September 18, 2019

A Hero’s Welcome

Her old hometown gave Deborah Esther Lipstadt a rousing welcome as the historian and author delivered her first public address since her signal victory in a British court over Holocaust denier David Irving.

Some 1,500 people overflowed the sanctuary of Temple Beth Am, which Lipstadt described as her spiritual home for 15 years, and hundreds more were unable to get tickets for the Sunday evening event.

The warmth and gratitude of the audience was palpable. George Ganzberg thanked Lipstadt in the name of his family, which perished in the Holocaust, and his fellow survivors.

Rabbi Joel Rembaum of the host temple likened her to the biblical prophetess and judge whose name she bears, and he described Lipstadt as “a woman of God” in her steadfastness and strength of character.

In her talk, which ran more than an hour, Lipstadt reflected on her almost five-year ordeal, which began when Irving sued her and her publisher, Penguin Books, for libel in a British court.

Irving claimed he had been defamed when Lipstadt described him in her writing as “a Nazi apologist and an admirer of Hitler, who has resorted to distortion of facts and to manipulation of documents in support of his contention that the Holocaust did not take place.”

Justice Charles Gray, in a withering 355-page opinion, validated Lipstadt’s description and effectively demolished Irving’s pretense of historical scholarship in his writings.

On Sunday night, Lipstadt dwelled less on the basic facts of the case, which are now well known, than on some of the emotions and sidelights of the 12-week trial.

She and the audience were visibly moved when she opened the talk by reading a number of letters sent to her by Holocaust survivors. One read, “My mother was killed in Auschwitz. Had Irving won, she would have been killed a second time.”

The most agonizing part of the trial, she recalled, was being forced to watch “Irving dance on the graves of the Holocaust dead.”

In one court exchange, Irving pointed to the number tattooed on the forearm of a woman survivor from Australia and asked her, “How much money have you made out of this tattoo?”

On balance, Lipstadt said, “I feel privileged and blessed that I was given the opportunity to stand up and battle for my people against this racist, anti-Semite and Holocaust denier. … I didn’t give as good as I got. I gave better than I got, and that feels real good.”

When Irving first announced his libel suit, some friends and colleagues urged Lipstadt to avoid a protracted case with an uncertain outcome by simply meeting Irving’s demand of a letter of apology and a 500-pound ($800) payment to his favorite charity.

Lipstadt said she never considered such a course. Her decision was reaffirmed, she said, “when I sat for three months only 10 feet away from Irving and saw a contemporary Amalek [biblical Israel’s inveterate foe]. There is no compromise with such evil.”

At one point, Lipstadt mused that “maybe all these years in Jewish day schools, my Jewish education, my involvement in the Jewish community were meant to prepare me for this ordeal.”

Financially, cost of preparing for and conducting the trial came to 2 million British pounds ($3.2 million) for her publisher, and 1 million pounds ($1.6 million) for Lipstadt herself.

The court ruled that Irving must reimburse the defense for these sums, and Lipstadt said her lawyers will go after Irving and his financial supporters in Britain and the United States until the judgment is paid.

Asked whether the Jewish community had paid for her legal expenses and loss of income as professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta, the usually voluble historian responded with a curt “No.”