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New York, February, 2001

[Photos added by this website; you are urged to buy the magazine for the full article with illustrations]


Esquire Feb 2001INSIDE the BUNKER

By John Sack


The people who believe that the Holocaust did not happen meet regularly, in secret, to exchange theories and research. Are they anti-Semites, or are they just horribly mistaken? The author went to find out. The last thing he expected was to like them.

CHARLES "CHUCK" PROVAN "Be fruitful arid multiply," says Genesis, arid Chuck Proven, whose parents sent him to Bob Jones University, has fairly belabored the biblical verse. Missing from the photograph are Matthias and Nathanael, kids number one and two. Proven's friends no longer ask him, "What are you raising? A baseball team?" since Proven has just delivered (without any doctor's help) his tenth, whose name is Gideon. All are unplanned, "Whatever shows up, we accept it," says Proven, "If God can make them, then God can feed them. And my own problem isn't too little food. It's too much." A man given to fierce obsessions, Proven once wrote a booklet called The Bible and Birth Control. (As you might have guessed, he was for the former, against the latter.) Another obsession was the American pilots in Manila at the start of World War II, and another was the Holocaust and whether it really happened. Proven always believed the Germans had operated death camps, but he believed the toll was vastly exaggerated. He thought the number of Jews who died was one to one and a half million. Then, with the help of his children, he had a revelation in December 1990 and soon concluded that the number who died was seven to seven and a half million. "Provan is a congenital liar," one Holocaust denier wrote of this sudden apostate. "Never have I come across anyone dopier than Provan."

The people who say the Holocaust didn't happen asked me to speak at their recent international conference. The invitation surprised me, for I am a Jew who's written about the Holocaust and (for chrissakes, I feel like adding) certainly hasn't denied it. To my eyes, however, the invitation, which came from the Institute for Historical Review in Orange County, California, the central asylum for the delusion that the Germans didn't kill any Jews and that the Holocaust is, quote unquote, the Hoax of the Twentieth Century, was not just a wonderment; it was also a golden opportunity, a golden- engraved temptation. We journalists usually sit at the outer edge of occasions: behind the bar in courtrooms, far off the floor of Congress, well out of passing or pitching range at football or baseball games. We are the beggars at banquet halls, waiting for the brass bell and the two-second bite, and the institute offered me what every journalist hungers for: the feast of unhampered access. Its letter was a safe-conduct pass to a country so fogbound that you and I can't discern it. Who are the Holocaust deniers? What are they like behind closed doors? And why are they motionless stones as avalanches of evidence crash onto them, roaring, You're wrong, you're wrong? I'd been invited to mingle with them like a mole in Hitler's Eagle's Nest and then ascend to a lectern to tell them off, and I wrote the institute saying that, yes, I'd come.

I flew on a Friday to John Wayne Airport in Orange County and called up the institute, asking, "Where will the conference be?" Until then I hadn't known, for the institute feared that I might divulge it to the Jewish Defense League, a group the FBI has called active terrorists, and that the league might initiate violence. it had done so at other conferences to other speakers. One had been punched, punched by a fist also holding a cherry pie, one had been beaten up, and one had been beaten up in Paris, Vichy, Lyon, and Stockholm. A man who's older than me -- I'm seventy-this last man had been maced, thrown to the ground, and kicked in the head because of his imprudent belief that the Holocaust didn't take place. For six weeks his jaw had been wired and he'd eaten through a soda straw. All three men, the leading lights of denial, would speak at this weekend's conference, and the institute didn't want to see their freedom of speech or their bodies imperiled by Jews who conducted chants of "Nazis!" "Neo-Nazis!" or "Anti- Semites!" or by Jews who threw punches. On the phone, an institute employee told me where the conference was but said, "Don't tell anyone."

Knowing where to go, I took a courtesy van to a palm-filled hotel with a Japanese footbridge over a rambling pool, the sun glinting off its rippling water. A few deniers (who'd also called up the institute and been told, "Don't tell") were down in the open-air lobby, making hollow jokes about the threat, possibly imminent, possibly not, of the Jewish Defense League. "I'm checking everything out," a man from Adelaide, Australia, laughed to me.

"Should I have concerns about my security here?" a tall and broad-shouldered man from New York, an Italian, asked me.
"Are you concerned about it?"
"Now that I'm out of the closet, yes. The people around me say I should be. Do you think my life's in jeopardy here?"
"We'll soon find out," I said. "The Jewish Defense League is right here in California and, I'm sure, know we're around."
"Heh," said the man from New York.

By six o'clock the lobby was full. The deniers (by Saturday there'd be 140) were about three quarters men and one quarter women. Most were white, but one was African-American. One was bald, but none were razor-shaved skinheads. Many wore beards, one a white bushy one like Santa Claus's. Most wore slacks and short-sleeved shirts, but a few wore jackets, blazers, or business suits, one a safari suit, and one a white suit like Mark Twain's. TWO wore T-shirts that said, NO HOLES? NO HOLOCAUST! a text whose exegesis I'd get on Saturday. The conversations I heard were about nutrition ("I was raised on raw milk") and about paddle wheelers ("You know, like in Show Boat. You haven't seen it? I suggest you rent it"). All in all, the deniers that day and that weekend seemed the most middling of Middle Americans. Or better: Despite their take on the Holocaust, they were affable, open-minded, intelligent, intellectual. Their eyes weren't fires of unapproachable certitude, and their lips weren't lemon twists of astringent hate. Nazis and neo-Nazis they didn't seem to be.

Nor did they seem anti-Semites. I'm sure many anti-Semites say the Holocaust didn't happen (even as they take delight that it really did), but I don't believe I met any that weekend. The only debatably anti-Semitic comment that I heard was on Friday night, when I dined in the downstairs restaurant with a prominent denier in a NO HOLES? NO HOLOCAUST! shirt, an Alabama man whose name is Dr. Robert Countess. A gangling scholar of classical Greek and classical Hebrew, he had taught history at the University of Alabama and had retired to a farm outside of Huntsville, where he plays major league Ping-Pong and collects old Peugeots; he has twenty-two, some datingback to the Crash. While scarcely cranky, he had a cranky-sounding voice, and in the open-air restaurant he was practically grinding gears as he discoursed on the Septuagint and as I, not Countess, brought up the Jewish sacred scrolls, the Talmud. "What's called the Talmud," Countess lectured-"talmud being the participle form of lamad, in Hebrew, learn-developed in Babylonia as rabbis reflected on certain passages in the Torah. Some of these rabbis engaged in a syncretism, a bringing together, of Babylonian paganism with the religion of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So if you read much of the Talmud, and Elda will tell you her favorite story-"

"No," said Elda, Countess's wife, who was dining with us.

"It's unbelievable, but it's in the Talmud," said Countess.

DR. ROBERT COUNTESS, Columbus discovered America. Luther posted his Theses. Watt invented the steam engine. Hitler invaded Poland. In 1987, Dr. Robert Countess was teaching the second half of a survey course on world history at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, when he became intrigued by The Hoax of the Twentieth Century, a Holocaust-didn't happen book by Arthur Butz. He made it required reading for his students, and he ordered fifteen copies from the Institute for Historical Review. A few days later there came a call from the institute. "Why did you order so many copies?" "I'm assigning it in History 102." "What does the chairman of the history department say?" "Nothing. I'm the professor, and I can teach the class as I choose." "Do you know this is a first?" Other professors, like one at Indiana, had assigned or lectured about this book, and all had been fired or disciplined for doing so, 11 In time Countess was an the institute's board of directors. He believes that Hitler wanted the Jews out of Europe hut that he didn't order their extermination, that the Germans had no homicidal gas chambers at any of their concentration camps, and that the number of Jews who died from all causes in World War Il wasn't six million but somewhere between several hundred thousand and one and a half million.

"No, no. I don't want to tell it", said Elda, embarrassed.

"Go ahead and tell it," Countess entreated.

"Well," said Elda, blushing, "it's in the Talmud that if a Jewish man's repairing the roof, and if his sister-in-law is down below, and if he falls onto her and she becomes pregnant-"

"He falls off the roof in such a way-" Countess said, laughing.

"Can you picture it? Then the child won't be a bastard," said Elda. The tale would be anti-Semitic rubbish if it weren't indeed in the Talmud (in Yevamot, and again in Bava Kamma) and if the Countesses were just amused and not also appalled. "You and I laugh about this," said Countess, "but I sit in stark amazement saying, Jews aren't stupid people! How can they go along with this?"

ERNST ZÜNDEL Born in Germany, starting school at the and of World War II, trained as a graphic artist and photo retoucher, Zündel emigrated to Canada at age nineteen and quickly encountered culture shock. In movies and an TV, the Germans he saw were travesties of the Germans he'd known. A "documentary" on World Way II showed Germans lending by submarine in Hudson Bay and, disguised as Mennonites, going south to make mischief in Manitoba. Zündel says he felt in Canada like a Jew in 1930s Germany, and he led pickets at movie theaters protesting what he saw as German hatred. 11 In the 1960s he read a book called The Auschwitz Lie, by Thies Christophersen, and became an outspoken denier. Though he hadn't been tried, the Canadian postal service refused to deliver mail to or accept mail from him. Then Canada took him to criminal court on a charge of "spreading false news," an English law from the twelfth century. He was sentenced to fifteen months, but the supreme court of Canada voided this. Then he was tried again and sentenced to nine months, but the supreme court reversed this, too. Now, twelve years later, Zündel, who lives in Toronto, is on trial before the Canadian Human Rights Commission. His crime: exposing the Jews to hatred or contempt. He is pictured with Ingrid Rimland, a friend and supporter who runs the Zündel site an the Internet from a secret location in Tennessee.

"The answer is, We don't," I explained. By bedtime on Friday, my impression of the Countesses was like my impression of UFO devotees. Everyone in America believes in one or another ridiculous thing. Me, I belong to the International Society for Cryptozoology, and I firmly believe that in Lake Tele, in the heart of the Congo, there is a living, breathing dinosaur. Admittedly, this is trivial compared with Holocaust denial, but fifteen years ago I even went to the Congo to photograph it. I didn't-I didn't even see it-but I still believe in it. other people believe more momentous things, and the Countesses and the other deniers believe that the Holocaust didn't happen. Like me in the Congo, they're wrong, wrong, wrong, but to say that emphatically isn't to say (as some people do) that they're odious, contemptible, despicable. To say that they're rats (as does Deborah Lipstadt, the author of Denying the Holocaust) is no more correct than to say it of people who, in their ignorance, believe the less pernicious fallacy that Oswald didn't kill Kennedy.

The conference started on Saturday. In the center of the lobby stood a Kentia palm and in concentric circles around it were peace lilies, crotons, bird- of-paradise flowers, and happy conferencegoers. Young and old, they talked like any Americans at any professional conference; they talked of the weather, their homes, their children ("One is a lawyer, another a businessman. For their sake I'm still in the closet"). on the hour, more and more were wearing the NO HOLES? NO HOLOCAUST! shirts in red, green, and gray as they seated themselves on bridge chairs to listen to speakers in the shuttered darkness of the garden ballroom. "It's one heck of a nice conference," I heard someone say.

Now about "No holes? No Holocaust! - the first thing to know is that no one at that palm-filled hotel would deny that Hitler hated the Jews, that Hitler sent them to concentration camps, and that Hitler said, "I want to annihilate the Jews" as hundreds of thousands died in (as one denier called them) godforsaken hellholes like Auschwitz. it may surprise you, but no one at that hotel would deny that hundreds of thousands of Jews died of typhus, dysentery, starvation, and exhaustion at Auschwitz or that their corpses went to the constant flames of five crematoriums night and day. These deniers even call this the Holocaust. What they deny is that some of the Jews died of something other than natural causes, that some went to rooms that the Germans poured cyanide (or at four other camps, carbon monoxide) into. The Jews, say the Holocaust deniers, weren't murdered, and the Germans didn't deliberately murder them.

Tens of thousands of witnesses disagree. Jews who once stood at the railroad depot at Auschwitz say that the Germans told them, "Go right," and told their mothers, fathers, and children, "Go left," and say that they never saw those mothers, fathers, and children again. I and the rest of the world believe that the Jews who went left went to cyanide chambers, but the deniers believe they went to other parts of Auschwitz or, by train, to other concentration camps. "Part of the Jews remained in Auschwitz," a speaker (another scholar, a man who speaks seventeen languages, including Chinese) said at the ballroom lectern one day. "The rest were transported farther. Many opted to stay in the Soviet Union." Tens of thousands of witnesses saw the cyanide chambers, too, saw the lilac-colored cyanide pellets cascade onto the Jews, but almost all of these witnesses died in five minutes, without being able to testify to it. A few indeed testified, among them two Auschwitz commandants. One said that children under twelve and people over fifty-five were cyanided daily, and one said, "At least 2,500,000 victims were executed by gassing," then backed off to 11200,000. Some doctors at Auschwitz testified. one doctor said, "When the doors were opened, bodies fell out," and one doctor said, "The Inferno, by Dante, is in comparison almost comedy." Some Jews who toted bodies to the crematoriums testified. one said, "We found heaps of naked bodies, doubled up. They were pinkish and in places red. Some were covered with greenish marks, and saliva ran from their mouths. Others were bleeding from the nose. There was excrement on many of them," and one said, "We were met by the sight of the dead bodies lying higgledy-piggledy. I was petrified."

To this abundant evidence the Holocaust deniers say-and they're right-that one Auschwitz commandant confessed after he was tortured and that the other reports are full of bias, rumors, exaggerations, and other preposterous matters, to quote the editor of a Jewish magazine five years after the war. The deniers say, and again they're right, that the commandants, doctors, SS, and Jews at Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, and a whole alphabet of camps testified after the war that there were cyanide chambers at those camps that all historians today refute.

Krema II roof, underneathThe deniers also say that at Auschwitz the witnesses said that the Germans poured cyanide pellets through holes in the chamber roofs-even said that the Germans joked as they poured, "Na, gib Ihnen schön zu fressen"-Well, give them something good to eat. it's there that the NO HOLES? NO HOLOCAUST! on the T-shirts comes in. The roofs at Auschwitz still stand (or, rather, lie collapsed, for the Germans blew up the buildings in November 1944 so the world wouldn't know), and, the deniers say, you can't find holes in those former roofs for the Germans to pour the cyanide through.

Myself, I'd call this one of life's mysteries, like why there are holes in Swiss cheese and not in cheddar, but everyone in the palm-filled hotel made a tremendous deal of it. One speaker there was David Irving, the British World War II historian, a man with a statesman's bearing, a statesman's elegant pinstripe suit, and a member of Parliament's elocution, a man who strung together his clear definitions, crisp distinctions, and withering innuendos in parse-perfect sentences, like graduated pearls. He had just sued, for libel, the author and publisher of Denying the Holocaust. The trial was in London last year. Irving lost, but not before he invoked the "No holes? No Holocaust!" argument. On the stand, a witness for the author and publisher cited some Auschwitz witnesses, and Irving, acting as his own attorney, leaped like a crouching lion. "Professor," said Irving, a granite -featured, imposing man, "we are wasting our time, really, are we not? There were never any holes in that roof. There are no holes in that roof today. They [the Germans] cannot have poured cyanide capsules through that roof. You yourself have stood on that roof and looked for those holes and not found them. Our experts have stood on that roof and not found them. The holes were never there. What do you say to that?"

"The roof is a mess. The roof is absolutely a mess," said the professor. "The roof is in fragments."
"You have been to Auschwitz how many times?"
"Sometimes twice or three times yearly."
"Have you frequently visited this roof?"
"Yes, I have been there, yes."
"Have you never felt the urge to go and start scraping where you know those holes would have been?"
"The last thing I'd ever have done is start scraping away.,,
"How much does an air ticket to Warsaw cost? $100? $200?"
"I have no idea."

"If," said Irving triumphantly, "you were to go to Auschwitz with a trowel and clean away the gravel and find a reinforced concrete hole, I would abandon my action immediately. That would drive such a hole through my case that I would have no possible chance of defending it."

Not quite flying to Auschwitz, the author, the publisher, or the professor apparently called up the Auschwitz Museum, for the museum told the Times of London that it had started searching for the fabulous holes. A two-mile drive. A trowel. A camera. That's what the search entailed, but it's now nine months later and the museum hasn't found them.

But lo! Someone did. Not someone from the Auschwitz Museum, but Charles "Chuck" Provan, a letterhead printer in Monongahela, Pennsylvania, and another scheduled speaker here in California.


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