Holocaust expert recounts magnitude of legal triumph

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By Linda Laderman
Legal News

In 2000, Deborah Lipstadt, author and Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, appeared in a British court to defend herself against a defamation action brought in 1996 by the British writer and Holocaust denier, David Irving. Lipstadt’s publisher, Penguin Books, was a co-defendant.

On Sunday, Oct. 30, Lipstadt was at Congregation Sharrey Zedek in Southfield as the keynote speaker at the Holocaust Memorial Center’s 32nd Annual Anniversary Dinner, to talk about her work and the responsibility she felt to Holocaust survivors as she sought justice through the English legal system.

Since the case was to be heard under English law, Lipstadt, had the burden to prove the truth of her contention that Irving knowingly falsified and manipulated the historical record of the Holocaust.

“Irving is the most dangerous of Holocaust deniers because his books were reviewed and taken seriously. He knows the truth and bends it to fit his view,” Lipstadt said.

Irving’s proclamations that maintained the Holocaust didn’t happen, that no one was murdered at Auschwitz, and that Hitler was actually a friend to the Jews is not only a threat to the Jewish people, but inherently racist, Lipstadt said.

“Irving was not only a Holocaust denier, but also a racist and misogynist, as are many Holocaust deniers,” Lipstadt said. “Irving said important news should be read by men in jackets, unimportant news by women and criminal and drug busts by Trevor MacDonald (a British newscaster who is black).”

Although Lipstadt had written widely on the Holocaust, she told the crowd of 1,200 on Sunday evening that she had not concentrated on the issue of Holocaust denial before her book “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory” was published in 1993. 

“The topic of Holocaust denial wasn’t of great interest to me. It was equivalent to flat earth theory — it seemed silly,” Lipstadt said. “But I was urged by historians to look at it so I wrote a few pages about David Irving in my book. His books made you think what happened to the Jews during the Holocaust was deserved.”

As it turned out, Irving chose that book as the basis for his defamation suit.

“Shortly after my book was published, he brought his suit. Since the English legal system is the diametrical opposite of ours, I knew if I didn’t fight it, he would have won by default and I couldn’t let that happen because Holocaust denial is a classic form of anti-Semitism,” Lipstadt said. “It perpetuates the myth that Jews, although small in number, use their intelligence to get what they want through financial gain. I knew if I didn’t fight it I couldn’t look Holocaust survivors in the eye.”

Lipstadt’s legal team was led by the British Solicitor Anthony Julius, a choice made, in part, because Julius had written about anti-Semitism, and also because Julius had a reputation for taking on controversial issues.
“I’d heard about Anthony Julius. He had a written a book on T.S. Elliot and anti-Semitism, and he was Princess Diana’s divorce lawyer,” Lipstadt said. “Once he came on board, the case became high profile.”

Regardless of the fact that the significance of Lipstadt’s case to Holocaust survivors was monumental, her legal team chose not to bring survivors to testify, instead focusing on a case with a forensic strategy that essentially put Irving on trial.

“We didn’t bring survivors as witnesses because we didn’t want Irving to have the opportunity to humiliate them. It was very hard because there were survivors who wanted to talk, but the trial was a forensic issue, not an emotional issue,” Lipstadt said. “We were going to have to prove what Irving said was based on lies.”

Even so, Holocaust survivors were never far from Lipstadt’s mind. Many attended the trial and one gave her a note that she would hold into for the duration of the trial.

“I was given a list of names of the members of a family who died in the Holocaust. I was told, ‘You must have this.” What do you say? I didn’t need the reminder, but it was a real reminder. I kept it with me during the trial.”

The trial, depicted in the recently released film “Denial,” with Rachel Weisz as Lipstadt, began January 11, and ended April 11, of 2000. It culminated in a decision in favor of Lipstadt and Penguin Books.

In his 335-page decision, Mr. Justice Charles Gray, who was the sole trier of fact, found that Lipstadt’s assertions that Irving intentionally misrepresented the historical scope of the Holocaust were justified.

After she won, Lipstadt said she was showered with recognition for going forward with an action that could have been settled out of court, an option that Lipstadt found unacceptable.

“In Judaism, we have a tradition of loving kindness. And when we take care of the dead, we carry out the most authentic act of righteousness we can perform,” Lipstadt said. “It is at that moment that we as human beings come close to emulating God because there is no other way we can thank God for our life and our families.”

Despite the fact that the Irving case took several years out of Lipstadt’s life, she told those gathered at Sharrey Zedek that it was an honor to affirm on a global stage that the suffering of those who were affected by the Holocaust was indeed true.

“I felt I had been given the privilege to take care of the dead by standing up against the deniers,” said Lipstadt. “So many would like to do that but don’t get the chance. I feel very lucky to have been able to stand up for victims of the Holocaust. My cup runneth over.”

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