Witnesses for the witnesses
Deborah E. Lipstadt International Herald Tribune
Thursday, January 27, 2005
ATLANTA When I teach my courses on the history of the Holocaust, I have learned that for the students the "highlight" is when they hear about the Holocaust in the first person singular - from a survivor, particularly a survivor of Auschwitz or one of the other camps. However, the number of survivors I can call on to speak to my students is rapidly diminishing.
The commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, which is being held on Thursday, is the last commemoration (they are held every 10 years) at which a significant number of survivors of the camp will be present. I will be there, not as a survivor or a child of survivors - I am neither - but as a historian of this place and the other attendant horrors of that which has become known as the Holocaust.
On some level, this reflects the passing of the memory torch from the survivors to historians and scholars. I already witnessed the beginning of this process during my libel trial in London in 2000, when I was forced to defend myself against a Holocaust denier, David Irving. Irving had called the Holocaust a "legend," denied that gas chambers were used to systematically kill Jews, and removed all mention of the Holocaust from one his books because, he said, "if something didn't happen, then you don't even dignify it with a footnote."
Nonetheless, he sued me for libel for having called him a denier. My legal team decided not to call survivors as witnesses. Irving was acting as his own lawyer, and they feared that his only objective would be to humiliate and confuse these elderly people. More important, they did not think we needed witnesses of fact to prove that the Holocaust happened.
We relied instead, on a stellar team of historians and specialists. They became, in the words of the poet Paul Celan, the "witnesses for the witnesses."
This phrase took on life for me one day when an elderly woman broke through a phalanx of reporters who were trying to ask me questions. She rolled up her sleeve, pointed at the number on her arm and declared, "You are fighting for us." On other occasions survivors would wait in the hallway outside the courtroom and press into my hands pieces of paper with the names of their relatives on them. "This is the evidence," they would tell me.
Ultimately we won a unequivocal victory with the judge declaring it "incontrovertible that Irving qualifies as a Holocaust denier." The judge's choice of words to describe Irving's writings about the Holocaust were unambiguous: "distorts," "perverts," "unjustified," "travesty" and "unreal."
Deniers like Irving have made Auschwitz the focus of their attacks because it is the primary symbol of the Holocaust. But they have made few significant inroads. Holocaust denial is hardly a clear and present danger. But deniers are sure to try to ply their wares even more energetically when there is no one left to say: "This is my story. This is what happened to me."
Then it will be up to those who study Auschwitz and all the other elements of the Holocaust to help us know, beyond any doubt, what happened in these places. Holocaust historians, as well as those of other genocides, such as those in Rwanda and Sudan, bear a particular responsibility to be not just meticulous and exacting historians, but "witnesses for the witnesses."
It is a heavy burden, but it can be done.
(Deborah E. Lipstadt teaches at Emory University in Atlanta. She the author of ''History on Trial: My Day in Court With David Irving'' and a member of the official American delegation to the ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.)
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