Confessions of a Holocaust Revisionist
IT’S THE MORNING of July 4th and I’m flying home from Newark to Los Angeles. I have an aisle seat and a young lady, perhaps 22, takes the seat to my right. From her facial features I feel confident that her family is Jewish. We fall into conversation and she is very bright and opinionated and oriented politically toward the radical left. She’s full of intellectual energy and wants to talk, but she’s willing to listen too and I can see she belongs to those few who take ideas seriously and weigh both sides of an argument carefully. She’s considerably more sophisticated than I was at her age. She’s studying at Harvard and is flying home to Beverly Hills for summer vacation.
I can’t recall how our conversation begins but it isn’t long before we’re debating the relative merits of a socialist versus a libertarian viewpoint. That’s one of my favorite pastimes so I suppose I took the first opportunity I found to steer her onto it. Libertarian idealism is irrefutable in argument. In real life its first premise, that we should not initiate force to gain our political or social goals, is not going to be taken seriously by anyone with power. Anyhow, we argue it out for 1,500 miles.
Now she stands up in the aisle and stretches and says: “This is interesting stuff.” She asks if I’m a writer, what sort of things I write, where I’ve been published and so forth. I explain that I’m carrying with me the final edited version of a book manuscript that was to have gone to the printers next month but that this very morning in the Newark Air Terminal I had read where my publisher has been burned to the ground by arsonists.
“What publisher is that?”
“The Institute for Historical Review.”
“Oh,” she says hesitantly. “What is your book about?”
“I suppose the title explains its contents as well as anything. The Holocaust Cult and the Suppression of Free Inquiry: An Autobiographical Narrative.
“The Holocaust cult?” she asks thoughtfully.
“Your publisher, the Institute ….”
“The Institute for Historical Review.”
“Uh, huh. Aren’t those the people who say the Holocaust never happened?”
“Sort of. I don’t say that myself.”
“But they’re your publisher? Then you must be ….”
“This isn’t as clear-cut as people think it is. I never say that the Holocaust never happened. A thousand year old Jewish culture in Eastern Europe was destroyed in three or four years. It doesn’t offend me if somebody wants to say that was a Holocaust. I got interested in the Holocaust business when I discovered that there was a taboo against questioning what’s been written about it. From certain perspectives, that is. So my manuscript is about the ideals of free expression, a free press, the free exchange of ideas and so on.”
“But then … I’m not clear about this. Do you … are you a revisionist?”
“I’m not a historian. I don’t write revisionist papers about the Holocaust. But I read those people. Among others.”
“I can’t believe this.”
“That I’m sitting here saying this?”
“I can’t believe it.”
“It’s not so awful. It’s just that I probably don’t believe everything you believe about the Holocaust. It’s such a commonplace, don’t you think so, to not believe everything the other person believes? You don’t believe everything I believe about libertarianism. I may not believe everything you believe about the Holocaust.”
“The analogy is poor,” she says vacantly.
“Yeah, I suppose it is. I don’t think it is. But you probably understand the point to it.”
I see from the corner of my eye that she is staring fixedly at her knees, her expression intense but somehow unfocused. Maybe I imagine it.
“This a very difficult subject to talk about,” I say. “I really understood that. If you don’t want to talk about it, I’ll understand perfectly. I really would.”
She didn’t say anything.
“If you decide you do want to talk about it, but later we get to a place where you change your mind and don’t want to talk about it just say you’ve had enough and I’ll shut up.”
She gives me a very quick little look. The little grin she tries to accompany it with falls apart before it can do its work. Still, it touches my heart. I take it to have been an attempt to express goodwill toward me in what for her is a moment of crisis. I’m unsure what to say, so I remain silent.
After another moment, without looking at me, she says: “I’d like to talk about it.”
“All right. And if we get to a place where you’ve had enough, you’re going to say so and I’m going to zip it up. Right?”
She smiles a little in a way that almost ignores me. Her lips remain slightly parted, her eyes fixed on the back of the seat before her. My guess is that her brain is computing large numbers of differing possibilities and consequences.
“All we’re going to do is talk,” I say. “And afterwards we’re never going to see each other again. Nothing could be less compromising.”
While she hasn’t suggested by anything she’s said that she might feel herself compromised by continuing to talk to me, I’m pretty sure it’s one of the possible consequences she’s considering. I want her to understand that I understand that Jews do not like to talk to Holocaust revisionists on principle, the principle being that we are Nazi apologists and that talking to us only encourages us in our hateful attempts to rewrite history. I want her to understand that I understand that she will be breaking a taboo among Jews by continuing to chat with me.
She says, “I’m Jewish, you know.”
“It had occurred to me that you are.”
“My family lost relatives in the Holocaust,” she says, still without looking at me. “I’m telling you this, I’m not exactly sure why, but I want you to know.”
“If you’re worried that your being Jewish will affect what I think or say, it’s not to worry. What you are now doesn’t affect what happened then.”
She looks at me directly now for the first time in several moments and smiles, as if she is coming back into the light from some dark inner recesses.
“I wasn’t implying that it does.”
“Oh?,” I say insouciantly, suddenly confident that she will understand the teasing.
She says: “This feels very strange, but let’s talk about it.”
She explains that she has taken classes in Holocaust studies at Harvard and feels she has a good background in the subject. I’m not talking to someone who is in the dark about what the Holocaust was. I ask what texts were followed in her classes but somehow she is unable to name them. She does recall the name of Raul Hilberg and I’m able to give her the title of his book, The Destruction of the European Jews.
“But the writer who has influenced me most is Elie Wiesel.”
“Is that right? We have something in common then. I don’t know who has influenced me more in the way I regard Holocaust literature than Elie Wiesel.”
“Is that right?,” she says enthusiastically, turning in her seat to face me.
“He’s not a historian though, is he?”
She considers the question thoughtfully. “Not in a strict sense.”
I tell her some of my favorite Elie Wiesel stories. I start with the one where he writes that there is eyewitness evidence that when some Russians were executed at Babi Yar in Ukraine that the cadavers of those that were Jews, in a unique protest against their ill treatment, spurted geysers of blood from their graves for months after they were buried.
“He wrote that in Jews of Silence,” I say. “In a straight forward book of journalism about Soviet Jews and the refusal of the United States to allow them to come here. It’s not a book of poetry. Straight journalism. What do you think about a man who would repeat such a claim? Wiesel writes in longhand in French. His wife translates his stuff into English. Presumably Wiesel goes over the translation. The translation is typeset and presumably Wiesel goes over the galleys. When he claims that Jewish cadavers spurt geysers of blood from their graves for months after they were buried it isn’t a slip of the pen. Wiesel believes that it’s a credible story. He wants you and me to believe it’s credible. He wants the kids he teaches at Boston University to believe it’s credible. It isn’t only that Wiesel is not a historian. There may be other things as well that he is not. He may not be wrapped too tight, for example.”
The girl didn’t say anything.
I tell her some more Elie Wiesel stories. I take them largely from his recommended reading list of survivor testimonies. I tell them as amusingly as I can, and as gently as I can. As I go along I introduce a few observations about the gas chamber stories from a revisionist perspective. Occasionally she smiles or asks a question, but as I talk on she grows increasingly silent. After three of four hundred miles I have the feeling that I have said enough but I can’t stop myself. The longer I talk the more investment I have in wanting her to see what good sense I’m making.
I tell her about how Elie Wiesel especially recommends the eyewitness testimony of Yankiel Wiernik as evidence for the gas chambers at Treblinka and the extermination there of about a million Jews. I tell her how Wiernik claims that he saw with his own eyes how the cadavers of pregnant Jewish women that had been exterminated would burst open while they were being cremated–how their bellies would burst open and that inside their wombs you could see their fetuses burning like little torches.
“Here is the question then that I think Elie Wiesel’s students should pose to him. As the Americans and the British each specialized in burning alive German and Japanese women by the tens of thousands in mass terror bombings, and as there are no reports that pregnant German or Japanese women were able to mount such displays with their own wombs and fetuses while their own bodies were in flames, is Yankiel Wiernik–is Elie Wiesel–suggesting that only Jewish ladies have a talent for that trick? What is it that Wiesel is suggesting when he recommends Wiernik’s eyewitness testimony to his students at Boston University? What does he reveal about his standards for historical objectivity? What does he reveal about his inner life?”
Suddenly the girl takes her head in both hands, puts her face on her knees and moans. “I just feel like I’m being proselytized,” she says. She shakes her head slowly from side to side, still holding it in both hands, doubled over in her seat. Abruptly then she stands up. I understand she wants out. I stand aside in the aisle.
“All right,” I say. “No more. We agreed, when you’d heard enough, I’d zip it up.” She gives me another of those brave, I suppose, broken little grins, then she made for the toilet compartment.
After 15 minutes she returns and takes her seat beside me without speaking. The flight over the Rockies and down over Southern California is pretty uncomfortable for me. Maybe it is for her too. I want to say something to make it better for both of us but I don’t say anything because I don’t want to make it worse. On the ground at Los Angeles International we stand in the plane’s aisle with our carry-ons, she in front of me. I wonder if we are going to part without speaking. I want to speak but I am unsure if she wants me to. As the line begins moving toward the exit she turns and says nicely: “Well, it was interesting.”
“Yes,” I say.