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Dear John

Written for Esquire, February 2001

The people who say the Holocaust didnít happen asked me to speak at their recent international conference. The invitation surprised me, for I am a Jew whoís written about the Holocaust and (for Chrissakes, I feel like adding) certainly hasnít denied it. To my eyes, however, the invitation, which came from the Institute for Historical Review, in Orange County, California, the central asylum for the delusion that the Germans didnít kill any Jews and that the Holocaust is, quote, unquote, the Hoax of the Twentieth Century, was not just a wonderment: it was also a golden opportunity, a golden-engraved temptation. We journalists usually sit at the outer edge of occasions: behind the bar in courtrooms, far off the floor of Congress, well out of passing or pitching range at football or baseball games. We are the beggars at banquet halls, waiting for the brass bell and the two-second bite, and the Institute offered me what every journalist hungers for: the feast of unhampered access. Its letter was a safe-conduct pass to a country so fog-bound that you and I canít discern it. Who are the Holocaust deniers? What are they like behind closed doors? And why are they motionless stones as avalanches of evidence crash onto them roaring, Youíre wrong, youíre wrong? Iíd been invited to mingle with them like a mole in Hitlerís Eagleís Nest and then ascend to a lectern to tell them off, and I wrote the Institute saying that yes, Iíd come.

I flew on a Friday to John Wayne Airport, in Orange County, and called up the Institute asking, "Where will the conference be?" Until then I hadnít known, for the Institute feared that I might divulge it to the Jewish Defense League, the Jews the FBI has called active terrorists, and that the League might initiate violence. It had done so at other conferences to other speakers than me. One had been punched, punched by a fist also holding a cherry pie, one had been beaten up, and one had been beaten up in Paris, Vichy, Lyon and Stockholm. A man whoís older than meóIím seventyóhe had been maced, thrown to the ground, and kicked in the head because of his imprudent belief that the Holocaust didnít take place. For six weeks his jaw had been wired and heíd eaten through a soda straw. All three men, the leading lights of denial, would speak at this weekendís conference, and the Institute didnít want to see their freedom of speech or their bodies imperiled by Jews who conducted chants of "Nazis!" "Neo-Nazis!" or "Antisemites!" or by Jews who threw punches. On the phone, the Institute told me where the conference was but said, "Donít tell anyone."

Knowing where to go, I took a courtesy van to a palm-filled hotel with a Japanese footbridge over a rambling pool, the sun glinting off its rippling water. A few deniers (whoíd also called up the Institute and also been told, "Donít tell") were down in the open-aired lobby, making hollow jokes about the threat, possibly imminent, possibly not, of the belligerent personnel of the Jewish Defense League. "Iím checking everything out," a man from Adelaide, Australia, laughed to me. "Should I have concerns about my security here?" a tall and broad-shouldered man from New York, an Italian, asked me.

"Are you concerned about it?"

"Now that Iím out of the closet, yes. The people around me say I should be. Do you think my lifeís in jeopardy here?"

"Weíll soon find out. The Jewish Defense League is right here in California and, Iím sure, know weíre around."

"Heh," said the man from New York.

By six oíclock the lobby was full. The deniers (by Saturday thereíd be 140) were about three-quarters men and one-quarter women. Most were white but one was African-American. One was bald, but none were razor-shaved skinheads. Many wore beards, one a white bushy one like Santa Clausís. Most wore slacks and short-sleeved shirts, but a few wore jackets, blazers, or business suits, one a safari suit and one a white suit like Mark Twainís. Two wore T-shirts that said, NO HOLES? NO HOLOCAUST! a text whose exegesis Iíd get on Saturday. None wore swastika armbands. The conversations I heard were about nutrition ("I was raised on raw milk") and about paddlewheelers ("You know, like in Showboat. You havenít seen it? I suggest you rent it"). All in all, the deniers that day and that weekend seemed the most middling of Middle Americans. Or better: despite their take on the Holocaust, they were affable, open-minded, intelligent, intellectual. Their eyes werenít fires of unapproachable certitude and their lips werenít lemon twists of astringent hate. Nazis and neo-Nazis they were certainly not.

Nor were they antisemites. Iím sure many antisemites say the Holocaust didnít happen (even as they take delight that it really did) but I met none that weekend. The only debatably antisemitic comment that I heard was on Friday night, when I dined in the downstairs restaurant with a prominent denier in a NO HOLES?  NO HOLOCAUST! shirt, an Alabama man whose name is Dr. Robert Countess. A gangling scholar of Classical Greek and Classical Hebrew, he had taught history at the University of Alabama and had retired to a farm outside of Huntsville, where he played major-league ping-pong and he collected old Peugeotsóhe had twenty-two, some dating back to the Crash. While scarcely cranky, he had a cranky-sounding voice, and in the open-aired restaurant he was practically grinding gears as he discoursed on the Septuagint and as I, not Countess, brought up the Jewish sacred scrolls the Talmud. "Whatís called the Talmud," Countess lectured, "Talmud being the participle form of lamad, in Hebrew learn, developed in Babylonia as rabbis reflected on certain passages in the Torah. Some of these rabbis engaged in a syncretism, a bringing together, of Babylonian paganism with the religion of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So if you read much of the Talmud, and Elda will tell you her favorite storyó"

"No," said Elda, Countessís wife, who was dining with us.

"Itís unbelievable, but itís in the Talmud," said Countess.

"No no. I donít want to tell it," said Elda, embarrassed.

"Go ahead and tell it," Countess entreated.

"Well," said Elda, blushing, "itís in the Talmud that if a Jewish manís repairing the roof, and if his sister-in-law is down below, and if he falls onto her and she becomes pregnantó"

"He falls off the roof in such a wayó" Countess laughed.

"Can you picture it? Then the child wonít be a bastard," said Elda. The tale would be antisemitic rubbish if it werenít indeed in the Talmud (in Yebamoth, and again in Baba Kama) and if the Countesses were just amused and not also appalled. "You and I laugh about this," said Countess, "but I sit in stark amazement saying, Jews arenít stupid people! How can they go along with this?"

"The answer is, We donít," I explained. By bedtime on Friday, my impression of the Countesses was like my impression of UFO devotees. Everyone in America believes in one or another ridiculous thing. Me, I belong to the International Society for Cryptozoology and I firmly believe that in Lake Tele, in the heart of the Congo, there is a living, breathing dinosaur. Fifteen years ago, I even went there to photograph itóI didnít, I didnít even see it, but I still believe in it. Other people believe other things, and the Countesses and the other deniers believe that the Holocaust didnít happen. Like me in the Congo, theyíre wrong, wrong, wrong, but to say that emphatically isnít to say (as some people do) that theyíre odious, contemptible, despicable. To say that theyíre rats (as does the author of Denying the Holocaust) is no more correct than to say it of people who, in their ignorance, believe the less pernicious fallacy that Oswald didnít kill Kennedy. Oh, did I hit a sore spot there?

 


The conference started...    More