LOS ANGELES — They are displayed matter-of-factly in a corner of an exhibit on the Jewish experience. Bureaucratic, hand-typed, without puffery or blandishment, they may be the most ignominious documents in the Jews' 4,000-year history.
They are four sheets of paper dated Sept. 15, 1935, signed by Adolf Hitler, that legally excluded Jews from German life and set the groundwork for exterminating them from Europe.
On display here, after being locked for 55 years in a library vault across town, the documents are eliciting high emotions over their historical content - and controversy over the fact that they languished for five decades out of the public eye.
"It is at once chilling to see the directives signed by Hitler that led to the disappearance of so many of my relatives, and also a mystery why this hasn't been made public before this," says Leslie Gersicoff, a Russian Jew who visited the Skirball Cultural Center Tuesday to see the papers on their public dbut.
"I cannot understand how a museum that understands the importance of originality can say it was all right to keep these secret," says Ms. Gersicoff.
Drafted at a meeting of German leaders before a weekend rally Sept. 14, 1935, the pronouncements - which define a citizen of the German Reich as being solely of "German blood" and prohibit marriage between "Aryans" and Jews - became law the next day.
Found in the town of Eichstatt, 40 miles south of Nuremberg, Germany, in the closing days of World War II, the documents were given to the San Marino-based Huntington Library in 1945 by Gen. George Patton, who lived next door to library founder Henry Huntington.
Since Patton's presentation to the Huntington, the documents have been kept out of sight, library officials say, because their content was beyond the scope of the library's mandate, which focuses on British and American history and art.
Experts say the documents' historical importance is inestimable because they were signed by Hitler and other German leaders, giving credence to the view that the German leader himself had a defining hand in initiating the Holocaust.
"Of all the documents relating to Jewish policy by the Third Reich, this is among the best known and most widely quoted by scholars," says Peter Black, senior historian at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. "The combination of that and Hitler's signature on it makes it a compelling piece of history both factually and emotionally."
Skirball president Uri Herscher says "the document was the beginning of the preparation for the extinction of the Jews. You begin by depriving them of citizenship and demean them, and prepare for a plan which, whether Hitler knew it or not, ended up with the extermination of 6 million Jews."
Mr. Herscher says he does not doubt the explanation by Huntington Library officials - that they felt no compulsion to make the documents public because their content, known as the Nuremberg Laws, was well known across the world for decades and thus constituted "nothing new."
Some observers suggest the documents might have stayed with the Huntington, except for the library's recently revised mission statement calling for an expanded educational outreach to the surrounding community.
Huntington president Robert Scotheim says the decision to donate the documents to the Skirball came amid a general climate of outreach among research institutions. "There is a democratization taking place within the museum community," says Mr. Scotheim. Noting that the Huntington was formed as a research institution, he says, "we now feel we have a broader obligation to serve the public."
But other scholars find such rationale confusing.
"It is puzzling to me why this was not made public sooner," says Saul Friedlander, a Nazi-era specialist at the University of California at Los Angeles. "Everyone knew the exact details of these laws, but I did not know there was an original copy. They served as the basis for defining a Jew, first in Germany and then across all of occupied Europe. They represent an absolute refutation to those who deny this ever happened."
Since the documents surfaced, a German historian has expressed doubts that they are authentic. But museum officials say a forensic examination in 1966 proves they are genuine.
Now hanging in a 5-foot-by-8-foot display case at the Skirball, the documents read, in part:
"Certain in the knowledge that the purity of the German blood is the fundamental necessity for the continuation of the German people, and endowed with unflinching will to secure the German nation for all times, the Reichstag has unanimously decided the following law which is herewith made public.
*Marriages between Jews and citizens of German or German-related blood are forbidden. Marriages which have been performed in spite of this law, even if they have been performed in a foreign country, are void.
*Extramarital sexual intercourse between Jews and citizens of German or German-related blood are forbidden.
*Jews are forbidden to raise the Reich and National flag - they are allowed to display Jewish colors.
*[A] Reich citizen is only [that] citizen of German or German-related blood who proves by his attitude that he is willing and capable to serve the German people...."
Such words are eliciting deep emotion from those who have seen the Skirball exhibit so far. Many examine the documents in detail and come away with tear-filled eyes, comments of dismay, and anger - but also release.
"The exhibit is very moving," said Edith Meyer, a German Jew who left Germany in 1938. But she recalls the day Hitler made the rules law. "I remember how it felt when we all realized German life had significantly changed forever."
"If these had been made public sooner, I think many who lost loved ones in the Holocaust could have reached healing sooner," adds Gersicoff.