have the evidence to prove.
The Nuremberg Laws surfaced 54 years later at a small museum in San Marino, California, where Patton had deposited them for his personal safekeeping. And they were finally transferred this summer to the U.S. National Archives in Washington. Today, they were put on display for the first time.
While Dannenberg didn't survive to see the transfer of the records he first found – he died in August at age 94 – his family, who had been regaled for decades with his tale of the discovery, said he would be thrilled.
"We never saw the documents but we believed him," said Dannenberg's son, Richard, of his father's war story. "I'm sure he knows that they're here now. He would be proud."
Nuremberg Laws Charted Dark Course for Jews
Martin Dannenberg told the Baltimore Sun in a 1999 interview that he saw the discovery as incredibly ironic. "I had the most peculiar feeling when I had this in my hand, that I should be the one who should uncover this," he said. "Because here is this thing that begins the persecution of the Jews, and a Jewish person has found it."
Patton whisked the documents out of Europe and deposited them with the Huntington Museum near his family property in California. The General later died in a car accident, and the museum, lacking instructions from Patton, secretly kept the documents in a vault for decades.
The laws appeared publicly for the first time in 1999 when the Huntington loaned them to the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. But Dannenberg didn't immediately receive the credit.
"There was a comment that said General Patton found these documents and went in, guns blazing, to get them," said Richard Dannenberg. "When my father saw that, he said, 'wait a minute, that's not right. I'm the one who found the documents!'"
Dannenberg's story was later corroborated by government archivists and historians and the museum has since corrected its records.
"Had Patton not taken them back to California … these would have been used at the [Nuremberg War Crimes] trial, and when the trail was over, these records would have come to us in 1947," said National Archives senior archivist Greg Bradsher.
"What was significant about the find of the original Nuremberg Laws was … the symbolic nature of the documents themselves – what they intended to do and what they helped create," he said. "These were the first laws to marginalize a whole group of people before they came up with a definition of what a Jew was."
The documents will remain a permanent part of the U.S. Government collection of records from the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials.