More than 70 years later, the Holocaust remains an almost incomprehensible event for everyone, either because of the sheer number of deaths, including a reported 6 million Jews, or the difficulty understanding the pure evil of the genocide.
That, in part, explains the international movement to deny that the Holocaust existed or that it claimed so many lives.
“We would prefer the deniers to be right,” American professor Deborah E. Lipstadt wrote in her 1993 book on Holocaust denial. “Moreover, there is a part in everyone – including survivors – that simply finds the Holocaust beyond belief.”
Lipstadt knows all about Holocaust denial.
In the same book, Lipstadt blasted British author David Irving, calling him “one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial” and claiming he bent historical evidence until it conformed with his beliefs and political agenda.
Irving sued her for libel in Britain, where the burden in libel cases falls on the defendant, not the accuser.
The 2000 trial formed the basis for the movie, "Denial," opening this weekend and providing the local Holocaust Resource Center with a chance to raise awareness about the denial movement that so troubles historians and Holocaust students.
On Saturday night, Dan Leshem, director of a similar Holocaust center in Queens who formerly worked with Lipstadt at Emory College, will headline a screening at the Amherst Dipson Theater.
The 6:30 p.m. event will begin with a brief introduction by Leshem, followed by a 6:45 p.m. screening and then a question-and-answer session afterward. The local Holocaust Resource Center, the Jewish Community Center and the Jewish Federation of Buffalo are staging the event. Tickets are sold in advance at amherst.dipsontheatres.com/movie/Denial.
“As our survivors dwindle in number, I think it’s critical to constantly, constantly listen to the voices so the truth of the Holocaust prevails,” said Mara Koven-Gelman, executive director of the Holocaust Resource Center of Buffalo. “We feel very strongly that every opportunity we have to educate and remember is critical.”
Leshem, director of the Kupferberg Holocaust Resource Center at Queensborough Community College, knows all about Lipstadt. After spending three years starting his Ph.D at the University at Buffalo in 1999, he went to Emory University, where he worked for her from 2006 through 2010, running her website, hdot.org (Holocaust Denial on Trial).
“Certainly, Deborah is very passionate about what she does,” Leshem said in a phone interview this week. “She also has no qualms about telling the truth, without worrying about the social niceties. She says exactly what she thinks. She’s kind of a force of nature in that way.
“It’s like Holocaust deniers are the biggest bullies on the block, trying to revictimize victims of the Holocaust, and she was standing up to them,” he added. “That was one part of her courage. But in order to stand up and call them out, she had to explore the thoughts and actions of people who strike me as so vile. She had the strength and fortitude to read their books and watch their videos.”
That outspokenness and courage made it tough for Lipstadt to follow her attorneys’ advice, which prevented her from testifying at her trial or even talking to the media outside the courtroom. But that strategy, to focus on the facts rather than emotional testimony from Lipstadt and Holocaust survivors, proved successful, as the judge and later three appeals judges ruled for her.
As the Times of London wrote, “History has had its day in court and scored a crushing victory.”
That hasn’t stopped the denial movement from gaining traction, especially in the anonymity of the internet.
That movement claims, among other points, that the Nazis wanted to deport, not exterminate, Jews; that there were no gas chambers in the concentration camps; and that the 6-million figure is greatly exaggerated.
“At its root, Holocaust denial is nothing more than dressed-up anti-Semitism,” Leshem said. “The core of the argument, after you peel back all their arguments, is that they feel Jews, through a global conspiracy, have manipulated world leaders, the media and influence makers on all levels, in order to enrich themselves and the state of Israel.”
Despite being a Holocaust expert, Leshem can’t answer how big the denial movement is and whether it’s on the upswing, as Holocaust survivors keep dying off.
But he thinks the movement has evolved in its basic strategy.
“Deniers no longer are shouting from rooftops with their faces exposed,” he said. “Denial spreads mostly on the internet, and it’s mostly anonymous.”
It’s hard to quantify the movement, especially since one person can use many different screen names to attack any article about the Holocaust.
“I don’t think it’s a very large movement in numbers, but it’s very avid,” Leshem said. “I call it a hysteria movement.”
For all of Lipstadt’s openness in fighting the deniers, she has refused to engage in any point-counterpoint confrontations with them.
“What she said is you can’t debate with deniers,” Leshem said. “To debate them is to give them a victory. Deborah says everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts.
“There are not two sides to the Holocaust,” he added. “Debating a denier is like debating a flat-earth theorist.”