The court case is now 20 years old, but it still makes for
fascinating theater. Deborah
Lipstadt, a Professor of Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory
University, apparently took issue with populist historian David
Irving, who denied that the Holocaust happened.
Lipstadt wrote a book called “Denying the Holocaust”
(1993), in which she criticizes Mr. Irving, who in turn sued
Ms.Lipstadt, and Penguine Press, for libel, in 1996.
It seems that in England, where the trial took place, the
burden of proof is on the accused to prove that it wasn't libel.
And so Ms. Lipstadt's defense was essentially based on proving
that historically, the Holocaust did, in fact, happen, which means
that Mr. Iving's libel suit could be dismissed.
Ms. Lipstadt, an academic being accustomed to speaking for
herself, is portrayed (by Rachel Weisz) as not being at all happy with
her attorney's advice to not testify at the trial, since Mr. Irving
acted as his own attorney, and he would have the opportunity to
“bait” her in cross-examination. Her lead attorney, Richard
Rampton (played by Tom Wilkinson) also felt that personal testimonials
from concentration camp survivors would also not be helpful, since
their experiences were not only highly emotional, but also, by
definition, ad hominum. They
really were not in a position to know about the big picture, or
anyone's experiences other than their own.
Mr. Rampton visited Auschwitz personally, in preparing his
case, and inspected it like a crime scene.
Of course, the voices of the victims have long been silenced,
and the perpetrators are now dead or “senile in exile.”
And yet, we find ourselves rooting for Mr. Rampton's cautious
and tactical approach to an obviously emotional issue.
Mr. Irving (Timoty Spall), for his part, is shown as a cheap
sensationalist who will do anything for publicity; a sleazy
self-promoter given to taunting his opponents as a way of denigrating
their positions (does this rhetorical tactic sound vaguely familiar?).
The taut courtroom drama takes center stage, as the Judge is
declared the sole arbiter in the lawsuit, so then it becomes a matter
of the respective attorneys persuading him.
As a whole, it doesn't have the cinematic impact of a
“Schindler's List,” “The Pianist,” or even “The Boy in the
Striped Pajamas,” much less “Son of Saul.” But evoking Auschwitz
is a painful cultural memory in any context.
My father, Harold J. Salfen, as an Army Air Corps captain in
1945, was in a radar unit that happened upon Buchenwald, after the
German soldiers abandoned it but while there were still prisoners in
that concentration camp who were unable to escape.
Pop couldn't talk about it for decades, but when he was older,
after he learned of the “Holocast Deniers,” he made himself
available to speak to schools and other groups to tell of his own
eyewitness account. His
story was very personal. And
so is this issue for many people.