LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Thomas Johnson, a California judge who ruled that the Holocaust was “a fact and not reasonably subject to dispute,” has died.
Johnson died Dec. 28 at his home in Pacific Palisades, Calif. He was 88.
As a Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge, Johnson imposed a major setback to Holocaust deniers in 1981 with his ruling in a case pitting Mel Mermelstein, a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, against the Institute of Historical Research in Torrance, Calif.
In 1980, the institute, which labeled the Holocaust as a myth, had offered a $50,000 reward to anyone who could prove that Jews had been gassed at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Mermelstein submitted a notarized account describing how he saw Nazi guards take his mother and two sisters to what he later learned was the Birkenau gas chamber. When the institute reneged on the payment, Mermelstein sued for $17 million.
During the trial, Johnson resolved the most controversial aspect of the case by applying the doctrine of judicial notice, which allows courts to recognize as fact information that is common knowledge.
“The court does take judicial notice that Jews were gassed to death in Poland at Auschwitz in the summer of 1944,” when Mermelstein and his family were there, Johnson ruled.
William John Cox, Mermelstein’s attorney, described the judge’s “courageous decision” as “the greatest ruling I could have hoped for.”
“This was the first case to confront Holocaust deniers head-on, and we were fortunate to have a judge who could not be bullied by these characters,” Mermelstein said in a phone interview.
Mermelstein, 85, of Long Beach, Calif., also recalled that before going to court he was approached by representatives of six national Jewish organizations.
“They all wanted me to drop the case,” he said. “They were afraid that the judge might rule that the Holocaust could not be proven. They told me, ‘if you lose, we all lose.’ ”
Johnson, a native of Kentucky and a World War II veteran, presided over a number of headline-grabbing cases involving such names as entertainer Rudy Vallee, tennis star Billie Jean King and philanthropist Norton Simon.
However, none of these cases, the Los Angeles Times commented, “matched the historical significance of the lawsuit that asked him to decide whether the Holocaust actually took place.”
Mermelstein, who is still the active owner of a pallet-manufacturing company, ultimately won a $90,000 settlement and a formal apology from the institute.
The trial was dramatized in 1991 in the television movie “Never Forget,” with actor Leonard Nimoy in the role of Mermelstein, and described in detail by Mermelstein in his autobiography “By Bread Alone.”