Beating health scares, Jonathan Sarna seals status as rock star Jewish historian

When Jonathan Sarna was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 1999 at the age of 44, it changed his life.

Already a highly regarded historian at Brandeis University, Sarna was in the midst of writing his seminal study of American Jewish history when he realized with alarm that he might never finish it.

He underwent chemotherapy, radiation treatment and surgery. Though he didn’t know it at the time, doctors gave him a one-in-five chance of surviving. Then, slowly, the professor began getting better. After a year, Sarna was writing again with renewed focus and a firm deadline: He wanted to finish the book in time for the 2004 celebrations of the 350th anniversary of American Jewish life.

The book, “American Judaism: A History,” came out in March 2004. The organization in charge of the 350th celebrations anointed Sarna its chief historian. He traveled the country delivering lectures, and “American Judaism” won the Jewish Book Council’s Book of the Year award.

“That book was life-changing,” Sarna told JTA in a recent interview in his large, cluttered office at Brandeis.

“I would say my great regret at the time of my illness was that I had not finished ‘American Judaism,’ and I promised myself that if all went well I wouldn’t take on other things until the book was out,” he said.

The book was translated into Hebrew and Chinese, sold more than 30,000 copies and became an indispensable resource on the subject. Today, students at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Conservatives’ Jewish Theological Seminary and Orthodoxy’s Yeshiva University don’t study the same edition of the Bible, but they all study “American Judaism,” points out Sarna, who is working on updating the book for a new edition.

“I consider that my most important book. It certainly took me the longest, and it allowed me to put my stamp on the field,” he said. “It sold more books than any other I have done. It does change your life a little bit when you realize that you can talk to a broader audience beyond the academy. In the eyes of many people, I became ‘the American Jewish historian.’ It was a breakthrough.”

Now 61 and several books later, Sarna is something of a rock star in the world of Jewish academia — though neither he nor any of his colleagues would ever use that term to describe the diminutive professor with sparkling blue eyes and a vocal inflection that often bears traces of his parents’ British roots.

Sarna is the chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, chairs the Hornstein Program for Jewish Professional Leadership at Brandeis and recently concluded a stint as president of the Association for Jewish Studies. He’s on the board of JTA’s parent company, 70 Faces Media, and too many other institutions to count. He commands $5,000 a speech.

Last month Brandeis crowned Sarna, who has taught at the school since 1990, with the title university professor – an exceedingly rare distinction. Brandeis bestows it on faculty whose “renown cuts across disciplinary boundaries” and “who have achieved exceptional scholarly or professional distinction within the academic community.”

Among journalists, Sarna is known as the go-to scholar for erudite, succinct, quotable analysis on American Jewish history. But he’s also a favorite sage for aspiring Jewish academics; more than 30 doctoral dissertations have been written under his direction. That’s partly why he decided to make Brandeis, the Jewish-sponsored, nonsectarian university founded in this Boston suburb in 1948, his professional home.

“I came to Brandeis not only because I thought that Brandeis should be a major center of American Jewish history, but also because I thought I would enjoy teaching a wide span of future Jewish leaders covering all the movements,” Sarna said.

Brandeis also was his undergraduate alma mater and until 1985 the professional home of his father, the late Bible scholar Nahum Sarna.

In recent years, Sarna has become a sought-after commentator on contemporary American Judaism, too. Though he demurs from offering predictions about American Jewry’s future, Sarna draws on his deep scholarship to highlight some of the lesser-noticed trends he believes will play a big role in shaping that future.

Those who talk with certainty about where American Jewry is headed based on current trends, such as declining affiliation rates, should remember that the story of American Jewry has been more cyclical than linear, Sarna cautions. In the 1930s, community leaders watching young Jews becoming communists and leaving synagogues predicted the disappearance of American Jewry, but they failed to foresee the great religious revival of the 1950s.

American Jewry may be in a “religious recession” today, Sarna says, but that’s not necessarily predictive of tomorrow.

Among the other trends Sarna says are worth watching:

  • Worldwide Jewry is at the tail end of a great consolidation, with some 80-85 percent of Jews living either in Israel or North America. Even in America, the vast majority of the community lives in about 20 large metropolitan areas.
  • American Jews are now fully mainstream, underscored by the fact that both leading presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, have Jewish sons-in-law – something that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. Americans no longer view Jews as a minority.
  • The nature of Jewish intermarriage is radically changing. Once, those who intermarried were thought to be lost to the Jewish community; today, intermarried Jews play a big role in Jewish life.
  • New technologies are having a dramatic impact on religion broadly and Judaism in particular.


“These are changes of enormous significance that desperately need to be thought about,” Sarna says. “Today there is a massive disjunction between how we think of ourselves and how we actually are.”

Even as a kid, Sarna seemed destined for academic greatness. His parents were both British intellectuals who immigrated to America in 1951. His mother, Helen, was a librarian at Hebrew College. His father taught at Philadelphia’s Gratz College and then JTS before settling at Brandeis, where he achieved wide renown. Jonathan, born in 1955, was the family’s first American-born child; he has an older brother, David.

When Sarna chose to focus on American Jewish history, it turned out to be one of the few Jewish subjects his British-trained father knew nothing about. His interest in the subject dates back to his teen years. His senior thesis at Brookline High School in suburban Boston was about the history of American anti-Semitism, and even in his driver’s education course Sarna went historical, writing about Henry Ford’s anti-Semitism for a required car-related essay. He got an A on the paper but failed the road test.

“Henry Ford had the last laugh on that one,” Sarna said wryly.

When Sarna started his career – he earned his doctorate at Yale and then taught at HUC in Cincinnati before landing at Brandeis – the field of American Jewish history was still in its infancy, he says. The challenge of the field was to synthesize not just knowledge of American history and American religion, but of Jewish history and Judaism.

Sarna’s career has spanned the colonial period to the present, including book-length histories of the Jewish communities of New HavenCincinnati and Boston. His most recent books, “Lincoln and the Jews: A History” (co-authored with Benjamin Shapell) and “When General Grant Expelled the Jews,” both won critical acclaim.

The professor takes particular pride in being something of an insider in each of American Jewry’s three main religious denominations. Until the age of 10 he grew up at JTS, the flagship Conservative institution where his father taught. Sarna himself was reared in Orthodox institutions, including a post-high school year at the rigorously Orthodox Mercaz HaRav yeshiva in Jerusalem. And Sarna taught for more than a decade at Reform’s HUC.

Sarna attends an Orthodox shul, but his wife, Ruth Langer, a theology and liturgy professor at Boston College, is a Reform rabbi. The couple have two children: Aaron Sarna works for Google, and Leah Sarna is studying to be an Orthodox clergywoman at Yeshivat Maharat in New York.

“I know the whole spectrum of the American Jewish world as an insider in a way I think few people do,” Sarna told JTA. “That’s given me a breadth of understanding and even sympathy with each community. I think I’m at my best when I help different groups in American Jewish life understand one another.”

His most recent book, too, almost didn’t happen. In May 2014, during a weekend visit to Yale for his daughter’s graduation, Sarna collapsed while walking back from the Hillel center to his hotel and went into cardiac arrest. Because it was Shabbat, he wasn’t carrying a phone.

Fortunately, a cardiologist happened to be driving by and Sarna immediately was taken to nearby Yale-New Haven Hospital. The speed of the emergency response not only saved Sarna’s life but also helped him avoid the irreversible brain damage that often occurs in patients who suffer cardiac arrest. His physicians told Sarna that his heart blockage could be traced back to the radiation treatment he had received for his cancer a decade and a half earlier.

Two years on, Sarna has had to slow down a bit – five or six hours of sleep a night is no longer sufficient, he says ruefully – but his rate of production hardly shows it.

Before he even left the hospital at Yale, Sarna resumed edits on his Lincoln book. This fall, he’ll be going to Jerusalem on sabbatical, where he’ll be at the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies working on his new book about a little-known 19th-century American Jewish female writer and poet.

“This is what I’ve been put on this earth to do,” Sarna said, “to write about and read about the American Jewish experience.”

Briefs: UCLA’s Friedlander awarded Pulitzer Prize, Rabbi Weil to head O.U.

Friedlander Awarded Pulitzer

UCLA historian Saul Friedlander, a child Holocaust survivor, has been awarded a 2008 Pulitzer Prize for his definitive account of “The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945.”

The $10,000 award in the general nonfiction book category honors the 75-year-old scholar and Israeli citizen for his remarkable ability to evoke the entire Nazi era through a combination of meticulous research and a novelist’s eye for personal, human detail.

Born in Prague, Friedlander’s parents found a hiding place for their 10-year-old son in 1942 in a French monastery, where he was raised as a Catholic and at one point planned to enter the priesthood. He did not learn of his Jewish identity until after the war.

Meanwhile, his parents attempted to cross the French border, were turned back by Swiss guards and subsequently delivered by French police into German hands. Both parents perished in Auschwitz.

In an ironic twist of history, Friedlander was appointed in 1997 by the Swiss government to an international commission of nine eminent historians to evaluate and judge Switzerland’s conduct during World War II.

In 1948, Friedlander immigrated to Israel, studied and later taught in Tel Aviv, Paris and Geneva, and in 1987 joined the UCLA faculty as holder of the 1939 Club Chair in Holocaust Studies.

On being notified of the Pulitzer Prize award, Friedlander described it as “a great honor … an American prize that has great meaning in this country.”

In a 1997 interview with The Journal, following publication of his initial volume, “Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939,” Friedlander noted that the Holocaust retained its grip on the world’s consciousness, but not because it marked a turning point in history, such as the French or Bolshevik revolutions.

Rather, he said, in its most profound sense the Holocaust forces mankind to face the ultimate question: What is the nature of human nature? What are the limits of human behavior?

As the Nazi era recedes in time, attention to the Holocaust is not slackening, but increasing, Friedlander noted.

“With the passage of time,” he said, “we are slowly grasping the vastness of the amplitude and ramifications of the Hitler period.”

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

L.A. Rabbi to Lead the Orthodox Union

Rabbi Steven Weil, Senior Rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills, has been offered the post of executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, which serves as the education, outreach and social service organization for Orthodox synagogues, according to a reliable source. Weil would neither confirm nor deny the report.

The O.U. has been engaged in a year-long search to replace Rabbi Tzvi Weinreb, the current executive vice president, who will finish his term in June 2009. (He will stay on at the O.U. for three more years). Weinreb is 68 years old.

The O.U. executive committee considered 150 condidates and on Wednesday evening, April 9, approved Weil, 42, whose Orthodox synagogue is the largest outside the New York region. According to an O.U. official, who asked to remain anonymous, Weil is expected to come to the O.U. as early as January 2009; the official said Weil insisted on having enough time to help his synagogue search for a new senior rabbi.

Weil is expected to send out an announcement on the move this weekend to his congregation, which numbers 750 families. The O.U. is expected to officially announce the post on Monday.

— Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Iran, Israel and U.S.

In Sunday’s inaugural Southern California Symposium of the Washington Institute titled, “Iran, Israel, and the U.S.: Confrontation or Engagement in 2008?” a panel moderated by Executive Director Robert Satloff focused mainly on the looming possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran. Although the National Intelligence Estimate judged in December that Iran would not have nuclear capabilities until 2010, the speakers at the symposium all believe that the actual date could be much sooner and discussed possible causes and courses of action with that timeline in mind.

Several dignitaries were in the audience, including Jacob Dayan and Elin Suleymanov, the consul generals of Israel and Azerbaijan, respectively.

Patrick Clawson, the institute’s deputy director for research, introduced the idea that the main threat from Iran was not nuclear armament itself, but the fact that Iran obtaining nuclear arms would break the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, encouraging other countries in the area, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt to follow suit. All panelists were disinclined to think that Iran would simply bomb any neighboring countries; Michael Eisenstadt, a fellow at the institute, pointed out that the Iranian government usually acts rationally and any bombing on its part would ensure the end of the current regime, as well as most of the people living in Iran.

Much of the symposium was dedicated to discussing Israel’s possible reactions to a newly nuclear Iran. Chuck Freilich, this year’s Ira Weiner fellow, introduced the topic, saying that once diplomacy runs its course — everyone was confident that it would quite soon — Israel has two options: military action, or doing nothing and learning to live with a nuclear Iran. He also expressed skepticism that Iran is an existential threat to Israel, but described the situation as dire, saying, “Dire threats are important enough that they don’t always need to be existential.”

Though Israel officially has a policy of opacity concerning its own nuclear status, most panelists seemed to feel that Israel either has nuclear arms or is well on its way, and suggested that confirming this might be a useful strategy.

Regime change in Iran was brought up as an unlikely, though intriguing option. Mehdi Khalaji, a visiting fellow at the institute, said that the regime is more afraid of a cultural invasion than of anything else. “We need to invest in the women’s movement in Iran,” he said at one point.

The keynote speaker of the evening, retired Maj. Gen. Eitan Ben-Eliyahu of the Israeli air force, also favors limited military responses to Iran. His main point, during his speech, was that the best tactic to deal with the threat of Iran would be a combination of diplomatic and military coercion. Rather than relying solely on diplomacy — which is not working — or relying solely on a military strike — which he was not sure Israel has the capacity to accomplish at the moment — he said that the best course of action might be to strike a limited number of targets in Iran, choosing carefully to hurt the regime. Afterward, Iran might be more inclined to deal diplomatically with Israel.

Saving Lives in a Time of Murder

"The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust" by Sir Martin Gilbert (Henry Holt and Company, $35).

On Jan. 19, 1942, Rabbi Jacob Schulmann of Grabow Synagogue wrote to his community in Lodz:

"Alas, to our great grief, we now know all. I spoke to an eyewitness who escaped. He told me everything. They’re exterminated in Chelmno, near Dombie, and they are all buried in the Rzuszow forest."

Jews were not simply hunted down by Germans. They were frequently turned over by their Polish neighbors. Jews hiding in the woods were discovered, sometimes by children. They turned them over out of a variety of motives — some out of fear, others out of hate, some simply for money.

But at that same time, Henry Herzog — today living in the United States — was hidden in Rzeszow by three non-Jewish Poles.

In 2001, Herzog wrote to Martin Gilbert — the official biographer of Winston Churchill, author of more than 70 books and perhaps the greatest living historian — agreeing that "the memory of those who at the risk of their own lives, as well as of their families, helped Jewish people escape the genocide should be held in sanctity, counted and recounted."

With the help of people like Herzog, Gilbert has collected hundreds of stories of righteous gentiles who acted with extraordinary courage to save lives — each a world in itself — at a time of maximum peril. They "serve as models of the best in human behavior and achievement to which anyone may choose to aspire."

Here is one of the stories, in summary form: Richard Vanger was 10 years old when a young Polish Catholic, known to him only as Mrs. Teresa, agreed to hide him and a rabbi’s daughter, Gietl, in her barn. Later, he got to stay in the house, under the bed, listening as Mrs. Teresa played Chopin on the piano — music he still remembers today.

One day, as Richard was hiding in another village, two Polish policemen and an SS officer, acting on a tip, went to Mrs. Teresa’s barn, where Gietl was hiding.

Finding Gietl, they confronted Mrs. Teresa: "What is this Jew doing in your place?"

As Mrs. Teresa hesitated, Gietl said: "Thank you very much for all you have done for me" — and the SS officer shot Gietl on the spot.

Mrs. Teresa was arrested and taken to the concentration camp in Koldiczewo. She survived the war, but emerged a sick woman and died in 1952, at the age of 42. With the help of Vanger, Gilbert has told her story.

One reads these stories — story after story — and wonders, why did they do it? In a time when all around were joining in the persecution of defenseless people, when even the slightest hesitation could result in incarceration or death, why did they do it?

Some believed God was testing their Christian faith by sending them Jews in distress.

Some saw sheltering Jews as a form of political resistance.

But time after time, most of them explained their actions simply by saying, "We did the only thing a decent person would do."

Marie-Elise Roger, who saved a life in France, commented:

"I did nothing unusual … I only took in a little guy who had just lost his parents … I loved him and gave him food to eat. If I had not done this, that would not have been normal."

Gilbert conveys the stories — in the understated, matter-of-fact, unemotional style for which he is famous — not simply to recognize individual bravery, but to remind us that "it is possible for human beings … to find the strength of character … to resist the evil impulses of the age, and to try to rescue the victims of barbarity."

There is a Jewish imperative in remembering and recognizing the courage of these people. It is an important part of the history of World War II.

But in the end, the point of this book is not only to record history, but to force us to consider our own moral lives. The book’s ultimate question is one Gilbert phrases as follows: "Could I have acted like this, in the circumstances; would I have tried to, would I have wanted to?"

He — and we — would like to think we would. But the response of one of the righteous gentiles to "why did you do it?" is sobering.

Her answer was, "Why do you ask?" In other words, if you have to ask….

On the other hand, there may be, as Rabbi David Wolpe has written, a spiritual gene lying dormant inside us, a natural inclination to do good that is not self-executing, but that can be awakened through the study of religious and moral texts.

If so, this book is one we need to read.

Sir Martin Gilbert will be the sixth annual Rabbi Jacob Kohn Scholar-in-Residence at Sinai Temple in Westwood from Nov. 14-16. For information and reservations, call (310) 474-1518.

Rick Richman edits “Jewish Current Issues” at

Noir Fiction Fills in the Babel Blanks

"King of Odessa" by Robert Rosenstone (Northwestern, $24.95).

In an impressive effort of literary boldness, historian Robert Rosenstone fills in some of the blanks in Issac Babel’s life and work in a first novel, "King of Odessa." He writes as though he has recovered a lost Babel manuscript, imagining what one of Babel’s final years might have been like. Other than a few postcards sent to his family, no records remain of the summer and autumn of 1936, when Babel, then 42, returned to Odessa, the city of his birth.

Stretching the lines between fact and fiction, Rosenstone narrates the story in Babel’s voice, writes several letters sent to Babel in the voices of the women in his life, and also pens a final story about his character, Benya Krik, the clever Jewish mobster of Odessa who’s something of a Robin Hood — and referred to in Babel’s stories as "the King."

"Yiddish noir" is how Rosenstone describes the novel’s style to me. Rosenstone, who has taught modern European and American history at California Institute of Technology, is also the author of "Romantic Revolutionary: A Biography of John Reed," which was the basis for the Academy-award winning film, "Reds."

With irreverent humor, textured descriptions and sensitive attention to detail, Rosenstone imaginatively constructs Babel’s world. Some of Babel’s childhood recollections in the novel are based on his short stories. The young Babel, indifferent to the violin lessons his father insisted that he take, would prop a book on his music stand when he was supposed to be practicing. He would read while simply making noise with the violin, which was indistinguishable from music to his tone-deaf father in a nearby room. Some days, he would leave the violin in his closet and fill the case with a bathing suit and towel and head right past his teacher’s home to the beach. There, he befriends an athletic guy who teaches him to swim and also tells him that his early writing has a spark of genius.

In 1936, Babel goes to Odessa for a rest and to work on a film with Sergei Einsenstein, and also as part of a mission he undertakes with the secret police to help a condemned prisoner escape. Although he hasn’t published anything in a while, in Odessa he is celebrated; Babel is treated as though he invented the city and its characters in his stories. His romantic affairs are complicated, with a wife and daughter in Paris and two other women, too. Rosenstone invents an additional woman, an actress, whom he meets in Odessa, who might be an agent of the state. It’s not clear whether it’s his own escape that he’s trying to arrange, although Babel ultimately turns down an opportunity to leave.

"I fell in love with Babel some years ago," Rosenstone said, "particularly with the whole world of Jewish Odessa." The author, who spent about eight years doing research — as much as on any historical biography he has written — added that he was also interested in the trajectory of Babel’s life, from being an international star with "Red Cavalry," a collection of stories that came out in the 1920s, to falling out of favor and not being able to publish.

"I’m fascinated with how people went on with life in the new world they thought they had built, when it was closing in on them. And with the tensions between the hopes, the realities, the despair of life," he said.

Rosenstone, whose earlier five books are works of history or biography including a memoir about his grandfather, "The Man Who Swam Into History," describes "King of Odessa" as fictional biography.

"You can’t write a biography of Isaac Babel," he said, pointing out that when Babel was arrested, all of his papers were taken, and the materials still not have emerged even as Soviet files have been opened. In addition, Babel was known for being secretive.

"I think its a good introduction to a bit of lost history," he said. Although he’s never been in Odessa, Rosenstone makes the city come alive as a beautiful, cosmopolitan city. From the 1880s to the 1920s, that city was the second largest Jewish community, after Warsaw, under the rule of czarist Russia. Rosenstone studied 19th century travel books, photo collections, memoirs that mentioned Babel, literature about the period and "everything I could get my hands on about Babel and Odessa and Odessa Jews, about the literary scene between the revolution and his death." The book jacket is a souvenir postcard from Odessa, circa 1897.

Since the novel was published, Rosenstone has heard from Nathalie Babel, the writer’s daughter, who is the editor of a recently published one-volume "The Complete Works of Isaac Babel," with new translations from the Russian. She wasn’t pleased that Rosenstone had taken on this project, and Rosenstone explains that she has a particular view of her father as almost a saintly figure.

Rosenstone thinks of the work as "a kind of homage to Babel." He’s also pleased to be spreading an appreciation of the Russian master to the American reading public. At several bookstore readings, people have left with copies of Babel’s books.

Robert Rosenstone is speaking Nov. 19 at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (323) 761-8644.

Irving Gets the Bill

Holocaust denier David Irving has come a step closer to financial ruin now that a British judge has ordered him to start paying millions of dollars in legal costs.During a court session last Friday, Judge Charles Gray ordered Irving to pay some $250,000 to Penguin Books by June 16 following his failed libel action against the publisher and American historian Deborah Lipstadt.

If the money – a down payment on total legal and research costs of some $3 million – is not paid by then, the judge said Irving would face bankruptcy proceedings.Last month, Irving lost his lawsuit against Lipstadt and Penguin, whom Irving accused of ruining his career by labeling him a Holocaust denier. Ruling against Irving on April 11, Gray called him an anti-Semitic Holocaust denier and Hitler apologist who distorted historical data to suit his own ideological agenda.Penguin lawyer Heather Rogers had initially asked for a down payment of some $800,000, but Irving’s lawyer, Adrian Davies, replied that even half that amount could bankrupt Irving.

Rogers told the court that Penguin had already paid out more than $1.5 million to defense experts who testified at the three-month-long trial.Irving, 62, who has not yet obtained permission to appeal the judgment, has argued that defense experts and lawyers were paid too much.

Gray ordered Irving to pay the $250,000 by June 16 on the basis that Penguin Books was prepared to accept that figure for the time being.The court was told that Irving had boasted to reporters that he had a “fighting fund” of more than $500,000 made up of contributions sent to him by supporters around the world.After the hearing, Irving refused to say whether he could or would pay. He said the money in the fighting fund was in an offshore account.

Meanwhile, Penguin lawyer Kevin Bays said the publishing house is determined to recover its legal and research fees from Irving.”On the one hand, he says he doesn’t have any money. On the other hand, he’s reported as saying he has 5,000 supporters around the world making donations,” said Bays.As a result of the judge’s order last Friday, “We’ll find out if he has lots of supporters and money. If he doesn’t pay, we’ll have to enforce payment. The ultimate is bankruptcy.

“A trustee in bankruptcy would be appointed to assess any assets he’s got,” added Bays. “That would include his house.”Irving, who represented himself during the libel trial, hired lawyers to represent him at the hearing for costs.But he complained that the law firm he had hired, Goldsmiths, had refused to represent him beyond the costs hearing on “ideological” grounds.

Will Truth Prevail?

Emerging from the Royal Courts of Justice here on the evening of March 15 was like leaving a musty 17th-century ecclesiastical battle for the fresh air of the 21st century.

The proposition presented to the court by Holocaust revisionist David Irving in his libel suit against the American Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt during two months of often mind-numbing esoterica might just as easily have been that the world is flat.

Was Auschwitz really a death camp where Jews were systematically slaughtered en masse? Did the Holocaust really happen? Did Hitler order, still less know about, the destruction of European Jewry? No, no, no, thundered Irving.

Given the wealth of historical documentation, physical evidence and eyewitness testimonies, including those of former death camp commandants, the questions might have been redundant to most reasonable people. But not, apparently, to Irving.

To Irving, Auschwitz was an awful slave labor camp where most of the 100,000 Jewish inmates — his figure — died of natural causes. To Irving, the Holocaust was the sum total of all the casualties of World War II. To Irving, Hitler was the best friend the Jews had in the Third Reich.

So who was to blame for the suffering of the Jews? Why, says Irving, the Jews themselves who, by their unspeakable behavior and insatiable greed, have invited the hatred and persecution of their hosts wherever they have lived during the past 3,000 years. By Irving’s logic, the victims become the perpetrators.

Then, again, he has a penchant for turning facts on their head. While it was Irving who instigated the libel trial, he used his closing address to argue that if he lost, the real victims would be free speech and the pursuit of knowledge. The bottom line, he contended, was that his defeat would deny his type of historian the opportunity to question the conventional narrative of the Holocaust.

In fact, the opposite is true. If Irving loses, his reputation might suffer, but it might equally be enhanced, at least among his followers. Nothing, however, will prevent him from continuing to propagate his crackpot views.

If he wins, however, mainstream historians will have to think long and hard about the consequences of taking on the flat-earth brigade that Irving represents with such felicitous ease.

But the case that Irving brought against Emory University’s imperturbable Lipstadt was not based on her contention that the earth is actually round; rather, that Lipstadt and her British publisher, Penguin Books, had accused him of deliberately ignoring the evidence that the earth is round.

Irving claims that Lipstadt’s assertion that he is a Holocaust denier, a distorter of history, a Hitler partisan and, in the words of defense lawyer Richard Rampton, “a right-wing extremist, a racist and, in particular, a rabid anti-Semite” ruined his reputation and wrecked his career.

Could Irving succeed in his libel action? And what would that mean?

A senior source deep inside the Lipstadt defense team was euphoric immediately after the closing statements last week. There was no doubt, he said, that the judgment — expected in about three weeks — would be in Lipstadt’s favor.

Then, again, Irving was equally confident: “That’s a stupid question,” he replied tersely when I asked him whether he thought he would win.

British libel law is stacked in Irving’s favor. The judge is not being asked to rule on whether the Holocaust happened, whether Hitler knew or approved of the extermination of Jews or whether Auschwitz was indeed the scene of systematic mass killing.

Instead, he must decide whether, as Lipstadt charged in her book, Irving deliberately distorted, misstated, misquoted and falsified historical evidence and manipulated historical documents in order to make them conform to his own ideological agenda. And he must decide whether Irving deliberately ignored evidence in order to exonerate Hitler for the persecution of the Jews.

The burden of proof fell on Lipstadt to show that Irving actually had evidence to support the conventional meaning of the Holocaust; he says he did not because it is a subject he finds “endlessly boring.” So, too, was the burden on Lipstadt to show that Irving had evidence to link Hitler with an order to kill Jews; Irving maintains no such definitive document exists.

It is possible, on strictly technical grounds, that the judge will find in Irving’s favor, and the effect of such a decision could be far-reaching.

To many who are not versed in British libel law, a victory for Irving — however narrow, however technical — will be perceived as a vindication of Holocaust denial and a blurring of the line between legitimate historical inquiry and partial “research” that is designed to aid right-wing extremism and fuel neo-Nazism.

Whatever the outcome, it would be entirely wrong to assume that Irving is a cardboard cut-out fascist or a raving lunatic. His public speeches might be intemperate, but his actions are carefully calculated. He is a prolific author and an articulate spokesman for his cause, and he has a presence, physical and intellectual, that commands attention.

Whether railing against the international Jewish conspiracy that he says has hounded him for 30 years, excoriating what he perceives to be the enemies of free speech — which include most major Jewish organizations and media — or lamenting the stream of countries that have deported him because they found his views too obnoxious, Irving is clearly a child who hates having his party ruined.

Conflicting Stories

During World War II, did an anti-Semitic Swiss government split upJewish refugee families, require the men to perform backbreaking workin forced labor camps, and treat Jews markedly worse than Christianrefugees?

Or, on the contrary, were Jewish refugees generally treated withdecency and respect at a time when all Swiss had to work for thecommon good and share tight rations?

Talk to former refugees who escaped the Nazi dragnets and foundsafety in Switzerland, and their reports are often wildlycontradictory.

The latest furor about Switzerland’s questionable role in WorldWar II was triggered earlier this month by a British televisiondocumentary on Channel 4 that amounted to a powerful indictment ofSwitzerland’s treatment of Jewish refugees.

Historian Alan Morris Schom presents his report, “TheUnwanted Guests:

Swiss Forced Labor Camps, 1940-1944.” Photocourtesy Simon Wiesenthal Center

The harsh picture took on even darker hues in a report byhistorian Alan Morris Schom, “The Unwanted Guests: Swiss Forced LaborCamps, 1940-1944,” commissioned by the Simon Wiesenthal Center andreleased last week in Los Angeles as Wire services, newspapers and TVnetworks immediately picked up on the report and delivered it aroundthe world, often with provocative headlines and graphics. And it’snot over, with both Time and Newsweek coming out with major stories.

The new list of accusations hit Swiss officials like a blow to thesolar plexus. They were already reeling from earlier charges thatSwiss banks had filled their vaults by appropriating the accounts setup by Holocaust victims and by laundering Nazi gold — but at leastthese transgressions dealt mainly with bankers and money. The newreport went further by attacking the fundamental image of the Swissas a decent and humane people.

An official with the Swiss Embassy in Washington phoned The JewishJournal and reported, in a choked voice, on a CNN news segment thatopened with footage of Nazi concentration camps.

The implied comparison was obviously odious, and even the harshestcritics of Switzerland have rejected it. No Jews were killed in Swisscamps — though there were some cases of medical negligence — andnone were deliberately worked to death.

Now a number of Jewish veterans of Swiss camps have rallied to thedefense of Switzerland, hailing the country as the savior of some28,000 Jewish refugees (although roughly the same number were turnedback at the Swiss border).

Al A. Finci of Sherman Oaks, a native of Sarajevo, crossed theSwiss border as a teen-ager with his family in the spring of 1944. Atall times, he said, “we were treated courteously and with respect …and sent to a boarding school for me, a Swiss family for my 10-yearold sister, and a vacant hotel, used to accommodate refugees, for myparents.”

In an interview, Finci said, “I have no special love for theSwiss; they are a cold and often gruff people, but they saved mylife.”

Arthur P. Stern, a Holocaust survivor who spent much of the war inSwitzerland, described parts of the Schom report as “a lot ofgarbage.”

A self-described “professional Jew,” who holds leadershippositions in numerous Jewish organizations and retired as presidentof Magnavox Advanced Products, Stern said that it violates Jewishtradition when false accusations are leveled for the sake ofpublicity.

The Swiss government did a number of bad things, such assuspending the country’s traditional right of refuge to limit Jewishimmigration, but “compared to Portugal, Spain and Sweden, and eventhe United States, which only admitted 50,000 Jews when 600,000unused visas were available, Switzerland comes out very well,” Sternsaid.

Alex Koron, a native of Munich now living in Desert Hot Springs,was assigned to a camp at Birmensdorf in October 1942.

“We lived in military barracks and slept on straw mats. The foodwas sufficient and was rationed even for the Swiss. I worked in thekitchen, did repairs, removed tree stumps and blew up rocks to clearfields to grow food,” said Koron.

“I worked eight hours a day, there were no guards, no barbed wire.Almost every weekend, I went into town. I never encounteredanti-Semitism.”

Despite such testimony, the Wiesenthal Center, Dr. Schom, theauthor of “Unwanted Guests,” and Simon Reeve, the writer of theBritish documentary, stand fully by their reports and have witnessesto back their charges.

Reeve said in a call from London that he interviewed 25 veteransof the Swiss camps, of whom only one “had a positive experience.”

“I found that there was a broad policy of anti-Semitism inSwitzerland before and during the war, and there is no doubt thatJewish refugees were exploited, not just for Switzerland’s survivalbut to further the country’s economy,” Reeve said.

One of his witnesses was Manfred Alexander, who, after escaping aGerman concentration camp, made it to Switzerland.

Alexander told The New York Times: “[There], I was put in a prisonwith murderers. Then I was sent to camps where they put us intostriped uniforms and we worked from daybreak to sundown in thefields. A guard beat people. Those who tried to escape, they sentdogs after them.”

Other former inmates cited examples of senseless cruelty or sheergreed. Michael Jacobovitz of New York, then a 17-year-old OrthodoxJew from Cologne, would not eat non-kosher food in his camp, and whenhe begged a guard for a second slice of bread, he was threatened withforcible