Philadelphia, November 7, 2003
Battle over Nazi papers settled
Half the documents will go to a trash hauler, who found them in the house of a dead war-crimes prosecutor.
By Joseph A. Slobodzian
THE legal question of who owns about 32,000 Nazi documents discovered in the dilapidated Lansdowne home of a deceased Nuremberg war-crimes prosecutor has been settled in an unusual deal that will give half the papers to the local trash hauler who found them.
The settlement between the U.S. government and William Martin, owner of a Folcroft rubbish-removal business, was noted last week in a federal court filing and confirmed this week by lawyers for both sides.
Martin's attorney, C. Scott Shields, said that he, government lawyers, and officials of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum would meet this month to decide who gets which of the World War II documents found in the late Robert M.W. Kempner's home in 1999.
"We hope to have it done by Thanksgiving," Shields said. "Everybody pretty much knows what they want, so I don't think there will be any disputes."
Martin said yesterday: "I'm pleased. I think both sides are pleased, given that we're splitting them right down the middle."
He said he planned to put his portion of the documents up for auction.
The Nazi papers, in 40 file boxes, have been in FBI custody in Philadelphia since 2001.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard M. Bernstein called the settlement the best solution for both sides.
"You don't bet the 401(k) on the resut of a trial," Bernstein added.
The government argued that the papers, which Martin found when he was hired to clean out the Kempner house, were government property because Kempner acquired them working as a U.S. prosecutor at Nuremberg.
But the strange facts involved in the discovery also gave Martin and Shields confidence that they could prove the Holocaust Museum - and, by extension, the government - effectively abandoned the Nazi papers.
According to court documents, Kempner fled Nazi Germany in 1939 and settled in Lansdowne with his wife, Ruth; sons Lucian and Andre; and his secretary, Margot Lipton. After World War II, Kempner returned to Germany to help prosecute war criminals.
The evidence he gathered included papers of the German Armed Forces High Command, War Economy and Armament Office. Most were returned to Germany and some kept by the U.S. government.
Kempner, however, also brought numerous other Nazi documents with him when he returned to Lansdowne. When Kempner died at 93 in 1993, his handwritten will left everything to his sons. They, in turn, donated his files to the Holocaust Museum.
But Kempner also stipulated that Lipton could stay in the Lansdowne house with his possessions -- including the documents -- until she died.
In 1997, after Lipton, then in her 80s, moved to a nursing home in upstate New York, Holocaust Museum historians began retrieving the Nazi files.
Late in 1999, as the Kempner heirs prepared to sell the Lansdowne house, they hired Martin to remove the remaining contents, keep what he wanted, and dispose of the rest.
Amid the debris, court documents said, Martin found several trash bags filled with old papers written in German, many bearing the Nazi swastika.
Martin, according to court documents, planned to sell them to war aficionados but also sounded out Holocaust Museum officials. His call triggered the lawsuit over the papers' legal ownership.
Bernstein, who is fluent in German and majored in modern German history before becoming a lawyer said the documents in question represented about 10 percent of Kempner's collection.
Bernstein said some documents describe Nazi plans to invade and enslave the peoples of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. But beyond their value as authentic Nazi papers, he said, they do not significantly advance knowledge of the Nazis.
Bernstein said the most coveted rumored Kempner document has not surfaced: the diary of Alfred Rosenberg, one of Hitler's inner circle and a strong proponent of the extermination of European Jews who was hanged after Nuremberg.
Although Bernstein acknowledged that historians usually prefer to work with original documents, he said the Holocaust Museum would get copies of all documents selected by Martin.