History on Trial : My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2009-07-07
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications

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In her acclaimed 1993 book Denying the Holocaust, Deborah Lipstadt called putative WWII historian David Irving "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial." A prolific author of books on Nazi Germany who has claimed that more people died in Ted Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, Irving responded by filing a libel lawsuit in the United Kingdom -- where the burden of proof lies on the defendant, not on the plaintiff. At stake were not only the reputations of two historians but the record of history itself.


History on Trial
My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier

Chapter One

A Personal and Scholarly Odyssey

"No, I am not a child of Holocaust survivors."

Ever since I began teaching about the Holocaust I have been asked about my background. Some questioners seemed surprised by my response. Why else would I be interested in the topic? Others, however, felt that my personal distance from the event allowed a more scholarly perspective.

My father left Germany before the Third Reich and my mother was born in Canada. Growing up on Manhattan's Upper West Side, I had known many "refugees." No one called them survivors. Some had emigrated in the 1930s, leaving behind a comfortable middle-class existence. Others came after the war. My father helped many of them when they arrived in New York. He attempted to bring his five sisters to the United States but could not do so. They survived in other countries and came to New York in the postwar period. As a young child, I remember sensing that these Central European Jewish homes, with their heavy, dark furniture and steaming cups of tea accompanied by delicate homemade strudel and other distinctly European pastries, were different from those of my American schoolmates.

My parents' Modern Orthodox home was shaped by a dedication to Jewish tradition together with an appreciation for the surrounding secular society. One was as likely to find on our living room table a book on Jewish lore as a book on Rembrandt. My brother, sister, and I all attended Jewish schools. When I was in first grade, my parents decided to move from Manhattan to the suburbs. They chose Far Rockaway, a beachside community in Queens, because they admired the local rabbi, Emanuel Rackman, and decided that this was the man they wanted as a spiritual leader and a role model for their children. A graduate of Columbia Law School, he combined knowledge of Judaism with the contemporary world. His well-crafted muscular sermons, delivered without notes, covered a wide range of topics -- everything from the weekly Torah portion to Arnold Toynbee. Shortly after the fall of Stalin, during a period of Khrushchev-style perestroika, he traveled with a group of American rabbis to the Soviet Union. On the Shabbat of his return my father suggested that I stay in the synagogue during the sermon -- a time that we children generally ran all over the expansive lawn in front of the building. "It will be memorable," he assured me. Though I was not quite sure what "memorable" meant, I knew the trip had been something important. I did not grasp all that Rabbi Rackman said, but I understood that he had made contact with a group of Jews who were not free to live as we did, and he said that we could not forget them.

A believer in intra- and interreligious dialogue, long before it was in vogue, Rackman reached out to people both within the Jewish community and outside of it. Right-wing religious Jews attacked him for his attempts to demonstrate how one could -- and should -- draw upon the best in both traditional Judaism and the secular world. I remember how my father would seethe at these attacks and stress how important it was for Rabbi Rackman's ideas not to be silenced. Long before I knew precisely what a role model was, I knew that I wanted to be like him.

Though synagogue attendance and observance of Jewish rituals set the rhythm of our home, we were very much part of the broader world. In addition to ensuring that my siblings and I received an intensive Jewish education, my parents exposed us to theater, museums, art, and politics. Even after we had moved to the suburbs my mother would often take us into Manhattan on Sundays to see exhibits, attend the special youth symphonies at New York's Ninety-second Street YMHA, watch parades, climb the rocks in Central Park, and even tour visiting aircraft carriers. My parents encouraged a degree of independence in us. When I was twelve and wanted to go into the city to see a movie at Radio City Music Hall or visit a museum, they encouraged it. The problem was finding a classmate whose parents did not think it a totally reckless excursion. I usually managed to find an intrepid soul. I soon learned to navigate my way through the city.

By middle school I had gained a reputation, particularly with my teachers at the Jewish day school I attended, as a feisty and combative student. When teachers did something that I did not consider fair, I would challenge them -- often not very diplomatically. Invariably, my mother would appear in the principal's office to defend my actions and plead my case. I had the impression that, although she did not appreciate these school visits, she admired my gumption. I knew that I had been named Deborah because she loved the biblical character. When I was still quite young she had described how Deborah led her people in battle and dispensed justice. I liked the notion that I was named after such a person. When my mother admonished me for getting in trouble, I told her I was just emulating Deborah.

My mother was a free spirit. It was not unusual for her to announce: "There's a wonderful Van Gogh exhibit at the Guggenheim. Ditch school. Let's go." And I did. Despite -- or possibly because -- neither my father nor mother had been able to attend college, they became intense autodidacts, continually attending classes and lectures. I remember spirited discussions around our Shabbat table about Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, J. D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus, civil rights, the 1968 New York City teachers' strike, and the war in Vietnam, which we uniformly opposed. My mother and I marched in Harlem in solidarity with the Birmingham-Salem civil rights protestors ...

History on Trial
My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier
. Copyright © by Deborah Lipstadt. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier by Deborah E. Lipstadt
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