A few weeks ago, Martin Dannenberg died at age 94. You’ve probably never heard of him. I hadn’t until I read his obituary in the NY Times. (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/29/us/29dannenberg.html) He was a retired insurance company executive. During 50 years of work for Sun Life, he’d risen from the mailroom to the chairman’s office.
Few people — even senior executives of major corporations — rate a Times obituary. What made Dannenberg special had nothing to do with his insurance career. Rather, he’d been the Army intelligence officer who, as World War II ended in Europe during April 1945, opened an envelope in a German bank vault. It contained the original documents of what had become known as the Nuremburg Laws — “the pretext for the dehumanizing of Jews that led ineluctably to the pile of bodies Mr. Dannenberg saw [earlier at Dachau].”
History offers many lessons to those who demonize, marginalize, and ostracize fellow human beings based on ethnicity, race, religion, or other criteria that eliminate the need for one person truly to understand another. Unfortunately, those lessons often go unheeded, especially when intelligent people who know better gain control over the discourse. It’s no great accomplishment to exploit vulnerable populations looking for convenient scapegoats and handy enemies. As such cynical voices prevail, civilization itself pays the price.
The story of what happened to the documents that Dannenberg discovered occupied most of the Times article. They eventually made their way to the National Archives, but not before General George S. Patton decided to keep them himself, rather than send them as evidence to war crime trials as his boss, General Eisenhower, had ordered. Instead, Patton gave them to the Huntington Library, which a close family friend had founded. There, they remained in a bombproof shelter; the world didn’t even know of its existence for the next 54 years.
It’s a fascinating story. But here’s the paragraph that caught my attention:
“He attended Johns Hopkins University and the University of Baltimore School of Law at night. He dropped out of law school when his boss [at Sun Life] pointed out the window at men selling fruit.
‘Each one of them used to be a lawyer before the Depression,’ he said.”
Obviously, Dannenberg did just fine without the legal degree that he once thought he wanted. There’s a lesson in that, too. At a time when there are still far too many law school graduates for the available legal jobs, the educational debt required to become an attorney skyrockets, and the ranks of dissatisfied practicing attorneys swell, it’s food for thought.