Mel Mermelstein: “A survivor of the Auschwitz death camp, he won a legal and moral victory against historical revisionism”

From a Washington Post obit by Emily Langer headlined “Mel Mermelstein, Auschwitz survivor who challenged Holocaust deniers, dies at 95”:

Mel Mermelstein, a survivor of the Auschwitz death camp who, in fulfillment of a sacred promise to his father and the millions of other Jews murdered by the Nazis, took a group of Holocaust deniers to court in the 1980s and won a legal and moral victory in the enduring battle against historical revisionism, died in Long Beach, Calif….

Mr. Mermelstein was 17 years old in 1944 when he was deported with his parents, two sisters and a brother from their town in what then was Hungary to Auschwitz, the Nazi camp in German-occupied Poland where more than 1.1 million people, including nearly 1 million Jews, were murdered in the Holocaust.

His mother and sisters died in the gas chambers. His father and brother, too, later perished, leaving Mr. Mermelstein the only survivor of his immediate family. Before he parted from his father, he told the Los Angeles Times years later, “I made a promise to [him] in the camp that I would tell what happened if I did survive.”

After the war, Mr. Mermelstein immigrated to the United States, settling eventually in California, where he became the plaintiff in a lawsuit that made national headlines for challenging an organization that called itself the Institute for Historical Review.

The group, Mr. Mermelstein said, had “picked on the wrong Jew.”

The Institute for Historical Review was founded by Willis Carto, once described by the Anti-Defamation League as “perhaps the leading anti-Semite in the United States.” The institute sought to challenge the extent and even the fact of the Holocaust, an event that deniers and revisionists depict — in defiance of survivor testimony, overwhelming evidence collected in the aftermath of World War II and the decades since, and the consensus of historians around the world — as a fiction created to engender sympathy for Jews and the state of Israel.

At the time of the institute’s founding, historian and Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt wrote in her 1993 book “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,” “most people who were aware of its existence dismissed it as a conglomeration of Holocaust deniers, neo-Nazis, philo-Germans, right-wing extremists, antisemites, racists, and conspiracy theorists.”

The group had a penchant for provocation, and in 1979, at its inaugural Revisionist Convention, it publicly offered a reward of $50,000 to any person who “could prove that the Nazis operated gas-chambers to exterminate Jews during World War II.” To generate greater publicity, the group sent contest entry forms to survivors who had testified publicly about their experience. One of them was Mr. Mermelstein, who had denounced the institute in letters to various newspapers.

“If we do not hear from you,” a letter to Mr. Mermelstein read, “we will be obliged to draw our own conclusions and publicize this fact to the mass media.”

According to Lipstadt’s account, organizations including the ADL and the Simon Wiesenthal Center urged Mr. Mermelstein not to respond, arguing that dignifying the contest with a reply would only help attract the media attention that the deniers craved.

Mr. Mermelstein, however, considered himself “duty-bound” to challenge the group and the ideology it represented.

“I watched my mother and sisters being led to the gas chambers, and they tell me it was a hoax,” he said. “They are hate-mongers, Jew-haters. I’m going to get them if I have to spend the rest of my life doing it.”

With the counsel of William John Cox, a public-interest lawyer who took the case on a pro-bono basis, Mr. Mermelstein charted a strategy that ultimately led them to court. Mr. Mermelstein accepted the institute’s challenge, submitting for the contest an account of his experience at Auschwitz, a copy of his 1979 memoir, “By Bread Alone: The Story of A-4685″ — and a claim for the $50,000.

When the institute failed to pay, Mr. Mermelstein sued the group and related defendants for the $50,000 in prize money and $17 million in damages, alleging libel, breach of contract, intentional infliction of emotional distress and — perhaps most consequential — “injurious denial of established fact.”

On the last point, Judge Thomas T. Johnson of the Los Angeles Superior Court delivered Mr. Mermelstein a major victory in 1981, when he took what is known in legal parlance as “judicial notice” of the gassing of Jews at Auschwitz — essentially declaring that the Holocaust is an indisputable fact, one that requires no evidence to be presented in court.

In 1985, the parties reached a settlement according to which the institute paid Mr. Mermelstein the $50,000 in prize money and $40,000 in damages. The institute also made an apology that recognized the judicial notice about Auschwitz.

“They caved in,” Mr. Mermelstein said. “Not only that, but we proved they cannot get away with taking such a barbaric event as I have been through and turn it into a dagger to hurt me with.”

Mr. Mermelstein, who was also represented by lawyer Gloria Allred, had continued legal battles with the institute. In 1986, he was awarded $5.25 million in damages in a related lawsuit against Swedish publisher Ditlieb Felderer, a defendant who had declined to participate in the earlier settlement, who Mr. Mermelstein said had libeled and tormented him, on one occasion mailing him what was said to be the hair of a victim of the gas chambers….

“Money was never the thing in my mind in the first place,” he had earlier told an interviewer. His interest, instead, was memory.

“No feeling human being in his right mind would try to prove that this didn’t happen,” he said. “This is like digging up the dead and kicking them around — and the dead include my mother and two sisters.”

In the years since Mr. Mermelstein’s case, Holocaust deniers and revisionists have persisted in their cause, and more legal challenges have followed. Perhaps the most noted was the libel case in Britain that pitted Lipstadt against David Irving, a British historical writer whom she had described in her book as “one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial.” Her story, and her ultimate victory in 2000, was dramatized in the 2016 Hollywood film “Denial” in which Lipstadt was portrayed by Rachel Weisz.

“Mel Mermelstein did a gutsy thing way back in the 1980s when he first took on Holocaust deniers,” Lipstadt said. “Many people thought it was a foolhardy thing to do, but he went ahead and did it anyway, and he won.” She added that when she was deciding how to respond to Irving, she thought of Mr. Mermelstein and his “example.”

Moric Mermelstein was born Sept. 25, 1926, in Mukachevo, a thriving Jewish community nestled in the Carpathian mountains in what was then Czechoslovakia. After the Munich Agreement of 1938, Mukachevo was annexed to Hungary. It today belongs to Ukraine.

Mr. Mermelstein and his family were arrested soon after Germany occupied Hungary on March 19, 1944. He was taken to Auschwitz along with his father, a winemaker; his mother, a homemaker; and all of his siblings. His sisters, he said, were initially selected for work but refused to leave their mother’s side and thus were sent to the gas chambers with her. His father and brother perished at a subcamp of Auschwitz, according to Lipstadt’s book.

Before the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet army on Jan. 27, 1945, Mr. Mermelstein was subjected to a death march. “To keep going,” Smithsonian magazine reported in an account of his life and legal battles, he “took a pair of shoes off a warm corpse, a recent shooting victim on the wayside whose body hadn’t frozen yet.”

He was later taken to Buchenwald, in Germany, where he was ill with typhus and weighed 68 pounds, according to the article. U.S. forces entered Buchenwald on April 11, 1945.

“Finally, finally, I was liberated,” Mr. Mermelstein said years later, “but purely in the physical sense of the word. I will never feel liberated until peace will come among man.”

Mr. Mermelstein immigrated to the United States in 1946, changing his first name to Melvin. He settled first in New York, where he had several relatives, and served stateside in Army intelligence before moving to California….

Mr. Mermelstein returned to Auschwitz for the first of many times in 1967, embarking on a years-long effort to build a collection of artifacts of the Holocaust including concentration camp uniforms, barbed wire, hair from victims, poison-gas pellets and ashes from the crematoria. He built a small museum, founded the Auschwitz Study Foundation and offered his testimony to students and others.

In 1991, Mr. Mermelstein was portrayed by actor Leonard Nimoy in a 1991 TV-film dramatization of his story, “Never Forget.”…

When Mr. Mermelstein won his settlement and apology in 1985, he declared that the resolution was “a victory for all” and “a tremendous relief.”

“I will sleep a lot better now,” he said. “I will even die easier.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She writes about extraordinary lives in national and international affairs, science and the arts, sports, culture, and beyond. She previously worked for the Outlook and Local Living sections.

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