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The Holocaust on Trial: A Legal Battle for Historical Truth

The Holocaust on Trial: A Legal Battle for Historical Truth

In the film “Denial,” based on a true story, college history professor and author Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) is sued for libel by notorious British Holocaust historian David Irving (Timothy Spall) for accusing him of being a Holocaust denier in her 1993 book, Denying The Holocaust. But the case turns into a battle for historical truth as the Holocaust itself is judged in a court of law.


In an early scene, Lipstadt is lecturing her class at Emory University about the four arguments of a denier: that the Holocaust was not a systematic genocide, that the number of Jews who died is exaggerated, that there were no extermination camps and, essentially, that the Holocaust is a myth. She asks her class: “How do we prove the Holocaust happened?” And she makes the compelling point that not one photograph exists of a Holocaust victim inside a gas chamber because the Nazis didn’t allow any such images to be taken. Irving’s decades old claim that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz is built from this lack of physical evidence (the Nazis detonated the Auschwitz crematorium before the end of the war).

As a stunt, Irving shows up at Lipstadt’s book reading event with an associate filming him while he heckles her, offering $1,000 in cash to anyone in the audience who can prove Hitler ordered the Holocaust. During this first encounter between the two, they have a heated exchange, captured on tape. Shortly afterward, Lipstadt receives a letter informing her that Irving is suing her for libel in a British court where, unlike the United States, there is no presumption of innocence so the burden of proof falls on her. Lipstadt must prove that she didn’t libel him — in other words, she has to prove that the Holocaust happened, and that Irving deliberately falsified evidence to suggest that it didn’t. While that might seem easy for her to achieve, it is anything but: the Nazis were careful to cover their tracks when it came to systematic genocide.

As Lipstadt raises funds to support her case, she gets pressure from British Jews to settle so not to give Irving, a Hitler sympathizer, a platform for his anti-Semitic views. After all, for decades they have watched his hateful writings and speeches stimulate right wing groups and Neo-Nazis as he essentially reinvents World War II without suffering consequences. Irving plays the underdog in court, defending himself, as Lipstadt hires a well-known British defamation expert Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) to run her legal defense. Although there are survivors who can testify to what they endured, Julius, along with Scottish barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), doesn’t want to put them on the stand. The two reason that the scheming Irving intends to grandstand, and they won’t even let Lipstadt testify. Restraint, they determine, is the key to winning the case. In a strategic move, they convince Irving the case should only go before the judge, rather than a jury. Later, in front of the lone decider of the verdict, Irving argues that by calling him a “denier,” Lipstadt has essentially placed on him a verbal “yellow star.”

Thinking about this symbol of Jewish persecution is especially poignant today, the anniversary of Kristallnacht (“The Night of Broken Glass,” November 9 and 10, 1938), when Nazis in Germany torched synagogues, vandalized Jewish homes, schools and businesses, and killed close to one hundred Jews. On this violent night, shards of broken glass littered the streets after attacks that were planned and coordinated and aimed at the Jews. In the aftermath, some 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to Nazi concentration camps. It was after Kristallnacht that Jews were forced to wear identifying badges—yellow stars—as a way to isolate and dehumanized them, to mark them different and inferior to everyone else. And it led to the deportation and genocide that Irving says never existed.

At the end of the film, as the case concludes, Lipstadt can finally say to the survivors who were silent: You were remembered. The voice of suffering was heard.

About the author: I began my career as a magazine writer and correspondent for regional and national publications. My debut novel, Tasa’s Song, was inspired by my mother’s early life in eastern Poland during the Second World War, and won a Bronze Medal for Historical Fiction from the Independent Publisher Award Program.

A Book Club Feast with Billy Collins and William Maxwell

A Book Club Feast with Billy Collins and William Maxwell

Five years ago I talked my book club into bringing two masters of language to our ritual readers’ gathering. We were in our early years then as a reading group of 12, democratically selecting the novels we’d discuss each month. The suggestions my fellow bookies offered for that first year covered a wide range of styles, from Emma Donoghue’s… Continue Reading

Wandering and wondering through ‘Diane Arbus: In the Beginning’ at the Met

Wandering and wondering through ‘Diane Arbus: In the Beginning’ at the Met

The late photographer Diane Arbus, whose work and life have been the subject of multiple biographies (the most recent being Arthur Lubow’s Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer), is now being featured in an exhibit at the Met Breuer, the contemporary arm of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. There, some eighty… Continue Reading

‘A Book in Concert’: Carpe Diem String Quartet’s Music To My Words

‘A Book in Concert’: Carpe Diem String Quartet’s Music To My Words

Not many authors have a musical event integrated into their book debuts. I count myself incredibly fortunate to have created one art form that inspired another: “A Book in Concert.” On May 20, 21 and 22, I had the unique opportunity to join an internationally acclaimed string quartet at the world premiere of “A Book… Continue Reading

Composing a Novel in Song: An Interview with Violinist Charles Wetherbee

Note from the author: Charles Wetherbee and the entire Carpe Diem String Quartet joined me May 20-22, 2016 for a “Book In Concert” at the McConnell Arts Center of Worthington, Ohio.  Violinist Charles Wetherbee recently composed “Tasa’s Song,” based on my novel of the same name. “I am thinking of the violin line as Tasa’s voice as she… Continue Reading

National Poetry Month: Mickiewicz, Akhmatova, Pushkin featured in TASA’S SONG

April’s arrival of National Poetry Month got me thinking about the role poetry plays in my upcoming novel, Tasa’s Song, a story about an aspiring Jewish violinist living in eastern Poland during World War II. Woven into the narrative are the melodies of Tchaikovsky, Paganini, Sarasate, Smetana, Mozart, Chopin, Strauss Jr. and others. Music transports… Continue Reading

Why I Love Beethoven’s Fifth

Note: March is a key month in the life of Ludwig van Beethoven. In March of 1778, at the age of eight, Beethoven had his very first public performance. In March of 1783, at age thirteen, he wrote his first composition; and in March of 1795, at twenty-five, he gave his first public performance in… Continue Reading

From Memory to History: Anthony Doerr on writing

As a former journalist, I love facts. As a writer of historical fiction (Tasa’s Song, She Writes Press, May 2016), I get just as excited about historical facts. Like the fact that writing emerged more than 5,000 years ago. I acquired this, among other insights, last October, when I attended a lecture by Anthony Doerr, Pulitzer Prize winning… Continue Reading