|Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, March 4,
Holocaust deniers turned on one of their
Provan with daughter Keturah
(Franka Bruns, Post-Gazette)
By Dennis B. Roddy,
THE night he discovered the Holocaust,
Charles D. Provan was reading --
again -- the book that was supposed to put
the matter to rest. Before he killed
himself in 1945, Kurt
Gerstein, an SS officer, gave a
lengthy account of killings he witnessed
in the camps and, boy, were his numbers
Men, women, children -- 700 to 800 in
all, more than half of them children --
were forced naked into a 16-foot by
16-foot chamber in Belzec, eastern Poland.
Camp guards fired up a diesel engine. A
half-hour later, soaked in sweat and
urine, columns of bodies stood dead.
Seven hundred people in 256 square
feet? Three people per square foot? That's
three human beings somehow crammed into
the space of one square of linoleum tile.
Think about it. The Gerstein document,
with its ridiculous numbers, became a
weapon for so-called "revisionist
historians" who regard the Holocaust as a
wartime exaggeration or a post-war hoax.
sometimes glossed over Gerstein's dubious
body counts, and Holocaust denier Henri
Roques brought out a handsome new
edition of the Gerstein document with
accompanying analysis explaining the
ridiculousness of the figures.
Provan, a Holocaust doubter, bought one
right away. He believed Roques.
"I just thought the numbers were way
off," he said.
That December night in 1990, though,
the quizzical Provan was struck by a line
in Gerstein's account about the victims:
"... more than half are children ...
"Hey, kids!" Provan gave a yell.
Shouting "hey, kids" in the Provan house
is risking a stampede. A printer by trade,
he is by avocation a Protestant lay
theologian who has written against birth
control. He now has 10 children.
Matthias, Tobias, Nathanael, and
Susanna came running.
"Let's do an experiment," Provan told
The kids peeled to their underwear in
an upstairs bedroom. Provan moved a chest
of drawers and an old cabinet into a
corner. The kids squealed and giggled as
he crowded them into a tiny, tiny space
He grabbed a doll to round the number
out to five. It had to be a sight: Provan,
a bearded, bulky fellow with a large,
pear-shaped face, perpetually set in a
smile, looking like a man who is about to
laugh or has just finished, corralling
kids in underwear to see how many could be
executed in as small a space as
His wife, Carol, heard the noise.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
"I'm gonna' see how many kids can fit
in a gas chamber!" he shouted.
"Oh." A pause. "You shouldn't do
After crowding the youngsters into the
tiny space, Provan went downstairs to his
parlor with a hand calculator, stretched
out on the recliner, and did a little
The numbers worked. Those bizarre,
impossible numbers worked.
"Then it dawned on me," Provan said.
"He saw that. He saw that!" Gerstein saw
those children, those old men, those
mothers, he saw them jammed into a room,
700 or more at a time, bleeding, sweating,
urinating in fear. He saw the doors open,
saw bodies so tangled in death they lacked
even the power to fall. If Gerstein was
telling a truth so improbable, the other
stuff had to be so, too. It happened.
Suddenly, Charles D. Provan, lifelong
provocateur, was hearing the off-key note
in the symphony of denial and the
discordant note was the one that rang
"That's when I started to cry."
Some old friends still haven't forgiven
him those tears.Right
from the start
The gears of Charles D. Provan have
never quite meshed with the machinery of
ordinary society. He counts himself as a
revisionist, but a revisionist who
believes the Holocaust did happen. His
kids are home schooled. He runs a small
print shop with somebody else's name.
Profoundly conservative, he also is a
local Democratic committeeman and member
of the printer's union.
Provan grew up nearer the political
fringe than most. His parents, Charles
and Marjorie Provan, were
longtime leaders in the John Birch
Society. They sent their son to Bob Jones
University, renowned for its
fundamentalism and anti-Catholicism.
Ian Paisley, the Catholic-baiting
minister from Northern Ireland, held his
doctorate from Bob Jones.
At 17, the younger Provan gave a closer
reading to "The Blue Book," the handbook
of John Birch Society beliefs, and told
his parents he was leaving the group.
"I sort of thought that he was going
through a stage," remembered Marjorie
Provan. "When you reach 16 or 17 and
you're a young man, you know an awful lot
more than your parents know. I never got
upset about it. He never became a
socialist or anything like that."
What he became was an incessant
questioner of authority. Provan left Bob
Jones after a few years, studied history
at the University of Pittsburgh, then quit
before graduating and took a job at a
Monongahela print shop. He also got
heavily into Bible study, and became a
regular contributor to The Christian News,
a weekly publication run by Herman
Otten, a renegade Lutheran minister in
Otten's publication targets liberalism
in the Lutheran Church, propounds
conservative Christianity, but, weirdly,
also argues editorially that the Holocaust
"The more you study it, the more you
see how everyone in the United States has
swallowed a line of bull," said Otten.
He published Provan "mainly for
theological reasons. The guy's a
But as the 1980s wore on, Provan had
begun reading denier literature and
concluded the Holocaust numbers were a
gross exaggeration. Otten's paper sent
Provan to cover a meeting of the Institute
for Historical Review.
The IHR, based in California, was the
creation of Willis Carto, a shadowy
millionaire who founded the Liberty Lobby
-- one of the few Washington lobbies that
advocated U.S. diplomatic relations with
Rhodesia. Carto's weekly newspaper, The
Spotlight, regularly features anti-Semitic
and Holocaust denial articles. Its
included Timothy McVeigh, the
Oklahoma City bomber. Another Carto
creation, the Populist Party ran as its
1988 presidential candidate former Ku Klux
Klansman David Duke.
But Carto and the IHR split, and split
bitterly, in the early 1990s. Aides there
had him carried out of the building. They
are still in litigation over the ownership
of the institution.
The man who remained in the director's
chair after Carto's removal is Mark
Weber, who holds a master's degree in
history and has studied in Germany. The
Wiesenthal Center has
of having ties to neo-Nazis in
Provan wrote one article for the IHR's
journal, a 1993 piece about American
treatment of Japanese prisoners in World
War II, but never ventured a published
opinion on the Holocaust. While Holocaust
denial has been IHR's major focus, Weber
and his colleagues like to expand its
concept of self-described "historical
revisionism" to cover other subjects,
something its critics view as merely an
effort to provide a scholarly cover for an
otherwise blatant exercise in fascist
"Revisionism is a skeptical, informed
look at history," Weber explained. But
given that Provan had entered into the
study of history as a Holocaust skeptic,
his role as a revisionist became one of
Such was the kind of curiosity that led
to the top of the stairs one December
night 10 years ago.Arguing
Provan repeated his experiments several
times. One night, he rented three
mannequins from a clothing store near his
home in Monongahela, Washington County.
They lacked the suppleness of humans.
"Then it occurred to me -- what if the
revisionists say I just made this up?"
So he built a 21-inch by 21-inch box
the same height (74 inches) as the chamber
in Belzec. He invited some friends over
and crammed them in and took photos.
"I told them to wear some very thin
clothes. We put the kids in pajamas," he
explained, showing a photo reminiscent of
the old college prank of jamming umpteen
students into a telephone booth.
Having proved Gerstein's statement on
chamber capacity, Provan set out to prove
a trickier problem. Gerstein and other
Holocaust witnesses said the camps in
Eastern Europe used diesel exhaust to gas
prisoners. While Zyklon-B, the cyanide
gas, was much publicized in Holocaust
accounts, the largest body counts -- in
places such as Treblinka -- were
attributed to diesel exhaust, and diesel
engines are usually touted for their lack
of toxic fumes.
Provan dug out diesel toxicity studies
from the U.S. Department of Mines. He
hired an instructor from the Pittsburgh
Diesel Institute, took him to a
neighborhood garage and asked to borrow
their emissions testing equipment.
He was surprised to find that, once the
timing is changed in a diesel, it burns
both dirty and poisonously.
"Within a short while we had enough
poison gas coming out to kill anybody in
15 minutes," Provan said.
After no small amount of debate, and a
large amount of writing, the front page of
the Christian News of Monday, Sept. 9,
1991, carried a headline from outer space:
"Provan Concludes: Nazis Gassed Millions
Otten, the Holocaust-denying minister,
didn't mind one bit.
"My attitude was to publish
everything," he said. "If it doesn't hold
up, the truth will shout him down."
Provan's problem was getting someone to
shout back. He issued a public challenge
for debate. His primary target was
Friedrich "Fritz" Berg, a New
Jersey engineer who has spent years
arguing that the Holocaust was a hoax,
that diesels cannot easily kill anyone,
and even, as he suggested in one New York
radio debate, that such Jews as were
rounded up into camps had it coming.
In Holocaust revisionism debate,
details often get lost amid personal
rancor and arguments take on the
atmospherics of a domestic dispute among a
family of professional wrestlers.
Disputants offer to "crush" each other,
and quarrels often center on who last
conceded some obscure point.
In the case of Provan vs. Berg, the
debate has been over whether each has
agreed to debate the other.
"I accepted his challenge. He's lied
about that," Berg said. "This guy is, as
far as I'm concerned, a total wacko.
Nobody died in gas chambers."
By the early 1990s, Holocaust denial
was becoming the focus of major attention.
Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of
Jewish studies at Emory University, wrote
a book on the subject. Among her targets
was David Irving, a right-wing
British historian whose early work had
gained critical acclaim. Increasingly,
though, Irving was flirting with Holocaust
deniers and neo-Nazis and her criticism
rankled him enough to file
Irving's major thesis had become that
there were no gassings at Auschwitz, and
he based it on a chemical study done by a
Massachusetts man named Fred
Leuchter, an inventor of machines used
to execute American prisoners by lethal
injection. Holocaust deniers insisted that
the "gas chambers" at Auschwitz were, in
fact, underground morgues for storing
bodies, and that eyewitness accounts of
gas pellets being dropped in through holes
in the roof were untrue because there
Robert Faurisson, an early
revisionist who lost his teaching job in
France for denying the Holocaust, created
the slogan: "No holes, no holocaust!"
Provan, who had become a regular
correspondent with Irving, got
He'd done his own gas chamber
experiments at home. He scraped up money
and took two of his sons to see a real gas
chamber. They reached the ruins of
Auschwitz-Birkenau on March 23 last year
Fleeing SS troops had blown up the
buildings used for chambers, but Provan
rummaged about on the imploded roof and
sent his son, Matthias, into the
"I was standing on top, asking what was
going on," Provan said.
"The whole place is a wreck down here,"
Matthias answered. Provan had taken
details from a written account of where
the holes were. He suspected they hadn't
been found because the roof had shifted
drastically when the Nazis blew the place
Provan and another son, Nathanael, took
a metric measuring tape to mark the spots
where the central roof beam had been. They
marked out the spots where support pillars
stood. Witnesses said four holes had been
punched in next to the support beams.
One. Two. Then a third. Provan and his
sons started finding holes. They had been
blown wider by the implosion. But they
This time, he didn't cry.
"It was odd. At Auschwitz, it was
almost like business," he said. "It showed
I was right to put my trust in the
that make sense?
"You even suffer for him. He is
pathetic," says a man with a deep, rolling
French accent. The man is talking about
Provan. "He's trying to do his best. He's
a failure, but a man who is trying to do
The voice belongs to Faurisson, an
elder statesman of Holocaust denial. A
French academic trained in literature,
Faurisson grew up in occupied France
during the war. After visiting a Jewish
research library where librarians could
not provide him a schematic of a gas
chamber, he decided the Holocaust was a
Faurisson was a disciple of Paul
Rassinier, the founder of Holocaust
revisionism. Rassinier, though, argued
simply that he could not find proof of a
deliberate, genocidal plan by the Nazis.
By the end of his life, Rassinier had
concluded that at least some gas chambers
did, in fact, exist. Strangely, Rassinier,
a socialist, spent time in Buchenwald for
hiding Jewish refugees.
But the movement he helped to create
found fertile soil in the far right. Some
were anti-Semites and Nazi apologists. A
few were people such as Ernst Zundel, who
started out as an indignant German
expatriate who wanted to exonerate his
people and ended up a bitter man,
prosecuted in Canada for hate speech and
now fixated on the idea that Zionists rule
"I think they get the feeling they've
got the Jews on the run and this is a nice
stick to beat them with -- that this was a
fraud for money. I stand back
dispassionately and watch this with the
utmost amusement," says David Irving, the
historian whose libel suit against
Lipstadt became a trial on the
authenticity of the Holocaust. For three
months in a London courtroom, Irving tried
to disprove the existence of gas chambers
at Auschwitz. His argument hinged on
whether there were holes in the roof. It
was straight out of Faurisson's contention
of, "No holes? No holocaust!"
It turned into a disaster for Irving,
once viewed as a promising, if quirky,
historian of World War II. At one moment,
Irving, apparently forgetting himself,
addressed the court judge as "mein
The judge's decision officially
declared Irving to be an anti-Semite and
Third Reich apologist. Irving was saddled
with $6 million in legal bills -- in
Britain the losing side pays everyone's
costs -- and his reputation among other
historians was left in shards.
But possibly the strangest turn in the
bizarre spectacle was that Provan, a
declared Holocaust believer -- in fact, a
man who claims to have found the very
holes Irving said were not there -- was
providing advice and cash contributions
for Irving's side.
"He's probably like a lot of us," said
Irving. "He's baffled and mystified by the
legend. I don't think he's anything but
Irving's diaries show Provan sending
off a list of lawyers when Irving was
ousted from a military show at the
Monroeville ExpoMart. Provan also sent
occasional checks and wished Irving luck
in litigation the historian brought when
he was refused entry to Australia and
"He joined in various operations that I
conducted personally," Irving said.
Perhaps most surprisingly, Provan provided
money and advice for Irving's lawsuit
"Looking back on it, I don't think I
should have sent him money for the
Lipstadt case. I don't understand what he
was doing. The other donations, though,
were pretty much justified," Provan said.
"I wanted to keep open the lines of
communication. I was basically so pleased
to have access to his information files,
that I considered the money to be well
In short, he was pumping Irving for
information to disprove Irving's own
"Does that make sense?" Provan
traitor to the cause
When the Institute for Historical
Review held its annual conference at a
California hotel May 27, 
guests got their directions in the usual
fashion. Arriving at an airport, they
would telephone the organizers who --
fearful word would leak to the Jewish
Defense League -- would only then direct
them to the hotel.
Provan was a familiar face to members.
He was invited to speak, but only to
debunk an eyewitness account of a Nazi
doctor whose book detailing Holocaust
terrors, Provan discovered, had been
published as a novel, not a history.
His expose fit nicely with the deniers'
idea that Holocaust witnesses are not
credible. For several years, Provan had
been kept around revisionist circles as a
self-proclaimed curiosity -- a revisionist
who believes in the Holocaust.
"I continue to believe that he's the
type of catalyst that revisionism needs.
He keeps us on our toes," said Michael
A. Hoffman II, an Idaho-based
Other observers thought the IHR found
the presence of Provan convenient cover to
show that, unlike Holocaust believers --
"exterminationists" they call them --
revisionists, which they call themselves,
are open to criticism from within.
Irving was there to speak about his
David and Goliath battle against Lipstadt
and, by Irving's reckoning, the ominous
force of world Jewry.
With the stage set, Provan arrived and,
in the words of Hoffman, "may have crossed
the line." Before leaving his shop in
Monongahela, he had printed a 40-page
booklet that turned Faurisson's slogan on
its head: "No holes?" the title asked. "No
Holocaust?" it asked again.
Provan laid out his argument, displayed
photos, explained how the explosion had
widened the holes enough to hide them in
plain sight, and included 14 color photos
to back up his findings.
"The 'No Holes, No Holocaust' argument
is no longer possible to make," his study
concluded. "Since the revisionists are now
deprived of their absolutist argument, and
since the other forms of evidence cannot
prove the case one way or another, we are
again able to view the statements of the
various eyewitnesses as possible, and
therefore the dominant evidence in the
Holocaust deniers are still
"Chuck Provan, to me, is almost
irrelevant to this thing," said IHR
director Weber. "Charles Provan is not by
training or background much of a
specialist in this thing."
Faurisson looked over the monograph and
lectured Provan about his failure to check
for places where the steel reinforcement
bars would have had to have been cut if
holes were put into the roof.
"I think he admitted, I'm sure he
admitted, that he had to go back to
Auschwitz, to Birkenau because he had not
in fact found those famous holes,"
Irving, obviously stung by his old pal,
was even more dismissive.
"I said, 'Charles, if you were going to
do something like this it would have been
a good thing if you'd talked to your
friends before doing it," Irving said. "In
a way, that was designed to create maximum
embarrassment to the revisionist
Ernst Zundel's newsletter lashed
out at Provan, especially after John
Sack, a Jewish-born author, who also
had been invited to speak before the IHR,
featured Provan in an article in Esquire
magazine. Suddenly, Provan, the harmlessly
charming eccentric from an obscure town in
Rust Belt Pennsylvania, was blowing holes
in a theory on which Holocaust deniers had
appended their hopes.
"Show us the smoking gun, John Sack,"
wrote Zundel's associate, Ingrid
Rimland, who seemed to drop all
pretense about tolerance in a rant that
first let loose on Provan's appearance,
then moved on to Sack's religion.
"And don't haul forth a fringy
hillbilly who happens to have bought into
your people's smoke-and-mirror plays --
and make him front page news. You were
privy to the fact that there were many at
that conference who felt that Provan
should never have spoken. But do you know
the difference between us Gentiles and you
Jews? We cut some folks some slack. You
Provan doubts he'll be invited
again."It makes me wonder if part of them
could put up with me, something like a
moth. Before then, I was just a moth
flitting it out. Till then, I was viewed
as relatively harmless," Provan said. "But
when I came up with the thing on the
holes, I contradicted Robert Faurisson,
the great father of the holes theory."
Irving, licking his wounds in London,
says he wants to remain friends with
"I'm willing to allow people to have
opposing views," he said. In fact, Irving,
who has been forced to self-publish his
books, is hoping to publish Provan.
No -- not the holes-at-Auschwitz
expose. That, after all, did not happen in
the history David Irving writes. Provan
once did a presentation on American
soldiers running amok at Dachau and
slaughtering German guards. Now there,
Irving will tell you, is a war crime worth
"I do hope to publish his book," Irving
Provan, the obscure printer whose
friends are going to be strangers, isn't
sure Irving means it. The moth has eaten
enough holes in the cloak that the emperor
of denial is feeling an uncomfortable
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