Mermelstein: The man who forced us to remember

August 20, 2012

I first posted a version of this back in August 2006.  Since that time not much showed up on the internet to commemorate the story of Mel Mermelstein, nor to burn his deeds into the history books.  Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub had many fewer readers each day, then too.  This is a story that should not be forgotten about a story that must not be forgotten.

Mel Mermelstein, photo from Auschwitz Study Foundation

Mel Mermelstein, photo from Auschwitz Study Foundation

In early August 1985, Melvin Mermelstein struck a powerful blow against bogus history and historical hoaxes. Mel won a decision in a California court, in a contract case.

A group of Holocaust deniers had offered a $50,000 reward for anyone who could prove that the Holocaust actually happened. Mermelstein had watched his family marched to the gas chambers, and could testify. He offered his evidence. The Holocaust deniers, of course, had no intention of paying up. They dismissed any evidence offered as inadequate, and continued to claim no one could prove that the Holocaust actually occurred.

Mermelstein, however, was a businessman and he knew the law. He knew that the offer of the reward was a sweepstakes, a form of contract. He knew it was a contract enforceable in court.  He sued to collect the offered reward.  The reward was an offer, and Mel Mermelstein accepted the offer and, he said, he performed his part of the bargain. The issue in court would be, was Mermelstein’s evidence sufficient?

Mermelstein’s lawyer had a brilliant idea. He petitioned the court to take “judicial notice” of the fact of the Holocaust. Judicial note means that a fact is so well established that it doesn’t need to be evidenced when it is introduced in court — such as, 2+2=4, the freezing point of water is 32 degrees Fahrenheit, 0 degrees Celsius, etc.

The court ruled that the evidence presented overwhelmingly established that the Holocaust had occurred — the court made judicial note of the Holocaust. That ruling meant that, by operation of law, Mermelstein won the case. The only thing for the judge to do beyond that was award the money, and expenses and damages.

You can read the case and other materials at the Nizkor Holocaust remembrance site.

Appalachian State University takes the Holocaust seriously — there is a program of study on the issue, reported by the Mountain Times (the school is in Boone, North Carolina — not sure where the newspaper is).

Teaching the Holocaust to Future Generations

Mountain Times, August 17, 2006

As co-directors of Appalachian State University’s Center for Judaic, Holocaust and Peace Studies, Rennie Brantz and Zohara Boyd are always eager to expand and improve the center’s methods of education. Seldom, though, does this involve airfare.

Brantz and Boyd recently visited Israel to participate in the Fifth International Conference for Education: Teaching the Holocaust to Future Generations. The four-day conference was held in late June at Yad Vashem, an institute and museum in Jerusalem that specializes in the Nazi Holocaust. [link added]

“Yad Vashem is an incredible institute,” Brantz said. “It was founded in the ’50s to remember and commemorate those who perished in the Holocaust, and has been the premier international research institute dealing with the Holocaust.”

As Santayana advises, we remember the past in order to prevent its recurring. Clearly, this is a past we need to work harder at remembering.

Despite having been ordered to acknowledge the Holocaust, pay up on their sweepstakes offer, and apologize to Mr. Mermelstein, Holocaust deniers continue to publish claims that Mr. Mermelstein’s account is not accurate, or that it is contradictory or in some other way fails to measure up to the most strict tests of historical accuracy.  So it is important that you remember the story of Mel Mermelstein, and that you spread it far and wide.

More:


Why give Holocaust denial a platform?

November 25, 2007

lipstadt-deborah-emory-u.png

Deborah Lipstadt asks the key question at her blog: Why should any honorable, noble agency give a platform to people who don’t respect the facts and who have a track record of distorting history?

The distinguished debating group, the Oxford Union, has invited history distorter David Irving to speak. He was invited to speak with representatives of the British National Party (BNP), a group not known for tolerance on racial and immigration issues. While there is value to getting a range of views on any issue, Prof. Lipstadt and many others among us think that inviting a known distorter to speak is practicing open-mindedness past the point of letting one’s brains fall out (what is the difference between “open mind” and “hole in the head?”).

You know this story and these characters, right, teachers of history? You should, since these people play important roles in the modern art of history, and in the discussion over what we know, and how we know it. These are issues of “what is truth,” that your students badger you about (rightfully, perhaps righteously).

American teachers of history need to be particularly alert to these issues, since Holocaust deniers have been so successful at placing their material on the internet in a fashion that makes it pop up early in any search on the Holocaust. Most searches on “Holocaust” will produce a majority of sites from Holocaust deniers. It is easy for unwary students to be led astray, into paths of racist harangues well-disguised as “fairness in history and speech.”

Prof. Lipstadt practices history at Emory University in Atlanta, where she is the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies. She chronicled much of the modern assault on history in her book, Denying the Holocaust, The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (1994). In that book, she documented the work of British historian David Irving, much of which consists of questionable denial of events in the Holocaust.

Cover of Lipstadt's book, Denying the Holocaust

Irving sued her for libel in Britain in 2000, where it is not enough to establish the truth of the matter to mount a defense. In a stunning and welcomed rebuke to Holocaust denial and deniers, the judge ruled in her favor, and documented Irving’s distortions in his 350-page opinion.

While his claims are legal in England, in several places in Europe his denial of Holocaust events is not protected as free speech. Traveling in Austria in 2005, he was arrested and imprisoned for an earlier conviction under a law that makes it a crime to deny the events. Prof. Lipstadt opposed the Austrian court’s decision: “I am uncomfortable with imprisoning people for speech. Let him go and let him fade from everyone’s radar screens.”

The drama plays out again. Serious questioning of what happened is the front line of history. Denying what happened, however, wastes time and misleads honest citizens and even serious students, sometimes with bad effect. Santayana’s warning about not knowing history assumes that we learn accurate history, not a parody of it.

This event will raise false questions about censorship of Holocaust deniers, and the discussion is likely to confuse a lot of people, including your students. U.S. history courses in high school probably will not get to the Holocaust until next semester. This issue, now, is an opportunity for teachers to collect news stories that illuminate the practice of history for students. At least, we hope to illuminate, rather than snuff out the candles of knowledge.

Resources:


National Humanities Medal to Bernard Lewis . . .

November 26, 2006

Generally there is just too much going on to follow all of it in the news, let alone understand it.

PanArmenian.net complains that historian Bernard Lewis’ being honored with the National Humanities Medal is a problem, labeling him a denier of the Armenian genocide. He was found to be so by a French court (does that increase his appeal to Bush?).

Lewis’ work is influential — here is a 2004 Washington Monthly piece by Newsweek correspondent Michael Hirsch, pointing out that Lewis is the guy who probably first coined the phrase “clash of civilizations” with regard to international relations with modern Islamic nations. Is he just one more Princeton University faculty member, like Ben Bernanke, who happens to have the ear of the President?

Teachers of history certainly should be familiar with the controversy over the Armenian genocide, its relation to post-World War I history, its salience in European politics today, and its effects on U.S. history (and especially U.S. literature — think William Saroyan, George Deukmejian, etc.). I admit I know very little about Lewis. I don’t know enough about him to make a judgment on whether the charges of the Armenian partisans are fair.

In my previous post I noted the rise of a superstar natural history prof, in England. Here in the U.S. the National Humanities Medal was awarded to nine people and one institution — one of the people is a Nobel Prize winner — and the news sank like a small, round stone in a small pond, without making much of a ripple.

If we can’t name some of the stars among historians and others in the humanities, are we doing our jobs? Are our newspapers and broadcasters doing their jobs if we don’t get this news?

Did President Bush honor a denier of the Armenian genocide? Our future relations with Islamic nations and peoples may depend on the answer. I don’t know. Do you?

Here is Lewis’ biography from the awards press release:

Bernard Lewis is considered by many to be the greatest living historian of the Muslim world. He has pursued his primary interest, the history of the Ottoman Empire, producing groundbreaking works including The Emergence of Modern Turkey, The Political Language of Islam, The Muslim Discovery of Europe, The Jews of Islam, and Islam and the West. His most recent publication is From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East. Other titles by Lewis: The Crisis of Islam: Holy War & Unholy Terror; What Went Wrong: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East; Western Impact and the Middle Eastern Response; A Middle East Mosaic: Fragments of Life, Letters and History; The Multiple Identities of the Middle East; and The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years. Born in London, England, in 1916, Lewis became attracted to languages and history at an early age. Lewis’s interest in history was stirred thanks to his bar mitzvah ceremony, during which he received as a gift a book on Jewish history. He graduated in 1936 from the then School of Oriental Studies (SOAS, now School of Oriental and African Studies) at the University of London with a B.A. in history with special reference to the Near and Middle East, and obtaining his Ph.D. three years later, also from SOAS, specializing in the history of Islam. During the Second World War, Lewis served in the British Army in the Royal Armoured Corps and Intelligence Corps in 1940-41, and was then attached to a department of the Foreign Office. After the war he returned to SOAS, and in 1949 he was appointed to the new chair in Near and Middle Eastern history at the age of 33. In 1974 Lewis accepted a joint position at Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study, marking the beginning of the most prolific period in his research career. In addition, it was in the United States that Lewis became a public intellectual. After his retirement from Princeton in 1986 as the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Lewis held many visiting appointments. Lewis has been a naturalized citizen of the United States since 1982.


Mermelstein: Holocaust remembrance hero

August 28, 2006

In early August 1985, Melvin Mermelstein struck a powerful blow against bogus history and historical hoaxes. Mel won a decision in a California court, in a contract case.

A group of Holocaust deniers had offered a $50,000 reward for anyone who could prove that the Holocaust actually happened. Mermelstein had watched his family marched to the gas chambers, and could testify. He offered his evidence. The Holocaust deniers, of course, had no intention of paying up. They dismissed any evidence offered as inadequate, and continued to claim no one could prove that the Holocaust actually occurred.

Mermelstein, however, was a businessman. He knew that the offer of the reward was a sweepstakes, a form of contract. He knew it was enforceable in court. And he sued to collect. The issue in court would be, was Mermelstein’s evidence sufficient?

Mermelstein’s lawyer had a brilliant idea. He petitioned the court to take “judicial note” of the fact of the Holocaust. Judicial note means that a fact is so well established that it doesn’t need to be evidenced when it is introduced in court — such as, 2+2=4, the freezing point of water is 32 degrees Fahrenheit, 0 degrees Celsius, etc.

The court ruled that the evidence presented overwhelmingly established that the Holocaust had occurred — the court made judicial note of the Holocaust. That ruling meant that, by operation of law, Mermelstein won the case. The only thing for the judge to do beyond that was award the money, and expenses and damages.

You can read the case and other materials at the Nizkor Holocaust remembrance site.

Appalachian State University takes the Holocaust seriously — there is a program of study on the issue, recently reported by the Mountain Times (the school is in Boone, North Carolina — not sure where the newspaper is).

Teaching the Holocaust to Future Generations

Mountain Times, August 17, 2006

As co-directors of Appalachian State University’s Center for Judaic, Holocaust and Peace Studies, Rennie Brantz and Zohara Boyd are always eager to expand and improve the center’s methods of education. Seldom, though, does this involve airfare.

Brantz and Boyd recently visited Israel to participate in the Fifth International Conference for Education: Teaching the Holocaust to Future Generations. The four-day conference was held in late June at Yad Vashem, an institute and museum in Jerusalem that specializes in the Nazi Holocaust.

“Yad Vashem is an incredible institute,” Brantz said. “It was founded in the ’50s to remember and commemorate those who perished in the Holocaust, and has been the premier international research institute dealing with the Holocaust.”

As Santayana advises, we remember the past in order to prevent its recurring. Clearly, this is a past we need to work harder at remembering.


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