LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Mel Mermelstein, a Holocaust survivor who won a five-year court battle forcing a right-wing Holocaust-denying organization to retract its claim and pay hefty damages, died Jan. 28 at the age of 95 from complications of COVID-19.
Weeks later, tributes to Mermelstein are continuing to arrive at the family home in Long Beach, California, a testament to the public impact of his legal war with antisemites.
Born in a Jewish enclave in Mukachero, then part of Czechoslovakia and, after the 1938 Nazi takeover, part of Hungary, Mermelstein became a child of the war. When Mermelstein was 17, he and his parents and siblings were deported to Auschwitz. When the death camp was liberated, Mermelstein weighed 68 pounds and was the only surviving member of his family.
At that point, he vowed to become a lifelong witness to the Holocaust.
His pledge was put to the test in 1979, when the ill-named “Institute for Historical Review,” founded by longtime Holocaust denier Willis Carto as a group that could adopt the nomenclature of academic institutions to provide legitimacy to antisemitism, offered a reward of $50,000 to the first person who could prove that Jews had been gassed at Auschwitz.
Mermelstein took them up on their bet. According to The New York Times, he “provided documents, eyewitness testimonies, histories, photographs and even a can that had contained Zyklon B to the institute. He told of seeing his mother and sister driven into the gas chambers in 1944.” When he heard nothing back from the institute, he sued.
After five years of testimony, Superior Court Judge Thomas L. Johnson ruled in favor of Mermelstein, stating that the Auschwitz killings are “capable of immediate and reasonably indisputable accuracy. It is simply a fact.”
The Institute agreed to pay Mermelstein $90,000 to settle the case.
But Mermelstein was far from finished. Over the next decades he made 40 trips to Auschwitz, Buchenwald and other Nazi death camps, collecting his evidence: cyanide canisters, pieces of barbed wire, bone fragments and pieces of cremation ovens.
Mermelstein built a museum in his lumber yard to display some 700 artifacts and then invited students to tour the facilities. The collection is slated for permanent display at the Chabad Jewish Center in Newport Beach, California.
His quest for truth was dramatized in the 1991 television movie “Never Forget,” with Jewish actor Leonard Nimoy portraying Mermelstein.
Surviving the deceased are Jane, his wife of 60 years, children Edie, Bernie, Ken and David, five grandchildren and one great-grandson.