The day before she emerged victorious from a libel lawsuit against a Holocaust denier, Passover preparations occupied Deborah Lipstadt’s mind.
She had just arrived back in London from her home in Atlanta, where she had spent 10 days cleaning for Passover and preparing for the annual influx of family for her second seder.
“Here we are on the eve of Pesach, and what is Pesach all about: To teach your children,” she said Monday.
That, in essence, is how the Holocaust scholar perceives the significance of the legal ordeal she has endured.
Borrowing from the Haggadah, which will be used in millions of Jewish homes next week to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, Lipstadt declared that “if, in the future, I can use this experience to teach and to write more history, then, in the spirit of the approaching holiday, dayeinu — it will be enough for me.”
The day after she made that declaration in an interview with JTA, a British judge ruled that David Irving, who claims the Nazis did not use gas chambers to exterminate Jews and that Hitler had no plan for genocide, failed to prove his reputation had been damaged by Lipstadt and her publisher in a book that branded him a Holocaust denier.
“I see this not only as a personal victory, but also as a victory for all those who speak out against hate and prejudice,” Lipstadt said after the verdict was read.
While she had set out in her book, “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,” to demolish Holocaust revisionism, Lipstadt said she was not looking for a fight.
“But once it came within the parameters of my life there was only one way I knew how to respond — and that was to fight back,” she said in the JTA interview.
She did not seek a court battle that would overwhelm her professional and personal life: “I never would have gone into court with these people — I don’t think it’s productive,” she said. “But once they came after me, I had no option but to fight with all my strength and with all my might.”
Her only regret was that Holocaust survivors who had attended the trial were compelled to endure Irving’s courtroom taunts.
She came close to tears when she recalled being “enveloped by survivors” who had approached her during the hearings to thank her for her stand against Irving.
Caught in the spotlight of a case that attracted standing-room-only public galleries and the constant glare of international media attention, Lipstadt maintained an internal tranquility by methodically ordering her time.
Days were spent in the courtroom; evenings at her apartment in London’s West End, which was, ironically, just a few minutes walk from Irving’s home.
“I’d come back to my apartment and generally change into exercise clothes. Sometimes I’d go and work out, then I’d answer e-mails, read transcripts, go over material that was going to be covered next day in the case.
“In the early part of the evening would come calls from every place east of here — friends in Europe and Israel. Later would come calls from west of here. Then I would go to sleep. It was all very routine.”
There were few emotional roller coasters, but she admitted that “a couple of times, when real ugliness came out in the court, it was revolting. I just wanted to go home and take a shower.”
What kept her strong was what she described as her “A-Team” of lawyers, paralegals, researchers and experts, who, she said, would have been the toast of any university history department.
Then there was the flood of e-mails, letters, notes, cards and phone calls she received from well-wishers around the world — “Jews and non-Jews, people I know and people I don’t, scholars and non-scholars, taxi drivers and hotel concierges, wanting to do things for me, wanting to be there, to help me.”
But most moving and most touching, she said, was “the recognition by so many people — again, Jews and non-Jews — that while I was the person on the front line this was not my struggle alone; that it really was a struggle for truth, for memory, for doing the right thing.”
Her contempt for Irving was boundless: “He is a liar and he is a bully,” she said almost matter of factly.
“To manipulate the historical record in such a contemptuous fashion and to take what appeared to me to be such glee in making fun of survivors — that was debilitating. But the effect was to make me even more convinced I was doing the right thing.”
Did she now regret anything in the book? “Yes,” she replied. “I regret that I didn’t know then what I know now, because then I would have been much more severe in what I wrote about Irving.”
With the benefit of hindsight, would she have written the book at all? “Without a doubt,” she said emphatically, stressing each syllable. “To say I wouldn’t have written it would be to give succor to scoundrels.”
But even as her ordeal was ending, she warned: “The nightmare is not over. There is no end to the battle against racism, anti-Semitism and fascism.”
The trial has transformed Lipstadt-the-academic into Lipstadt-the-celebrity. But she will not be cashing in on her new status.
Lipstadt’s dream is to return to Emory University in Atlanta, which has stood by her steadfastly, and pick up where she left off before the start of the legal proceedings.
“I hope,” she says, “that I can use this experience in what I do professionally — in what I do best and what my life has been all about: To teach, to teach, to teach.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.