- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 5, 2016

“History has had its day in court and scored a crushing victory.”

— The London Times, April 14, 2000

If there is anything Dr. Deborah Lipstadt affirms after being sued for libel by a Holocaust denier, it is that there is a vast difference between truth and opinion. The professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta says that opinions cannot be passed off as facts if and when they are premised on lies.

“Holocaust deniers promulgate absolute lies. That’s what we showed” in her 2000 trial, Ms. Lipstadt told The Washington Times. “They promulgate those lies as ‘This is our opinion.’ They want it to be taken as fact, but it’s not opinion if it’s based on a lie.”

Ms. Lipstadt’s ordeal began in 1996, when prominent Holocaust denier David Irving sued her for libel due to her claiming in her book “Denying the Holocaust” that Mr. Irving had outright lied in his writings. Because Mr. Irving and Ms. Lipstadt’s publisher, Penguin Books, were both based in England, Ms. Lipstadt found herself in the unenviable position of needing to prove, under English law, that her assertions were true — the precise reversal of how libel laws work in the U.S.

The case, and its ensuing 2000 trial, are dramatized in the new film “Denial,” opening Friday in the District, and based on a book Ms. Lipstadt wrote about the affair. Rachel Weisz stars in “Denial” as Ms. Lipstadt, with Timothy Spall portraying her courtroom opponent, Mr. Irving.

Miss Weisz jumped at the film project, Ms. Lipstadt relates, and her casting had extra-textual elements: Miss Weisz’s own parents escaped from Austria to England on the eve of the Second World War as the Nazis began their program of the forceful relocation of Europe’s Jews.

To accurately portray Ms. Lipstadt, a New York native, the Oscar-winning English actress shadowed her subject in Atlanta to observe her behavior and to get her native accent down pat.

“I’ve been there 23 years. It’s home,” Ms. Lipstadt, who still has a thick Gotham accent, said of her adopted state of Georgia, but where she has nonetheless fit in. “You find a lot of people with a deep religious faith. And when they know what I do, they have utmost respect [and] empathy. People there take faith seriously. I’m a person who takes it seriously. So there’s already a common bond.”

Screenwriter David Hare (“The Reader,” “The Hours”) used verbatim exchanges from the trial transcript in filling out his script. Ms. Lipstadt said adhering to the truth of what happened in that London courtroom was key to her agreeing to sell the rights to her story.

“Before I even agreed to the film being optioned, I said, ‘This is a story about truth, so it’s got to be truthful,’” she told the film’s producers during initial meetings. “And they said, ‘We understand that.’ There was a tremendous emphasis on factuality.”

And what of Mr. Irving and other individuals who continue to claim, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that the Holocaust is nothing more than a fabrication of history? Ms. Lipstadt believes that such denial — what she calls historical or moral relativism — emanates not from a genuine scholarly desire to engage in debate as to the facts of history, but rather is premised on preconceived prejudices on the part of the disputant.

“Anti-Semitism is a form of prejudice. Think of the etymology of the word: ‘pre-judge,’” she said. “‘I see a Jew, I know they are rich and conniving and sneaky. I see a black person, I know they are shiftless and lazy.’

“Prejudice is irrational,” she said. “Anti-Semitism is one of the oldest hatreds around. Their view of the world is already bent … through anti-Semitic lenses.”

As an example of manufacturing evidence to fit the theory, Ms. Lipstadt points to a document Mr. Irving produced at trial which, he claimed, showed that Hitler actually tried to stop Kristallnacht, the Nov. 10, 1938, evening when the Nazis destroyed Jewish businesses, homes and synagogues and killed nearly 100 German Jews in a brutal pretext to the Final Solution.

“You look at the document, and it doesn’t say anything about stopping Kristallnacht, it says ‘Don’t burn down the Jewish shops because entire blocks are going up in flames; stop that arson,’” Ms. Lipstadt said of Mr. Irving’s so-called evidence. “That’s what [Hitler] called for a stop for, not the” pogrom itself, she said.

During the trial, Ms. Lipstadt was placed in the unenviable position of sitting silently in an English courtroom due to her lawyers’ insistence that she not testify. Further irritating her, her attorneys categorically forbade the testimony of Holocaust survivors, which they believed would take the focus away from making their case that Mr. Irving was a bona fide liar.

“In essence, we weren’t really proving that the Holocaust happened, what we were proving was that this guy was a liar and a falsifier of history,” she said. “We weren’t out to prove precisely how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust, but when [Mr. Irving] says ‘only 64,000 died’ — not [were] murdered — at Auschwitz, he’s lying.”

Ms. Lipstadt, who is on fall semester sabbatical from Emory to help promote “Denial,” says that all such conspiracy theories hinge on many of the same notions of repeated lies becoming truth.

“I’m going to cite that famous academic Stephen Colbert,” she says with a smile. “Remember when he talked about ‘truthiness’? Because a lot of people believe it, it must be true.

“People say [9/11] was an inside job, which had gotten such traction that Popular Mechanics did an article showing, from an entirely scientific point of view, that it could not have been an inside job.”

She also debunks the myth that 3,000 Jews were called by Mossad agents on the eve of 9/11, telling them to stay home from work that day.

“Think of the absurdity of that charge — that there is some central authority that knows the phone number and the workplace of every Jew in the major metropolitan New York area,” Ms. Lipstadt said. “And that 3,000 people were called and nobody” warned of the impending terror attacks.

Such theories, she said, can be traced to a certain stripe of what she calls “anti-elitism” or anti-intellectualism raging on both sides of the Atlantic, such as Brexit supporters claiming that “enough” had been heard from the experts.

“We have experts, whether it’s in the economy, medicine or history [who have] devoted their lives to [their fields]. You may disagree, but you have to take what they’re saying seriously,” Ms. Lipstadt said. “You can’t just say ‘Oh, I don’t want to hear from the experts.’ … If you know a lot about something, and you went to a good school, [deniers say they] can’t trust you, which is ludicrous.”

At numerous academic conferences she has attended, Ms. Lipstadt has watched colleagues argue, often volubly, if desire for land or anti-Semitism was the primary fact leading up to the Second World War, or if U.S. intervention in Germany in the 1930s could have lessened the Europe-wide murder of the Jewish people. What is never in doubt in such discussions, she says, is that the Holocaust is a fact of history.

“There aren’t two sides to every story. There are certain things that are true,” she said. “You can debate why they happened, but not that they happened. [Holocaust] victims don’t say it didn’t happen. The bystanders don’t say it didn’t happen. And the perpetrators don’t say it didn’t happen. But [deniers] who show up afterwards say it didn’t happen.”

In addition to being a recreation of an important case, “Denial” is a powerful screen drama. Miss Weisz shines in the lead role — as she invariably does — and Mr. Spall as the denier Mr. Irving will likely attract much notice his way come awards season. And Tom Wilkinson as Richard Rampton, Ms. Lipstadt’s courtroom attorney, smolders with quiet British rage at the notion of defending the truth of history.

As my chat with Ms. Lipstadt reaches its close, I mention that my second cousin, Stanislaus “Stanley” Blejwas, was a professor at Central Connecticut State University and a President Clinton-appointed member of the United Stated Memorial Council. his life’s work was attempting to reconcile surviving Polish Jews with their Gentile neighbors.

“I knew Stanley,” Ms. Lipstadt says of my relative, who was born to Polish-speaking parents in the New York area in 1941 and died in 2001.

I have heretofore only ever been to the District’s Holocaust Memorial Museum once to honor the memory of the 6 million dead. Upon learning of my connection to the museum, Ms. Lipstadt nudges me to return to see a new exhibit, chillingly called “They Were Our Neighbors.”

“People who were your good friends until [the Nazis] came around,” she says. “Or, in certain cases, actually took part.”

“Denial” opens Thursday at District area theaters.

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