Deborah Lipstadt says that for all the emotional, spiritual and professional pain she endured standing trial in England this winter, accused of defaming Holocaust denier David Irving, she considers the experience a blessing.
A few days before Tuesday’s verdict, which Irving lost — castigated by the judge as a bigot and anti-Semite — Lipstadt told The Jewish Week in an exclusive interview, “My life has been disrupted by this case for several years, but I feel I was blessed.”
The 52-year-old historian, author and professor of Jewish studies at Emory University in Atlanta said, “I was given an opportunity to stand up for what I believe in, to marshal every force I have against evil.”
And make no mistake, she considers Irving, a prolific British writer on World
War II who calls himself a historian, “an evil man.”
Finally free to discuss the trial, which attracted widespread international attention, after 12 weeks of almost complete public silence, Lipstadt said that Irving not only lies and manipulates historical fact to foster anti-Semitism and racism, but relishes denigrating Holocaust survivors.
Irving sued Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books, three years ago for describing him in her 1993 book, “Denying The Holocaust,” as “one of the most dangerous spokesmen in the service of Holocaust denial.” Among his assertions are that Hitler did not plan the Final Solution and that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz.
During an interview last week in Phoenix, prior to her addressing the annual conference of the Jewish Funders Network meeting there, Lipstadt seemed anxious to give voice to her feelings, though she requested that this account be embargoed until after the court verdict.
“My friends said the miracle of the last three months was that I was able to keep quiet in public all that time,” the outspoken Lipstadt said, smiling.
Turning serious, though, she cited several specific instances of Irving’s falsifying information, which came out during the trial, such as a telegram sent by Hitler during Kristallnacht in November 1938. The message instructed the Nazis to stop the arson against Jewish shops, no doubt for fear that the fires would spread to and destroy non-Jewish establishments and homes.
But Irving has insisted that the telegram said to “stop the madness,” implying that Hitler was opposed to, rather than approved of, the vicious assault on Jewish homes, stores and synagogues.
“It’s clear manipulation, and [Irving] did this all the time,” said Lipstadt. “We hoisted him on his own petard.”
Another example she mentioned was Irving’s embellishing on a Nuremberg trial document, changing a judge’s notation about a survivor’s testimony that there was a barracks at Auschwitz for prostitution from “this I doubt” to “all this I doubt,” in an effort to dismiss all of the survivor’s evidence.
Lipstadt was confident that one practical result of the trial was that Irving “has been exposed as a racist and anti-Semite. He’s been exposed to thinking people. He can’t be trusted by historians.”
Although they never spoke throughout the trial, Lipstadt felt she came to understand Irving. “I think at the beginning he knew he was lying, and over time he came to believe it. He knows what he’s doing.”
Lipstadt pointed out that contrary to common belief, she did not choose to take part in the trial: Irving sued her for defamation and she was the defendant. In British law, the burden of proof in libel law cases is on the defendant, who may not rely solely on truth as a defense.
“If I hadn’t fought back, the court would have ruled in his favor, my book would have been withdrawn from the public, at least in Europe, and it would have precluded others from writing about him,” she said.
Further, it would have had “a chilling effect” on exposing Holocaust deniers, she said.
To those who told her to settle and avoid a trial, Lipstadt responded angrily.
“What should I have apologized for? Should I have compromised by saying there were fewer gas chambers?” she asked.
“I had no choice but to fight,” she said, citing the biblical passage that if someone comes to kill you, you are permitted to kill him first.
“I never would have gone out to do battle, but once it came to me, I felt I had to answer strongly.”
She noted that on the Shabbat before Purim, she went to a London synagogue for Parshat Zachor, the Torah portion instructing the Jewish people to blot out forever the name and descendants of Amalek, who sought to ambush and destroy the Israelites.
Lipstadt said she had always found the passage harsh, but in light of her ordeal, she came to appreciate the Torah’s message in a new way.
“With this kind of evil,” she said, with those who would deny the enormity of the destruction of European Jewry, “there is no compromise.”
Moments after this interview, Lipstadt was introduced to her audience in Phoenix.
Reflecting the support of Holocaust survivors and countless American Jews who sensed that Irving’s assault was not only against Lipstadt but against history, and memory, the several hundred philanthropists gave her a long and emotional standing ovation.
She responded by saying she “could not have fought this battle alone,” and paid tribute to her publisher, Penguin Books, her attorneys and those who offered her support and encouragement through phone calls, letters and e-mails during the trial.
One lesson for her, Lipstadt said, was the comfort of being part of a community and feeling its sheltering embrace.
“For the first time I understood what it meant be the recipient rather than the giver,” she said, “to send out word and have people come forward and say, Hineni, here I am.”