Sunday, March 27, 2005

History on Trial reviewed in Atlanta Jewish Times

Lipstadt On Trial
How a court case took over her life

By Laurel Snyder
Special to the Jewish Times

For most of us, life unfolds without a visible outline, organized loosely because we take a new job or move to a strange city based on seemingly random events. However, we expect that our luminaries and history-makers must surely operate along clearer lines. We assume that a president or a scientist is supposed to become a president or a scientist. We believe that the foremost expert on Holocaust revisionism was following a childhood dream

So it’s fascinating, in the first pages of “History on Trial,” to discover the background of how a woman named Deborah Lipstadt became the keeper of Jewish memory. It’s amazing to read the human side of the story, to follow the unusual twists and turns that the Emory professor’s life took, as they led her first to write “Denying the Holocaust,” and then to a courtroom battle with the Holocaust revisionist David Irving, the historian and author who sued Lipstadt for libel in 1995.

Lipstadt explains that when she set out to write “Denying the Holocaust,” she thought she was combating a future problem, diverting a possible tide, rather than correcting an existing dilemma. At that time, she says, “surveys revealed that more people in the United States believed Elvis Presley was alive than believed the Holocaust was a myth.”

So she never expected an attack from a well-known, albeit fringe, historian like Irving. But when the storm came, she found she wasn’t alone. The Jewish community took on the fight and began to raise funds in support of Lipstadt’s legal battle. Her publisher stood behind her and refused to back down under pressure. Still, the case took over her life — and provided us with an interesting read.

The book has an easy flow and a simple structure. Each chapter is broken into short titled sections, as a textbook might be, and it reads quickly as a result, with a metered logic and outlined chronology. The stark language of these headings is effective, sometimes harsh, and often funny. “How many people can a gas van kill?” demands one section. “Innovative Crematoria” proclaims another.

The first half of the book introduces the situation, the characters and all the curious pieces of the puzzle in precise detail, but with a casual tone. As a result, the second half of the book instructs without ever feeling stilted, because we already care about the author and her legal team, as we would care about the characters in a good novel, because we have followed them out of the courtroom, to the dinner table, through countless bottles of wine and conversations.

“History on Trial” strikes an even balance as both memoir and historical document. It somehow weaves the physical and intimate world into the courtroom, while it manages to maintain a vernacular of plain speech, never wandering into gratuitous personal drama or dry courtroom jargon.

The major strength of the book is that it simultaneously reveals the changing psychology of the author, while providing an unadorned window into a complicated legal case. This is not an academic book, but a very personal journal by a complicated woman who also happens to be a fine academic.

The night of too much iced vodka, or a “Rocky-Horror-Picture-Show”-style-production of “The Sound of Music” are welcome diversions for the author as she struggles through a trying time in her life, and they are welcome details for the reader in much the same way, as relief from the tension of the legal history unfolding before us.

The humanity of the story is present to such a degree that Lipstadt is not only a narrator, but a flawed character, learning from her experiences, growing as a person as the book continues. After a difficult but well-handled cross-examination of a witness, Lipstadt catches up with Rampton, her attorney. “ ‘Do you remember when I got angry in Auschwitz because you challenged Robert Jan about why there haven’t been more tests on the gas chambers?’ Rampton took a long drag on his Gitanes and said, ‘I remember. Very well.’ ”

Lipstadt explains, “I wanted to apologize for challenging him. I wanted to tell him how much I appreciated not just his forensic skills, but the passion he brought to this case. Before I could formulate the words he said, ‘I think it’s time for some good wine.’ ”

The character we come to know as Deborah Lipstadt can be best described as frustrated. There is a tension in the book, a sense of impatience. The author is an intense woman, restraining herself constantly so that she can accomplish a massive and important feat, and this tension is compelling. It sweeps the reader into the story and creates a mystery, which is not, “How will the trial end?” but rather, “When will Deborah explode?”

In the case of this trial, as with the Holocaust itself, one question we ask ourselves over and over is “Why did this happen? How could this have happened in a world that makes sense?”

“History on Trial” seems farfetched because it seems impossible that a case of this nature, a case that disputes the Holocaust, would ever come to trial. But though Lipstadt herself finds the trial hard to believe, she reaches for the stabilizing comfort of logic and detail, and walks us through the case with care and precision, so that we are able to understand just how it happened, though we will never be able to comprehend why.

“History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving, ” by Deborah E. Lipstadt; Harper Collins; 346 pages; $25.95

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