Jewish Journal


April 20, 2000

Talking With Lipstadt


Before the verdict was handed down by Justice Charles Gray on April 11, Deborah Lipstadt says she had no doubt that "We would win." She just did not expect that he would render his decision "in such a still, small, level voice," almost without inflection. And therefore with such forcefulness and emphasis.

"Only the British can overwhelm you with understatement," she said in a telephone interview from London, two days after the judge brought a triumphant end (for her) to David Irving's libel suit, which had been initiated five years ago.

The whole five-year process from beginning to end (the actual trial had begun early this year) "had made a train wreck of my life," she admitted. But she never doubted the outcome. She felt unchanged, she told me from London. "I'm exhausted and elated at the verdict. I just can't put my arms around it yet."

But her description of what had occurred during the trial, and in the 48 hours after its conclusion, almost seemed to contradict her words about "being unchanged."

The London press, for example, had followed the proceedings avidly. At the trial's conclusion, all the newspapers, according to Lipstadt, carried the story on page one, complete with banner headlines. The London Independent, The Times, and all the other daily papers ran headlines across the top of the front page. Irving was called a Racist Anti-Semitic Holocaust Denier in one; How History Will Judge David Irving announced another. They were all broadsides.

Irving was portrayed as a racist who twisted the truth. And the stories reflected an outpouring of contempt for him and what he stands for, throughout the British press, she explained. "A kind of intolerance for intolerance," at least for the racism of Irving's kind.

And these sentiments were picked up by the British public. Taxi drivers and passersby, on seeing her, would flash a smile or simply an appreciative nod of recognition, followed by a thumbs up signal for victory, imitating the photo of Lipstadt as she emerged from the courtroom with a grin of victory spreading across her face.

Survivors and their families sent her notes saying, "Thank you for what you're doing for us." One supporter told her, "You're a heroine."

It's not so, she said to me, "I just did it. I knew Irving had to be fought. It was not an option not to do it. I had to defend myself." And, she implied, defend as well all the others who had placed their trust in truth and memory. "It was the right thing to do," she said.

It should not have come as a surprise, therefore, that an enormous crowd was gathered outside the courtroom waiting for her to emerge. But she was stunned. "They overwhelmed me," she said, with some astonishment. "There were maybe 300 reporters and photographers waiting outside the courtroom, shouting questions and calling for a photograph." Three policemen carved a path for her.

Nevertheless, almost by magic, a Holocaust survivor made his way through the crowd and the police escort and came directly to her. "Thank you," he said. "Thank you, thank you. From me. And from my parents."

"I didn't do a thing to deserve that," she said over the phone, with a catch in her voice.

The outpouring of congratulations and gratitude in London and elsewhere (there were close to 400 letters and e-mails alone sent to her c/o The Jewish Journal, which we forwarded) were just the tip of the iceberg. When I spoke to her, she had just come off an interview with George Will. Cokie Roberts and Sam Donaldson had set up an interview for their Sunday morning program.

And she reported, with some wonder in her voice, Prime Minister Ehud Barak had telephoned the other day from Washington, just before going into a meeting with President Clinton. He called to tell her how moved he was, and how grateful to her he felt, on a personal level, for all she had done.

I understand, she hadsaid to him. Because of Treblinka (where his grandparents had died). Yes, he had replied.

It required no statement by her to me. The trial, and the call from Israel's prime minister, demonstrated more than words themselves, just how linked we all are by our history, irrespective of geography and national boundaries. It was clear she felt connected to that idea, to the feeling that Jews were bound together by memory and experience.

It may be that we all have the capacity to behave with honor and courage, to step forward and almost inadvertently take on the hero's role. But of course what is required is the occasion... and the decision to step forward.

Deborah Lipstadt was given the occasion five years ago when Holocaust denier David Irving, the British-based author of many books and articles on Hitler's Germany, sued her for libeling him in her historical account, "Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault in Truth and Memory." She had called him an anti-Semite, a racist, a distorter of history and a Holocaust denier, and he had seized the opportunity to take her and her publisher, Penguin Books, to court in England, where libel laws tend to favor the plaintiff alleging damages.

As she indicated to me, shortly after the verdict, it never occurred to her not to see this through. No matter the cost in time or money or career. "It was not just a professional endeavor," she said, "but a personal quest."

Essentially, she believed that "it had to be done." It was not a question of money. An apology from her to Irving would have meant that her book would be withdrawn. Anything critical of Irving would thereafter be silenced. His view of the Holocaust would gain legitimacy, at least in Britain, where the courts would have reified Irving's writings. In her mind this would have intimidated future scholars in Britain and elsewhere, and set back all future historical accounts of the Holocaust.

It is not just that historians would have been forced to skirt the issue, to cede the ground to David Irving, she explained. That would have been bad enough. But for survivors and their families it would have been "a double dying. The deniers dancing on their parents grave." That was intolerable. And so she stepped forward. "Nothing infuriates me more than those who deny the Shoah," she said. "I knew we had to fight it."

It was a struggle she undertook, I believe, not only for the survivors and their offspring, but primarily for herself: To prevent a future she found unacceptable. Irving, in her view, had in his writings, been responsible for a considerable amount of evil in the ways that he denigrated and made fun of Jewish survivors. That -- and his gleefulness in this stance -- could not be accepted.

Most people supported her -- Jews and non-Jews, and many fellow historians. The British law firm that took her case, Mischon, de Reya, was not a Jewish firm, and spent the first two years (of five) defending her pro bono. (The two members of the firm who wound up leading her defense, however, were indeed Jewish.)

Ironically, the few friends and acquaintances who urged her to settle -- i.e. to write a letter of apology -- were academics who tended to laugh the matter off. They saw Irving as a crackpot; not someone to be taken seriously. And certainly not someone to whom you would surrender five years of your life.

It could be assumed -- though Lipstadt did not suggest this -- that their response to the Holocaust, to the memory of the past, was somewhat muted.

The past five years are now behind her. Irving's reputation is in tatters, she says, and he is bankrupt. (He must pay the court costs and Lipstadt's attorney's fees, which come to about 3 million dollars.)

And life pushes forward. This past week there was a seder in Atlanta with family and friends, her mother journeying up from Florida. Next weekend she will return to Los Angeles, where she is scheduled to speak at Temple Beth Am, Sunday evening April 30.

At the end of May, Lipstadt has scheduled a trip to Israel: I have little doubt she will be embraced by the nation. In the autumn there is teaching at Emory University, where she is director of the Jewish Studies Program. And of course there is book that she wants to write waiting in the wings. Presumably her life will return to normal.

But never again quite the same. She will always have the memory of the friend who called her the evening before the decision was to be given.

"We love you, we're behind you," he told her. "Tonight you can sleep well, because we are staying awake for you." -- Gene Lichtenstein

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