Dr. Deborah E. Lipstadt is the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University’s Tam Institute for Jewish Studies. Her 1993 book Denying The Holocaust: The Growing Assault On Truth And Memory was the first full-length study of those who deny the Holocaust. Her characterization of British author David Irving as a Holocaust denier led him to sue Dr. Lipstadt for libel in a British court.
Ultimately, the judge found David Irving to be a Holocaust denier, a falsifier of history, a racist, an anti-Semite, and a liar. Her legal battle with Irving lasted nearly six years. According to the New York Times, the trial “put an end to the pretense that Mr. Irving is anything but a self-promoting apologist for Hitler.” In July 2001 the Court of Appeal resoundingly rejected Irving’s attempt to appeal the judgment against him. Her profound victory in that case is recorded in her book History On Trial: My Day In Court With David Irving published in 2005.
This recording captures her in front of an audience at Loyola University in New Orleans.
Dr. Deborah Lipstadt:
Good evening, it’s a pleasure and an honor being here, to be in the presence of people who know of what I speak, face to face, who endured it, who lived through it, who built new lives, who came to this community, built new lives, became active members of a community. It’s really an honor and a privilege, and I thank you for being here tonight.
I’d like to really try to do two things tonight; I’d like to talk more generally as a scholar, who has spent a lot of time studying Holocaust deniers and their modus operandi, and then I’d like to turn to my own personal experience in court, defending myself against libel charges brought against me by a Holocaust denier, the world’s leading Holocaust denier, or once the world’s leading Holocaust denier, David Irving.
So first, some background on Holocaust denial in general. Holocaust denial is the name we give (now sometimes people will… Here already two words into my lecture and a parenthetical statement), some people will (I spend too much time in the academy), some people call it Holocaust revisionism. I don’t call it Holocaust revisionism; I use the term Holocaust denial. Deniers like to be called revisionists, because they argue they’re revising the truth. They’re not revising. Revising is what goes on here at Loyola and many other universities, in all sorts of departments as we look at existing truths and try to go deeper and learn new things. What deniers are doing are denying, and the name we give to this small group of people who try to argue that the Holocaust’s systematic annihilation by Germany’s Third Reich of European Jewry never happened
Now, not all deniers adhere to the same arguments, but certain premises are common to all of them, and let me go through them:
First of all, there was no genocide. The term Final Solution when used by the Germans with regard to the Jews meant the expulsion of Jews from Europe to Eastern Europe setting them up in some sort of territorial area. But the object was to decimate and uproot the Jewish community but not to cause it physical harm. That’s the first contention.
Contention number two: The gas chambers never existed, that gas chambers would have been a scientific impossibility. They would have blown up, they wouldn’t have been able to function, etc., etc.
Number three: That the number of Jews actually killed by the Nazis and their allies is substantially smaller than six million. It’s equal to or may be even smaller than the number of German civilians killed in Allied bombing raids. So, what they’re doing here, and I’ll talk a little bit more about this, is well yes some Jews died (they’ll usually say “died” not “were killed”) but even more Germans were killed by the Allies. Hitler’s Germany was not the instigator of World War II, the war was started by the Allies, and they were prompted into doing this, or pushed into doing this, by the Jews.
And the Jews created the notion of a genocide, of Holocaust, so that they could do two things; they could win the sympathy of the world, and money from Germany. Sympathy of the world, which would enable them to create a Jewish state, and money because Jews are always interested in money.
And finally, Jews succeeded in fabricating the documentary and the material evidence of a genocide, and planting it in places to make the Germans look guilty. Every time you come up with some explanation for something they will come up with some sort of rational explanation for this.
They pay a lot of attention to trying to deny things like the diary of Anne Frank, trying to prove that the diary of Anne Frank is a fraud. Now the reason that they spend so much time and energy trying to deny the diary of Anne Frank, is because, I think for a lot people, how many people here, of course other than people born in Europe, was the diary of Anne Frank one of the first things you read about the Holocaust? Okay, so there’s your answer why they try to prove there was a fraud. They want to say, well, false in one thing, false in omnibus, as they put it false in everything. So they try to attack that and create doubt.
Now, who are these people and why are they doing this? These people by and large, when we talk about them, who they are and why they’re doing it, boils down the same one word, and that’s anti-Semitism. These are anti-Semites, and Holocaust denial is naught but a form, a somewhat more intellectualized, or pseudo-intellectualized, it’s not intellectualized at all, but pseudo-intellectuals’ pseudo-scientific form of anti-Semitism. They can’t stand the notion that Jews have maybe won some sympathy from the world because of the Holocaust. Amongst them are many people who are enthusiastically pro-Third Reich. They look at Nazi Germany, and they find in it much to approve of, much to like, so they know that the blot on the Third Reich’s reputation, amongst all other things, it did many many horrible things, many many terrible things, but the major blot of course is the Holocaust.
So, often what they’ll try to do is not just to deny the crimes committed by the Germans, but to recast the Germans as the true victims. So they will deal, I used the term a moment ago, in what we call immoral equivalencies. So they will say, “Well, yes, the Germans bombed London, but the Allies bombed Dresden,” or, “Yes, the Germans had camps (Because they can’t deny that there were concentration camps. Those were reported even in the German press, which was hardly a free press, but everybody knew there was this system of concentration camps.), but the Americans had camps too.” Who did we have camps for? No, we didn’t have camps for the Japanese. Who did we have camps for? We had some camps for some German foreign citizens who were exchanged, but when it comes to the Japanese, we had camps for Americans of Japanese descent. There were some Japanese citizens there, but the majority were Americans of Japanese descent. I think it’s a very important distinction, and especially when we’re talking about the Holocaust, one we should really be aware of.
So they’ll do all sorts of immoral equivalencies, they did bad, we did bad, in war bad things happen, but there is no immoral equivalency for the Holocaust, so they have to deny that in order to resurrect, so to speak (I know I’m in a Catholic institution, so I use that term. I hope I didn’t wear out my welcome with one word.) to rebuild Nazi Germany’s reputation. But at the heart of all these notions is that Jews are not the victims, but Jews are the victimizers. And the Germans have been victimized at the hands of the Jews, and made to look like they did a terrible thing.
Now of course, one of the logical questions that will arise if anybody thinks about this they’ll say, “But wait a minute. The Germans acknowledge that they did it.” One of the first things Adenauer’s government, the post-war government of Germany did, was pretty soon after the war enter into a reparations agreement with Jews who had their lives decimated by the Holocaust and Jewish institutions that were decimated, etc., etc. So why would the Germans say they did it if this is just a myth? And what the deniers will say is, “Well, Germany so wanted to be accepted back into the family of nations that it knew that the only way it could find it’s place and be accepted back into the family of nations was by saying ‘we did it and we’re sorry.’” If they had stood there and told the truth, according to the deniers of course, that we didn’t do this, that they never would have found that place, they never would’ve regained their footing. So this was a way of regaining their footing and their acceptance back into the family of nations.
But it’s not only anti-Semitism that motivates deniers. There’s also, amongst deniers, a deep-seated racism. Many deniers, if you go to any white supremacist website (I don’t suggest you do this often.), but as an intellectual enterprise (You won’t learn too much, but you’ll see important things, so maybe you’ll learn something important.). You go to any white supremacist website, you’ll find that in addition to deep-seated racism is, of course, anti-Semitism, and within that you’ll find Holocaust denial.
One of the leading supporters that David Irving had in this country, men with whom he was very close, whenever David Irving would come to this country he spent a lot of time in Key West and several from New Orleans would go down there and they’d play tennis together and David Irving edited his book, and that of course is your most infamous former resident, or still resident, of New Orleans, David Duke. And he’s mentioned in his diaries, etc., and they exchanged fundraising lists. David Duke gave Irving lists of his major donors, and Irving gave Duke the list of his major donors on the supposition that whoever supported one would probably be interested in supporting the other, and I don’t doubt it.
Going back to the immoral equivalencies for one moment, and this is important because Germany’s just coming out with the report which addresses this very issue, one of the major foci of the deniers for their immoral equivalencies (“You did bad, we did bad.”) is Dresden, the city of Dresden. And in fact Dresden is always treated as the closest thing, if not an Allied war crime. That the Allies, the general impression, the general supposition, was that here was this medieval city, this architectural and artistic cultural gem of a city, which was not a military site, which the Allies, the Americans and the British, in two nights of bombing decimated and killed thousands and thousands of people. In fact deniers will, David Irving primarily amongst them, will often argue that as many as one hundred thousand people were killed in this one day/two nights of bombing. And what they’ll say is, “Well, yes, maybe over all the years in Auschwitz, seventy thousand people is the number they sometimes use, died (They don’t say ‘murdered.’), died at Auschwitz, but if you want to see a real tragedy, look at Dresden.” They point at other cities, but they point primarily to Dresden because that’s best known.
And let me just say a few words about Dresden. Now, I don’t want you to think that any civilians dying, any non-combatants dying, in bombings is not a tragedy; it’s always a tragedy. But Dresden was hardly a non-military target. It was a city that was filled with small factories that were producing elements for, all sorts of things, for the Wermacht, for the Luftwaffe. It was a railway hub so that troops coming from the eastern front, of course coming back to Germany, were transported through Dresden on a daily basis. In fact the bombing of Dresden takes place mid-February 1945, and we know in October ’44 there were ten thousand officers and soldiers who were transferred through Dresden on a daily basis. So probably by February there were even more, because the front was closer.
So it was not just a random act, “let’s find the nice city and destroy it, and bring the German people to their knees.” I think there’s another thing that’s important about the bombing of Dresden, and that people often say, “Well, it was right at the end of the war. What was the point? It was right at the end of the war.” But if you think about the war chronology, Dresden came much closer (The war ends in May, April/May, as you know, but the official ending is in May.), the bombing is in February, and that February date is much closer to some other event in the war than the end of the war, and what was that? Battle of the Bulge, exactly, which was barely an Allied victory. In fact there would be those who would argue that the Germans almost won that, and it almost turned the tide of the war with the Battle of the Bulge.
For the soldiers on the ground, the bombing of Dresden came very close to the end of the Battle of the Bulge, not so close to the end of the war. But most importantly, recent studies just completed by German historians correspond with what the Nazi-era police of Dresden estimated was the death toll, and that’s approximately twenty-five to thirty thousand people. Not a small number, not a mum number to be talked about lightly, but not a hundred thousand.
But, the reason I’m making this point, is if you pick up various popular publications; I’ll even admit that not so long ago, I found in a used book bin for I think 87 cents, World War II For Dummies, so I bought it. I figured I want to see what maybe some of my students are using. (No. You ever tell them that I said that, I’ll deny it, and I know something about denial.) I flipped the book open, and of course the first thing I see is the bombing of Dresden. So, the author of this book says, “The bombing of Dresden is the closest thing that we have to an Allied atrocity war crime committed during the war, and the estimated number of dead goes above a hundred thousand.” So here you have this book that’s dedicated to students into which denial material has filtered and is accepted as fact.
A few years ago, middle of February in the week of the anniversary of the bombing, a major newspaper carried an article on the bombing and talked about estimates of the number of dead going as high as a quarter of a million. Well first of all you think logically, using conventional bombing to bomb and kill a quarter of a million people in two nights of bombing is virtually impossible. To dispose of all those bodies is virtually impossible. The bodies were disposed of within a month. They were burned to avoid disease by the Dresden police and city officials.
So there are many reasons to raise questions. The reason I’m belaboring this point is to show you how a falsehood can enter common parlance in an easy kind of way. The same falsehood could be that people would say, “Oh, I know there was a Holocaust, but I also know that gas chambers were impossible.” That hasn’t happened, but it’s very easy for those kinds of things, if handled a certain way by the deniers, for them to enter common parlance and sort of become common knowledge, as is the case with the bombing of Dresden.
Now, one or two more words about the strategy, the modus operandi, of deniers, then let me turn to my trial itself. One of the things deniers figured out, they figured this out I would say about twenty-five, maybe thirty years ago now. The deniers were around right after World War II. People couldn’t stand this notion of Jews having suffered, Jews having been destroyed. It came from a number of different sources. But they never gain much traction. And in the early years, the most vocal deniers were neo-Nazis who either said, “Oh, it was a good thing the Jews were destroyed. They deserved it,” or, “They deserved it, but it didn’t happen.” They were happier with the second one because they could say they deserved it but the Germans didn’t do it. But these were neo-Nazis. The kind of people that if you saw them you’d say, “I’m not going to believe anything they say. Everything they say I’m going to treat with great skepticism or just reject it completely.”
But in the mid to late seventies, deniers hit on a different tactic, and it’s actually a tactic now that is used by many extremist groups. And what they did was, they began to present denial not as, “We are out to defend the Germans. We are out to defend the Third Reich,” but to present denial (this is when they began calling themselves revisionists), “We are interested in revising mistakes in history. We are interested, we have no anti-Semitic agenda, no pro-German agenda, we just want to look at all mistakes in history and revise them.”
Now, those of you who are students of history know that there is a school of historical revisionism that’s a respected school of thought. Revisionists in many different fields have pointed out things which are very important, starting with things like the Versailles Treaty and the Paris Peace Treaties that ended World War I. Some of those historical revisionists were the first ones to say, “These aren’t good treaties. They’re putting too much of a burden on Germany. Germany Weimar democracy is never going to survive this, etc., etc.” Then they were looked at as off-the-wall. Later, now their once edgy kind of evaluation of history now is accepted as the norm, it’s the accepted view.
So these deniers say, “Well what we’re saying now sounds edgy, sounds extreme. One day it will be accepted.” But what they did, it’s not just what they called themselves and the arguments they made, but they began to publish a scholarly-looking journal. They began to have conferences that sounded like scholarly conferences. They created an institute, the Institute for Historical Review. Now of course, when you looked at anything they did it all had to do with the Holocaust, and it was all about Holocaust denial. It had no other mistakes in history that they were looking at. And if you looked at their press, their press published things like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, published all sorts of anti-Semitic tracts, published all sorts of terribly racist kinds of books, etc., etc. But they looked scholarly, they had a lot of footnotes, they looked like this was serious (I can say it; I write books with a lot of footnotes.). They looked like they were serious but if you scratched one inch behind the form you saw that this was nothing but complete pseudo-history and pseudo-science.
So the other thing they would argue is that if you go to a university all sorts of things can be studied, all sorts of things can be investigated, the only terra sancta, the only turf that questions can’t be raised about is the Holocaust. You can’t ask questions, you can’t question things, you can’t debate. Which of course is ridiculous if you look at the historiography of the Holocaust, how it’s been studied. Just over the past fifteen years, twenty years, you see so many changes. People used to say that the death toll at Auschwitz was four million. We now know that the death toll at Auschwitz of Jews was probably closer to a million, probably on the plus side a little bit more than a million. We used to think that Nazi Germany was a very well organized kind of structure with Hitler deciding things and it working its way down. It was the epitome, the zenith of the bureaucracy, of the totalitarian bureaucracy, where everything was clearly decided and came down in an orderly way. We now know that that’s not the truth.
There are many other things that we used to think that we now realize were not the case. I’m writing a book now on the Eichmann trial, it is soon going to be fifty years to his capture, and at the Eichmann trial the prosecutor, Gideon Hausner, presented Eichmann as a monster, as a diabolical monster. We now know that most of the killers were not diabolical monsters but were very normal people who were led to do, maybe because of ingrained anti-Semitism, or for lots of other reasons, but when you met them they didn’t seem like diabolical monsters. They were committed to what they did, they weren’t just bureaucrats as Hannah Arendt would have you believe in her Eichmann in Jerusalem, but they weren’t these diabolical creatures that were different from you and I. And that’s very important because we can better understand genocide by recognizing that.
So there’s much that changes in the study of the Holocaust. There’s much that’s debated. Some of you may remember the debate a number of years ago over the work of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, who argued that the Holocaust was something uniquely German, could only have happened in a Germany because of Germany’s long history of anti-Semitism. Other historians said that’s ridiculous, they disagree with it, and it was a very open and vigorous fight. So to argue that the Holocaust can’t be studied and can’t be looked at and isn’t looked at is of course a mispresentation of the facts.
During the Q. & A. if you have more questions about their methodology and their modus operandi I’d be happy to answer them. But I want to turn now more to what happened to me personally, what was my personal encounter with Holocaust deniers.
Now, I started to write about Holocaust denial at the suggestion of two prominent historians of the Holocaust, Yehuda Bauer and Yisrael Gutman, who suggested to me that I do this as a research project. So I initially thought this was going to be a project that would take me a few years, and then on to other things. This was not going to be something that was going to shape my life in the way that it has. I wrote a book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, which covers a lot of the material I’ve been giving to you tonight, attempt to understand who these people are, what’s their history, how does this evolve?
It wasn’t an attempt to answer deniers sort of tit-for-tat because I don’t believe in debating deniers. Debating deniers is like trying to nail a blob of jelly to the wall. It’s impossible because no matter what you say to them they’re going to make something up. If you have no serious commitment to the truth, you could say anything you want. You make up, “I have a document that says this. I have a document that says that.” You half quote, you don’t give the exact statistics, you change things around. I’ll give you some examples of that in a moment. But it was an attempt to explain who they were.
In the book I spent, I don’t know, a page, two pages when you put it all together because it’s spread out through the book, on mentioning David Irving’s name. David Irving is a British writer who has written many works on World War II. If anybody here is a World War II history buff, I know you have the museum here, you know the name David Irving. And about, I would say in the Eighties, in the late Seventies/Eighties, David Irving began to keep company with Holocaust deniers. He wasn’t yet a denier. He had written a book called Hitler’s War, in which he argued (Now this is going to sound absolutely ridiculous to you because it is ridiculous.), he argued that Hitler didn’t know about the Holocaust and when he found out about the Holocaust he tried to stop it. And that, quote, “Hitler was the best friend the Jews had in Germany.” And it sounds ridiculous.
What happened was that many reviewers read the book and reviewed the book. It was reviewed in all the serious journals, and they said, “Well that part is ridiculous, but the rest of the book is very interesting,” instead of saying, “Anybody who can make that ridiculous kind of an argument I’m going to question the rest of his work.” But they still did a ‘yes, but.’ “Yes that’s ridiculous, but the rest of it is worth noting. Yes that position is crazy, but let’s take the rest of what he has to say seriously.”
In any case, in my book I called him a Holocaust denier, and by implication an anti-Semite. Well, Irving waited until the book was published in the United Kingdom, and when it came out as a Penguin UK book, the rights of it came out in England, immediately at that point I fell under the jurisdiction of British law because I signed a contract to have my book published in England. Libel law in the United Kingdom is diametrically, or it’s a mirror image of American libel law.
In America, if I say you libeled me I have to prove you libeled me. The burden of proof is on the claimant, on the plaintiff, to prove that they have been libeled, and not on the defendant. In England the British believe that if you wrote something or if you said something, you should be able to stand behind it. So if I say you libeled me, you have to prove you didn’t libel me in order to win.
The reason that that’s so important to understand (It was not something that I understood right at the outset), the reason that’s so important is if I didn’t fight Irving he would’ve won by default. And had he won by default, if I hadn’t gone to defend myself, the judge would’ve said Lipstadt didn’t show up to defend herself, she didn’t mount a defense, Irving wins, he didn’t have to do anything, he wins. In which case, David Irving could then say, “Because Deborah Lipstadt was found guilty of having libeled me by calling me a Holocaust denier, ipso facto I’m not a Holocaust denier, and therefore my, David Irving’s explanation or arguments about the Holocaust are true, they’re not denial. And what are his explanations? All those things I said to you at the beginning. No six million, no genocide, no gas chambers, all of it made up by Jews, survivors are all, as he puts it, psychopaths, liars, or doing this or in it, quote, “For the money.”
In fact, he said to one survivor when he appeared with her on a radio show in Australia, “How much money have you made from having that number tattooed on your arm?” He’s not a nice person, to put it mildly. So, once I understood that I understood that I had no option but to fight. The reason again that I’m emphasizing that is that there were a lot of people who didn’t want me to fight, a lot of scholars who said, “Oh Deborah, you’re wasting your time doing this. Holocaust denial is the equivalent of flat Earth theory. They’re a bunch of crazies, they’re kooks who would believe them anyway. Why is a good scholar wasting her time?” And worse, many other people said, particularly British Jews were very nervous about this and they said, “You’re just giving him the oxygen he craves: Publicity. He’ll get press on this and he’ll come out the winner.” So I said, “Well, what should I do?” So someone in Britain said, “Well, you should settle with him.” And my lawyer happened to be standing there and he said, “Deborah should settle? Well, since I’m her lawyer and I would have to give her this advice, what do you think should be her bottom line? What should she settle for? Three million Jews? Two million Jews? One gas chamber?”
In other words, what he was saying to this person is you can’t fight every fight, but there’s certain things you can’t settle on, and I had felt that very strongly. You can’t fight every battle, but there’s certain battles you can’t turn from. And if you’re up against a denier like this, to have turned from him, I certainly couldn’t have looked any of the people in the front row in the eye had I done that and said, “Well, nobody believed it when I settled with him, or I apologized.” I would’ve had to apologize and withdraw all my books from circulation.
So when I realized this, I realized I had to mount a legal fight. I had a very good piece of fortune. A British lawyer approached a friend of mine and said, “Listen, I know Deborah’s a friend of yours. If she’s looking for representation, tell her I’ll represent her.” My friend called me and said, “This lawyer is smart, he’s clever, he cannot abide anti-Semites, he’s a vigorous defender of his clients, and will also do it pro bono if necessary.” So having heard all the important words, ‘smart,’ ‘clever’, ‘vigorous defender of his clients,’ ‘pro bono,’ I asked what’s his name. And my friend said his name is Anthony Julius, and the name rang a bell, and I said, “Anthony Julius. Why do I know that name?” And then it suddenly clicked. I said, “Didn’t he just write a book on T.S. Elliot and anti-Semitism and literary criticism?” The book had been widely reviewed and all the reviews said this book has been written by a lawyer in England who got bored just doing law, so he went back to university to get a Ph.D. in literary theory, this is his Ph.D. dissertation, his thesis which Cambridge University press is publishing without having changed a comma. And he still did this while working full-time as a lawyer.
So that kind of thing makes an impression on an academic. So my friend began to laugh at me. I had said something clearly that he found quite hysterical, and I have no idea what it was. So I just waited until he stopped laughing, and then I remembered something else about Anthony Julius, and I said, “Isn’t he also Princess Diana’s lawyer,” because all the reviews mentioned that too, and my friend said, “That’s why I’m laughing Deborah. You’re the only one I know who would refer to him as author of a book on T.S. Elliott and also Princess Diana’s lawyer.”
But in any case, Anthony who represented the late Princess in a number of different cases, staring out with libel cases, and then in that divorce suit that some of you may remember, but more importantly when he came on board we set up a strategy, how we were going to fight this. And it was something that he and I, and his partner James Lipson who was also a crucial member of the defense team, were in complete agreement with. First of all, as much as possible, we were not going to make this a ‘did the Holocaust happen’ case. Now we didn’t know what Irving would do, but from our perspective this was not about proving that the Holocaust happened. This was about proving that David Irving was a Holocaust denier. That he lied and that he distorted, that he made up, he gave half-truths, etc., etc.
How were we going to do that? We were going to do that by following his sources back to their original sources. So when he says, “I have a document that shows X, Y, and Z,” we would get the document, we would go back to the original source, and we would see what the document actually said. So in essence, though I was the one on trial, if you parachuted into that courtroom, especially when David Irving was in the witness box, you would’ve thought he was the one on trial because he was defending his work against my charges. They were proving that what I said was the truth.
How were we going to do that? We were going to do that by relying on historians to track the documents, and to find the documents, and to prove it from a historical point of view. That’s why my book is called History on Trial. And one of the other things we decided — and this was quite controversial when we made the decision, especially since we didn’t go around explaining why we had made this decision — we were not going to call survivors as witnesses. We were not going to ask survivors to serve as witnesses for a number of reasons. First of all, if we had brought survivors as witnesses, from the legal standpoint, they would’ve been what are called witnesses of fact, as opposed to expert witnesses. Witnesses of fact means ‘I was there, and I can attest to this fact having happened.’ Expert witnesses are people who studied the topic.
To bring witnesses of fact would’ve suggested we felt we had to prove that this thing happened. We felt didn’t have to prove that this thing happened, A. B, most of the survivors who survived, there were a few who survived who could attest to the fact not of the persecution, many can attest to that, but the fact of the killing process, who saw the killing process up close and personal. Most people who saw it didn’t survive to testify about it. There were a few Sonderkommandos, people who worked in the gas chambers, who survived, who could testify about it but they were no longer alive. But most importantly, the reason we weren’t going to call survivors as witnesses is that David Irving was representing himself. He was what’s called the litigant in person. He could’ve gotten a lawyer, but he didn’t want to. He wanted the publicity. He wanted the hundreds of reporters who were in the courtroom to look at him and have to listen to him every day.
And we didn’t think we wanted to win this case by asking a survivor to go into the witness box, to be cross-examined by a man whom we assumed, whose objective we assumed would be to humiliate them, to confuse them, and it’s very easy to confuse someone when you’re testifying about such a terrible terrible moment in their lives. You say you arrived in Auschwitz on May 14th, 1944, and your whole family was taken directly to the gas chambers. Well I can show you that on May 14th, 1944 the gas chambers weren’t operating. So how was that? So maybe you left Budapest on the 14th, and you arrived on the 15th. Whatever it might be, it’s easy to do.
So instead, as I said, we assembled this dream team of historians who followed his documents back to the sources and showed, not in most cases, not in the majority of cases, not in the vast majority of cases, but every single time he made some reference to the Holocaust, or to Hitler’s anti-Semitism, or to the persecution of the Jews, there was a fabrication, there was a distortion, there was something made up, there was something that simply wasn’t true
Give you an example, I mentioned earlier the diary of Anne Frank. So Irving, in the courtroom, said the diary of Anne Frank is a novel. Now it’s true, Anne Frank wrote her diary then she re-wrote her diary. She edited it. In fact Phillip Roth, in an essay about her, or actually an introduction to one of the editions of her diary, says that she would’ve grown to be a great writer because already at age fourteen she knew how to edit herself, if you compare the first version and the second version. But then she also wrote a novel called The Annex, I think The Secret Annex. So she did write a novel, but that’s not the diary.
Or they say things like, this isn’t Irving’s creation, but this is another thing he said, “There was so much noise in the annex where they were hiding.” At one point Anne writes about Mrs. Van Damme running the vacuum cleaner. And another point she writes about Miep von Gies, one of the heroes of the story, the hero of the story who helped hide them, brings them a sack of beans, and the sack of beans breaks open. And Anne writes the noise was enough to wake the dead. So people like Irving say, “Vacuum cleaners, noise enough to wake the dead (This is actually Robert Faurisson, one of Irving’s compatriots and the denier who makes this argument.), how could this be a place in hiding?” Well, if you back and look at the diary you see that, in the diary, Mrs. Van Damme running the vacuum cleaner is a Sunday, when the warehouse underneath would’ve been empty. Or when the sack of beans breaks open, Anne writes, “The noise was enough to wake the dead. Thank God the warehouse was empty.”
But they only quoted half of it. So if you quote only half of it you give a very different impression of what’s there. And if you look at Irving’s work he does this, and I go through this in my book, does this over and over again. Half quotes, misquotes, etc., etc. So it was a lot of work, it was very laborious, but that was the way we attacked him and defended myself, and ending in this victory.
Before I end I want to just spend one or two moments talking personally. What was it like? I mean nothing I did in graduate school prepared me to be on trial in this high profile case: a case that took us five years to prepare, a case that was in court for twelve weeks, and a case that then was in appeal for about a year and a half. And then he tried to sue me twice more and it didn’t work.
There were many aspects of it that were quite overwhelming; the press attention, the fear, the concerns, the concerns about raising the money to defend myself, because Anthony, in the beginning was able to defend me pro bono. But then at some point when it became clear that this was not going to be case that was going to go away after a few letters (He and James were spending most of their time on this.), they couldn’t do it pro bono any more, and I was able to get support first from Emory University, which supported me magnificently: free time from teaching, putting together a fund to fund my travels, from people in the Jewish community, from people in other places, in a way that was really amazing.
And one story, since I’m in a university to talk in praise of my own university and sometimes we forget the good universities can do. At one point I went to the Provost of the university, and I said to the Provost, “You know, I’ve just been informed by my lawyers that this trial’s going probably stretch three to four months.” That’s a semester. And I told my colleagues initially, when they told my colleagues that, they said, “Well, what are you gonna do?” I said, “Well, I’ll take it as sabbatical.” And one of my colleagues actually, a woman who was a Philadelphia Italian Catholic, said to me, “Deborah, your Hebrew is better than mine.” She doesn’t know any Hebrew. She said, “But according to my understanding, the word sabbatical comes from the Hebrew word Shabbat, to rest. Being on trial and sabbatical are counterintuitive, you know?” I said, “What should I do?” She said, “Try to get a leave of absence.” Which, in the arcane world of the academy is a little easier to get.
So I went to the Provost and I said, “Well, I could take it as a sabbatical.” She said, “No Deborah, that’s inappropriate.” So then I said to her, I said, “Well, I could take it, I could get a leave absence.” She said, “No, that’s inappropriate too.” I said, “Well, what do you expect me to do? I’ve got to be there.” She said, “No, it’ll be like you’re teaching except the courtroom will be your classroom, and we will learn from you from afar.”
And then, shortly before I left for England, the Dean of the college, of Emory College, said to me, “Deborah, can find someone to teach your courses on the Holocaust while you’re on trial?” I said, “Sure, but, you know, for the past two years I’ve been teaching virtually part-time at a full salary, so I could go back and forth to England.” I teach one day a week and I go back and forth so as not to miss classes. I said, “You’re paying my salary while I’m going to be on trial. You still want to hire someone to teach my courses?” He said, “Yes,” he said, “Because if your courses aren’t taught, your courses on the Holocaust aren’t taught while you’re on trial, and students are deprived of learning about this topic, David Irving will already have won a victory. And we want to make sure that that doesn’t happen.”
And I think that that’s really important. It’s important for me as an academic. It was also important for me as a Jew to know that, because so often Emory’s a university with Methodist roots. So often we forget that on issues like this we don’t stand alone, that the people who stand with you care because this is right, and that was tremendously moving.
The final point I want to make about, on the personal issue, was of course that I was touched by the responses I had gotten, and the letters I had gotten, children in classes writing to me and all sorts of things. But most importantly I was touched by the response of survivors who looked to me as a sort defending their history. And I said to them, you know, so often when they came to and said this, I said, “Look, I hope I don’t lose. But if I lose your history is still secure.” But it didn’t appear that way to them, and it was exemplified for me on the first day of the trial when I came out of the courtroom and there literally hundreds of reports there, all with microphones and tape recorders and questions and etc., and I had been told by my lawyers not to talk to the press. And I was dying to talk to the press and to, you know, frame my own defense, etc.
And as soon as I walked out one of the lawyers spotted me being surrounded by the press, he came running over, he said, “Deborah, don’t say anything.” I wasn’t giving testimony in court, and they didn’t want to anger the judge who would then say, “Well, she won’t testify,” or give David Irving the chance to say, “She won’t testify in court, but last night I heard her on the BBC.” So, I said, “Well, I’ll say something innocuous.” And he said, “Nothing you say today will be innocuous, or inconsequential. Nothing you say to today will be inconsequential.”
So we were having this fight back and forth surrounded by all these reporters, and suddenly through this mass of reporters somebody, you could see someone forcing their way through, and suddenly an elderly, small lady, emerged with grey hair, it was a cold day in England, she had her little cap, woolen cap, pulled over her hair, was dressed very sensibly for this cold January day in London. And as she came forward she had her hand out, and she was sort of waving her hand. And people pulled back a little thinking maybe she wasn’t all right? I don’t know: they just didn’t know who she was, or what it was all about. And I didn’t flinch because I had a sense of what was coming. I don’t know how I had that sense. But sure enough, as she got close to me she pulled up her sleeves and pointed to the number on her arm and said, “You’re fighting for us. You are our witness.” Which is paraphrasing, I say it though I don’t think I’m not sure she knew that.
And that’s all I remember her saying, but what I heard her saying was, “You’re fighting for us. Don’t mess it up. If they don’t want you to talk to the press, don’t.” I mean that’s what I heard. And I turned to the lawyer and I said, “I don’t have to talk to the press. It’s alright.”
And then I never saw her again through the rest of the trial; thought the courtroom would be filled each day with survivors. And one day I remember I was walking into the courtroom and my cousins were there, and they had been waiting on line to get in, and they made friends on line (It was sort of like voting last week. You know; if you waited long enough by the end you were a cadre of people.). And so people waiting on line to get into the trial sort of bonded, and my cousins bonded with this woman who was a survivor.
And they said, “She has something for you,” and they brought me over to her and she handed me a list, a piece of paper. And on the list, the piece of paper was a list of names. All with the same, the last name, Sara Friedman, David Friedman, Yakov Friedman, or Sara Friedman Horowitz, you know all with (I’m just saying the name ‘Friedman.’), but all with obviously a family. And next to each person’s name was a date of birth, and then in some cases a date of death, and in some cases just a question mark, which was obviously her family, who had been destroyed in the Holocaust.
And when someone gives you a piece of paper like that you don’t just glance at it, you know, quickly go through the names and give it back. But there’s nothing to say. What can you say? “I’m sorry?” Anything you might say sounds paltry, if not stupid. So I read each name and then gave it back to her and tried to sort of express with my body language, so to speak, empathy and sympathy for her and her terrible loss. She got very angry at me and she said, “No, no. This is my evidence. This is my evidence. You must have it in court. You must take it into court with you.” And that day I sat at table; I sat right in front of the judge at the front table with that piece of paper open before me, reminding me of what this was all about. And then at the very end, the tremendous outpouring of letters — and I quote many of them in my book — letters of support and thank you from the survivors.
And I close with an anecdote: I was in Israel shortly after the trial. I had been invited by then Prime Minister Barak, who called me the night of the verdict to thank me on behalf of the Jewish State, and the Jewish people, and then asked me to come to Israel and to meet with him, and I brought my mother with me and she was very proud. And Barak told us about his mother, you know. But, while I was in Israel I attended a Bar Mitzva of a cousin of mine, and there was an elderly man there, a Dutch survivor, and he came up to me and with tears in his eyes he thanked me because he had lost his parents and his family in the Holocaust. And I said, “Please don’t thank me; you don’t have to thank me. I fought a trial given what you went through. You don’t have to thank me.” And he got very angry, and I realized he wanted to thank me, so I stopped and of course, you know, didn’t stop him any more.
But afterwards I thought about it, and I realized how uncomfortable, even tonight when some of the people present came up to thank me, it’s very discomforting, and I’m never quite sure why until I thought back on two verses actually: one from the Liturgy and one from the Torah. The one from the Torah is the story of Moses. And when Moses, after being rescued by the daughter of Pharaoh, and raised in Pharaoh’s palace, comes out of the palace — it’s the first time we encounter him in the beginning of Exodus as a grown individual — and what’s the first thing that Moses does? He sees a Jew being beaten by an Egyptian and he, it says, “Vyeffen co va co, va yar ke ein eesh.” “He looked this way and that way,” and he saw there was no one “ein eesh,” there was no one person, there was no person there, and it says, “And he slew the Egyptian.”
Now the tradition, Jewish tradition’s very uncomfortable because it sounds like, “Oh, nobody’s watching? Okay; I’ll kill the Egyptian.” And the rabbis said this; “This doesn’t make sense,” because Moses in a few verses, literally is going to go and seek, meet God face to face so to speak, in the burning bush. So that’s not someone who’s slinking around making sure that no one’s watching. It’s got to mean something else. And one of things they understand it as meaning, based on a verse from Isaiah, “Ein eesh la’asot mishpa’at.” There was no “eesh,” there was no personality there, there was no person of substance to do justice. It’s a verse from Isaiah; there is no person, no one to do justice. Or, the verse from Ethics of the Fathers, the same from Ethics of the Fathers, “Be makom she ein eesh na leheyot eesh” in a place where there are no people, there’s no one of quality, of substance, try to be a person of substance. He was looking for someone else to do justice, and there was no one else to do justice, and he had to do it.
And you think back on the Holocaust, you think back on Krystallnacht, which we marked this coming week, and I think for many of the people who experienced this “Vyeffen co va co, va yar ke ein eesh,” [“He looked this way and that”], and there was no person, there was no government, there was no institution, there was no other country, “La’asot mishpat,” to do justice for them. And this time, “Vyeffen co va co,” [“They looked this way and that.”], and there was an “eesha,” [a woman], who stood up to those who would deny. Now I don’t compare in any manner, shape or form, what I went through; there’s nothing, there’s no comparison. But at least this time someone stood up to the Nazis and this time they won.
So I understood the wanting to be thanked. I understood their point, but what I didn’t understand was why was I so uncomfortable with the being thanked? And I realized that I think of what I did, and even now it’s a number of years since the trial, I still think of what I did as what we described — Jewish tradition has category, quote, “Acts of loving kindness.” Most religions do — and “gmilut hassadim,” and in that we include visiting the sick, taking care of the needy, welcoming the stranger, taking care of the orphan. But the act of loving kindness that is the ultimate act of loving kindness is taking care of the dead. It’s called “hessed shell emmet,” the most genuine form of hessed, the most genuine form of righteousness
Why? Because tradition has it that it’s at that moment that we come closest to emulating God. Because God has done all sorts of kindnesses to us; given us life, given us health. And there’s nothing that the human being can do for God. And so too when a human being takes care of dead person, prepares the body for burial, accompanies it to a burial site, lowers the casket into the grave, fills the gravesite, fills the grave with dirt, there’s no way that person can repay them. If you visit a sick person, you don’t know, some day you may be sick, that person can visit you. You take care of a stranger, maybe one day you’ll be a stranger and you’ll be taken care of. But here there is no reciprocation, no reciprocity. So it’s then that we come closest to emulating God in doing this act.
And I really feel that having been sued by this man, having my life completely turned on end for about six or seven years, I had the privilege ‐ It was difficult, it was trying, it was frightening ‐ but ultimately I had the privilege to do hessed shell emmet to stand up for those who couldn’t stand up for themselves, who didn’t survive to stand up for themselves, who don’t have the option to face these people face-to-face and to fight them. And, though it was difficult, I feel very blessed to have been given that opportunity. Thank you very much.