Dame Lesley Max: Challenging Holocaust Denier David Irving

Dame Lesley Max spoke at our recent event, Saving The Shoah: The Holocaust in an Age of Denial and Distortion. She presented a fascinating and important slice of New Zealand Jewish history. Dame Lesley grew up hearing the stories of the Holocaust, as experienced by friends and family members - the imagery was disturbing and at times particularly intrusive.

In the 1980s Dame Lesley encountered Holocaust denier David Irving and witnessed his encounter with survivor Alice Newman

“I’m honoured to have been asked to speak tonight.

In 1986 or 1987 I had an electrifying encounter with Alice Newman, not that I knew her name. It was at the time of the visit to New Zealand of David Irving, now known as a Holocaust denier and revisionist, but then with a reputation as an accomplished historian, even though somewhat controversial.

My first connection with him was to challenge him on talkback radio, where he was being given free rein by a hopelessly outweighed interviewer, Liz Gunn, who kept on weakly expostulating, “But, David…”

His purpose was, essentially, to exculpate Hitler for responsibility for the genocide of Jews. He quoted some words written by Hitler with reference to deportations which he asserted indicated Hitler’s more benign intent. I knew just enough German to challenge his translation and my recollection is that, to my surprise, I won the point.

I then went on to his press conference, held in a hotel in Customs St, in an ugly atmosphere of mutual suspicion. I had a press card at the time, so got in without trouble. I was listening to his spiel when suddenly a woman stood up, interrupted him and challenged him, on the basis that she was a survivor, she was a witness, and he was misrepresenting the Holocaust.

He turned on her savagely, derisively, dismissively and told her that the worst she had ever suffered was that she had had to peel potatoes.

I think she was hustled out of the room at that point.

About three or four years ago, I attended the International Holocaust commemoration at the Auckland Museum. I was sitting at a table later in the cafeteria, when a woman and her son sat down at the table. There was something about her Polish accent and style that triggered a memory. I asked her, “Did you challenge David Irving at his press conference?” Yes!

What a pleasure it was and has been subsequently, to meet the valiant Alice Newman! What a satisfaction it is to know that the remarkable, unique Perry and Sheree Trotter, have captured her story, the story of suffering, of immense loss and of incredible resilience.

I approach this subject of the Shoah with trepidation, because of its magnitude in terms of numbers and of sheer evil, and because of my recognition that I am just a distant commenter.

I was born in the safety of New Zealand, very soon after the Nazis murdered their last Jewish child. I am so lucky that one of the last couples out of Germany were Robert’s parents, so he could be born in Auckland, in safety.

An awareness of the Holocaust has been with me from very young. My mother’s youngest sister, Esther, (Essie), married Ascher Wiener, from Krakow in Poland. He reached New Zealand thanks to the heroic Japanese consul in Vilna who saved thousands at peril of his own life.

Essie and Ascher had a circle of Polish Jewish friends in Wellington and I learned things that have never left me. Most vivid was a story told to my mother by a beautiful, then young Zosia Galler, who became the mother of the esteemed physicians, Les and David Galler. The story Zosia told is also told in her memoirs, “As It Was”, compiled by her son David and his wife, Judge Ema Aitkin.

Zosia was a child of 14, who had lived a comfortable, middle class life before the German occupation, the murder of her father in front of her eyes, her transport to Auschwitz with her mother, and her mother’s death, following Mengele’s amputation of her gangrenous foot, without anaesthetic. Zosia recounted an SS woman coming in to the barracks, holding a white bread sandwich with meat hanging out of it. She held it out, enticing the starving Zosia. When Zosia moved hesitantly towards it, she beat her savagely and fed the sandwich to her dog.

That vignette from Hell has stayed with me ever since.

Over the years I’ve read so much more, Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Edith Eger, memoirs of less known survivors, and the more I’ve read, the less I know, because it is, essentially, unknowable.

I’ve had the great privilege of having come to know, to a greater or lesser degree, a number of survivors, principally of Auschwitz.

Our son, Gerard, married into a family of survivors. Three of his wife’s aunts, as children, were in Auschwitz. One was murdered there. Two others were taken for twins and survived Mengele’s diabolic experimentation. You’re probably familiar with the photos the Russian liberators took. Eva, then about 13, looks like an old woman.

Eva Slonim is still alive, and deeply admirable. Her recent memoir, “Gazing At Stars”, is probably, alongside Elie Wiesel’s “Night”, one of the most significant memoirs of child survivors and witnesses to emerge, though sadly it’s not well known at all.

I think of Sara Kardosh, also a Mengele twin, who survived the death march that killed her beloved twin sister. She is the late mother of a good Israeli friend of ours. Sara became the matriarch of a large family, who were raised on a kibbutz and thus, I think, spared some of the damage suffered by second generation people elsewhere. I will always remember her, smiling, cradling a baby grandchild, the tattoo on her arm, in the heart of her family, who came virtually every evening to spend time with their parents.

And I think of Susi Geron. Some people here may remember her, because she lived for many years in Auckland. One day, out of the blue, she came to see me. I knew her only as an attractive, vivacious woman, mother of two daughters. She decided, in middle age, that she wanted to tell the story she had never spoken about, and she wanted me to write it.

We met twice and made a start, but the project never progressed because her family moved to Melbourne. Her story was very similar to that of Edith Eger, whom I met in her first visit to New Zealand. It is the Auschwitz story, the desperate attempt to pass as healthy enough to continue to be worked to death, for another day or another week, rather than to be sent straight to the gas chamber.

Susi told me that when she arrived in New Zealand, she was working in a factory in Wellington. She said nothing to her female workmates about what she had suffered. But one day, at morning tea, one of her workmates said, “Oh, we suffered during the war.” Susi was alert, wanting to know more, wondering if there could be some shared experience.

“Yes, it was awful. We couldn’t even get sardines.” Susi remained silent. Just as Edith Eger told me she was silent when one of her psychotherapy patients years later in the USA came to her office in great distress. Her husband had bought her a Cadillac but it was the wrong colour.

Yesterday, I watched the incredible testimony of Susi Geron’s husband, Stan. If there’s anyone here who knew him, please come and talk to me later.

It’s always with us, never far from our consciousness, we who are here tonight. I remember, in my life, the times when the horror of it was particularly intrusive, such as when we had babies and small children and then grandchildren. Putting our children on a train to go away to Bnai Akiva camp in Wellington. The imagery.

Then these days there’s the History Channel, called by some the Hitler Channel. I don’t find it exploitative on the whole. But so many of the images are so hard to see. Whether it’s mounds of skeletal corpses, or family groups on the selection platform – mothers holding babies and small children – we knowing what they did not, that they have hours to live. I struggle to look at the doomed children, not wanting to look, but feeling it’s the least I can do, to look and to somehow acknowledge.

In our age, despite the availability of so much documentary material, Holocaust denial, revisionism, diminution and even ridicule, is ever more worrying.

We’re living in an age in which opinions are decreasingly formed through the understanding of facts, but more through emotions and ideologies.

So a video circulating on social media of what purports to be an Israeli soldier mistreating a Palestinian child – and likely to be a fake – assumes a moral weight equivalent to the whole Shoah.

There is a hunger to shake off the burden of the Holocaust. A cynic might say, to enable one to be free to hate Jews again. As the Roman philosopher Seneca put it, “They hate those whom they have injured”.

Apparently we can attribute much of the malevolence to our assigned place currently in the victimology hierarchy. We have privilege. White privilege. Wealth. Though paradoxically the white supremacists don’t see us as white, but rather as working to destroy the white race.

Yet can even that status explain the volume and intensity of hate that spews out of comment threads in Stuff or TVNZ or other websites beneath an item about Jews?

As an example, Juliet Moses’ excellent comments taking Golriz Ghahraman to task over her comments about Jesus and his family being Palestinian refugees.

Commenters attacked on the basis of the Holocaust. There were jokes about trying to read it but ‘losing my concentration’. There was even, despicably, a ‘joke’ about Zyklon B. And these comments, from apparently normal New Zealanders, are rewarded with applauding, laughing emojis by other apparently normal New Zealanders. Can there be greater moral bankruptcy? Four months after Christchurch.

The way I see it, such people are either shamefully ignorant, in that they don’t know what it is that they’re mocking, or else they are wicked, because they do know.

Yet such wickedness is apparently not considered shameful in today’s New Zealand, because people are happy that their names and their occupations – some are even teachers – are public.

The Shoah IS unfathomable, however. I went to the opening of the Children’s Holocaust exhibition on Monday evening. I also saw the exhibition in the National Library in Wellington. It’s very well done. It’s imaginative in its use of a million and a half buttons to represent the million and a half children, the great majority Jewish, who were murdered.

Yet it is still unfathomable. It is beyond our capacity to comprehend. I measure numbers of children in relation to the capacity of the assembly hall at Takapuna Grammar School, where I was a pupil. We were about 1000 pupils. How do I mentally compute or envisage one and a half million children?

I heard today on National Radio an interview by the superb Kathryn Ryan of an author who has written a history of the efforts of an heroic Polish man to convey to the allied leaders the extent and the horror of what was happening at Auschwitz – the industrialised murder of Jews.

He was unable to get the Allies to bomb Auschwitz or even to make public what was happening. In trying to understand why, the author has come to the conclusion that it was a combination of anti-Semitism and a failure of imagination.

And it is a test for the imagination. Even a fraction of the information we have is too much to comprehend – the depthless cruelty of packing human beings, including children and babies, into rail wagons and depriving them of water and food for several days.

Yet we must strive to comprehend. It’s the moral duty of we who were spared that suffering.

We can comprehend best, perhaps, through a combination of facts – numbers, maps, historical summaries - and personal stories. I personally do not like Holocaust fiction, no matter how well intended. I think it’s a dangerous medium. It is no substitute for lived truth.

I think Perry and Sheree have developed a unique means to reach people in our age.

There are no appalling images. There are unthreatening and relatable elderly people. The photography, the lighting, conveys the depth, the reflectiveness that these people manifest.

The music calms us, enabling our cognitive processes to absorb the carefully edited words on the screen.

Through these stories, we are enabled to honour the lives of these survivors, the bereaved remnants of destroyed families.

And they should be honoured. Every story of a survivor is a story of multiple losses, hazards, strokes of luck, chance, infinite suffering and infinite endurance.

And they should be honoured for the lives they have lived since that hell – productive lives, creating a home, raising children, contributing to their community and the wider community, conducting themselves with dignity and restraint, despite night terrors, never demanding any special consideration. So absolutely admirable.

The telling and recording of these stories is holy work.

Thank you, Perry and Sheree and all those who enable this holy work to be progressed.”

Perry TrotterComment