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Garden City, Long Island, December 6, 1999



The passage of time poses challenges for history and historians

By Bob Keeler.


FOR THOSE who study the Holocaust, and those who deny it, a libel case that gets under way next month in London could well be the trial of the next century.

"It's going to be a very, very, very big deal," said Debórah Dwork, director of the Center for Holocaust Studies at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "It's going to pit the art of denial against the craft of scholarship... This is the first of the trials of the future." The defendants are Penguin Books Limited and author Deborah Lipstadt, a Holocaust studies professor at Atlanta's Emory University, who wrote the book "Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory."

The plaintiff is David Irving, a British historian highly regarded for his knowledge of World War II from the German perspective, but also criticized for his views questioning aspects of the Holocaust. Irving accuses the author of damaging his career and subjecting him to the risk of assassination by labeling him with the perjorative "denier." The trial, in essence, turns on the question of how some continue to deny what historians have concluded about the destruction of European Jewry, and how scholars who study the Holocaust respond. And it offers a high-visibility sign of the currents affecting Holocaust studies.

December 6, 1999

As the new millennium arrives, making the "Final Solution" an event of a past century, studying the Holocaust will become even more crucial to scholars because the last of the survivors who have provided powerful eyewitness testimony will reach the end of their years.

"As far as I'm concerned," Dwork said, "the actuarial tables are an extra strong argument for the establishment of serious scholarship in academia, that professors whose area of expertise is specifically the history of the Holocaust should be as common as professors whose area of expertise is revolutionary Russia or whatever." As the survivors die, some scholars predict something of a struggle over "ownership" of the Holocaust in the early part of the century. That debate over telling the story will involve those who lived the event, those who inherited it (their descendants), those who learned it (scholars), those who create from it (Steven Spielberg and others), and those who run the institutions that perpetuate the memory of the event.

"It may be a very good perpetual dilemma," said Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust scholar and consultant to Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. "Remember that survivors gained their impact once they gave up exclusive ownership and were willing to work with other people." By surrendering sole ownership of the story, survivors made possible institutions such as Holocaust museums. Those institutions, with a life of their own, will participate in the debate that Berenbaum considers inevitable.

"It's a creative struggle," he said. "It's ironically a very important struggle. But it's real. It's there." With fewer survivors, more of the burden of telling the story shifts to the scholars. Dwork's center soon will be the first institution in the nation to offer doctoral degrees in Holocaust studies. The program now has five doctoral students, who are expected to earn their degrees in 2004. In addition to seeking college teaching posts, they will be able to aim for an expanding number of jobs at Holocaust museums such as those in Washington and Manhattan.

And they will be examining the Holocaust through a new lens.

HimmlerIn the early years, the emphasis was on large-scale study of the major actors, such as Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler, the leader of the SS and one of the prime architects of the Holocaust. More recently, "instead of looking at the highways of history, people have paid a lot more attention to the byways of history," said Dwork. They have looked more at what happened at the grassroots, with perpetrators and victims.

"It's one thing if you talk about the edicts that were passed, the promulgation, the decree," Dwork said. "It's another thing to say, how did real people, who used to work together, live next door to each other, how did this occur in their daily lives-from day to day, from week to week, from month to month?" That grassroots study will have a significant new tool-the videotaped testimonies of more than 50,000 survivors, gathered by Spielberg's foundation.

Those digitized testimonies will initially be available at five repositories: the Holocaust museums in New York and Washington; the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles; the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University, and Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem.

"They're still doing the cataloging, and we are now experimenting with getting them material," said Berenbaum, former chief executive officer of the foundation.

Against the backdrop of added focus on studying the Holocaust, the libel trial that gets under way Jan. 11 offers those who question the events a well-lighted stage and a well-respected scholar as an adversary. So the stakes are high, and the case is expected to generate intense media coverage.

Scholars note that in recent months, the news has not been good for those who deny the events of the Holocaust. "For example, if German corporations are settling with the Jews over slave labor, it's an admission that they have culpability over slave labor," said Berenbaum. "If the Swiss are settling over banking, they would not have settled if they didn't have a range of responsibilities."

Though the English legal system prevents both sides in the libel case from saying anything substantive about the trial before it starts, Lipstadt acknowledged that preparation for the case has "caused a serious disruption" in her life. "Even though it's occupied a tremendous amount of my time and energy," she said, "this will not be the final fight against the deniers."

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