In the summer of 1998, Henry Korn '68 got a phone call from a young lawyer and fellow Cornellian that changed his life.
"You won't believe what I'm seeing here," Korn recalls being told by Jonathan Rauchway '94, an associate at Donovan, Leisure, Newton & Irvine, an old-line New York law firm founded in 1929. "I'm seeing an enormous collection of bound and unbound papers that were the late William Donovan's, and the firm is going out of business and doesn't know what to do with them."
What followed led to the establishment of the Donovan Nuremberg Trials Collection at the Cornell Law Library, part of Cornell University Library. It's the only Nuremberg collection containing the personal archive of General "Wild Bill" Donovan. During World War II, Donovan headed the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA, and was special assistant to the chief U.S. prosecutor during the trials of Nazi war criminals, which began 70 years ago this month (November 1945).
The collection, now partly digitized and freely available to the public, contains Donovan's private papers, original trial transcripts and a rare surviving copy of a psychological profile of Adolf Hitler, one of only 30 ever printed (all of which were supposed to have been destroyed).
Today, the Nuremberg papers remain highly relevant, with thousands of downloads every week for a wide range of uses, says curator Thomas Mills. They've provided precedents for a national lawyers' association seeking to convince the U.S. government that Guantanamo detainees have a right to counsel. Donovan's doodles on a memo were an important clue about his difficult relationship with Justice Robert H. Jackson, the chief U.S. prosecutor at the trials. Earlier this year, an alumnus searched the archive because he feared his grandfather had been a Nazi but found that his grandfather had lost a political post because he refused to join the Nazi party.
"It's important to historians because it opens up or sheds light on different parts of the historic Nuremberg trials, and how they were formed, that would perhaps remain murky without it," Mills says. "On an individual level, it's important to a lot of people, because they have family stories that are told within it. Third, there's relevance because it was the first international war crimes tribunal. Before this, genocide didn't exist in public international law."
But 17 years ago, when Korn walked the few blocks from his office to the law firm's headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the foundation of today's collection was spread out around a conference room, its fate unknown.
The firm, which had "tea ladies" who pushed carts serving tea and cookies through the offices every afternoon, was about to be partly absorbed by another firm. (Ralston R. Irvine, one of its original co-founders, graduated from Cornell in 1923 and received his J.D. from Cornell Law School in 1926.)
"They had handsome offices with beautiful millwork and mahogany … and I remember the books were in one of the conference rooms, because literally they were closing up within days," says Korn, who studied government at Cornell and graduated from New York University Law School. He served as an assistant U.S. attorney before entering private practice, and also is an adjunct professor of law at Pace University.
"The place was a mess, but I'm looking at the stuff and I could easily tell this was rather incredible, with original memoranda on trial strategies, investigative stuff from the OSS, a whole host of other things," Korn recalls.
He got in touch with administrators at Cornell Law School and Cornell University Library, as well as a friend, Nathaniel Lapkin, who previously had funded programs at Cornell and other law schools. The Nathaniel Lapkin Foundation funded the collection's digitization, and that summer Korn and his wife, Ellen Schaum Korn '68, transported hundreds of pounds of books and boxes from Manhattan to Ithaca.
"At the time I had a Subaru, and I shoved them into every space that I could find. They were wedged in so tightly I couldn't even see out the back," he says. "The car looked like a low rider that you would see in the movies."
While they were driving on Route 17, a state trooper pulled them over.
"He said, 'You're a moving violation,' or something to that effect. And I said, 'I've got to get this stuff up to Cornell University,'" Korn recalls.
The trooper asked what it was, and they explained.
"He started shaking his head, and said, 'I've seen it all,'" Korn says. "He said, 'I'm just going to give you a warning, but get that stuff up there.'"
This article originally appeared in Ezra Magazine.