The True Tale of the Woman Who Took Down the Holocaust Denier

'Denial' is a new film based on the real-life legal battle between Deborah Lipstadt and the man who claimed the Holocaust never happened.
Deborah Lipstadt, right, and actor Rachel Weisz, who portrays the professor in the film 'Denial.' (Photo: Courtesy Bleecker Street)
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Sep 11, 2016· 4 MIN READ
Alison Singh Gee is an award-winning international journalist and contributor to TakePart.

In the fall of 1994, Deborah Lipstadt walked into an auditorium at DeKalb Community College in Atlanta, prepared to give a lecture on Holocaust denial. Little did she know that the events of that day would change her life—radically.

On that mid-morning in November, British writer David Irving decided to pay Lipstadt a surprise visit. Although Lipstadt had never met Irving, a self-described historian and the author of the two-part biography Hitler’s War, they shared a history. During Irving’s public appearances and lectures, he often questioned if the Holocaust—Hitler’s ordered genocide of Jews—had actually happened.

“David Irving had crossed my radar in the 1970s when he argued [in his books] that Hitler had not known about the Holocaust and when he found out about it, he had tried to stop it,” Lipstadt tells TakePart. In response to Irving’s position, she wrote in her 1993 book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, that Irving was “one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial.”

During Lipstadt’s lecture that day, Irving challenged her about the existence of gas chambers in the concentration camps—in essence questioning whether the Holocaust had happened at all. Then the writer began waving $1,000 above his head, declaring that he would give the money to anyone who could prove Hitler ordered the killing of Jews.

Lipstadt was miffed by Irving’s strange disruption, but she shrugged the day off as a show of his “childish tactics,” she says, adding that he was trying to attract attention to his work and his “really strange” view of Hitler’s actions in World War II.

The Emory University professor didn’t think much more of Irving’s classroom intrusion until 1996, when she was served with a letter from the U.S. government: Irving was suing her and her book’s publisher, Penguin U.K., in the British courts for libel. His claim: Lipstadt had written that he was a Holocaust denier. “He was so open and proud about being a Holocaust denier,” Lipstadt tells TakePart. “This lawsuit didn’t make sense.”

Actor Timothy Spall as author David Irving in 'Denial.' (Photo: Courtesy Bleecker Street)

An additional aspect of the suit was news to Lipstadt: In British libel cases, the burden of proof lies with the defendant, not with the claimant. Thus, to win the case filed against her, she faced the daunting task of defending what she had written and proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the Holocaust took place. “I felt completely overwhelmed,” she recalls. “I thought to myself, ‘This man is ludicrous, but how are we going to fight this?’ I was nervous and scared.”

This battle for the truth of the Holocaust—and for the importance of upholding the truth of history in general—forms the core of the new film Denial, which premieres today at the Toronto International Film Festival and stars Rachel Weisz as Lipstadt. (Disclosure: Denial is produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media.) In a press statement, Mick Jackson, the filmmaker tapped to direct Denial, explained he was drawn to the story because “we live in an age of unreason and lies, an age of violent outrages and all kinds of assaults on the truth.” Denial, he said, explores these timely issues.

Watch an interview with Deborah Lipstadt below:

Many of the people around Lipstadt advised her to settle with Irving and spare herself the trauma and expense of going to trial. But she refused to back down. “Some of the leaders of the British Jewish community felt that whatever happened, [Irving] would win,” she says. “But if I hadn’t fought, then I should have surely lost. It would have become illegal to call the world’s leading Holocaust denier what he is.”

“Technically,” she says, drawing a deep breath, “I didn’t have to fight, but certain fights you can’t turn away from.”

Facing exorbitant legal and travel costs, Lipstadt and her supporters raised defense funds—the bulk of which came from an international community of Jews and those involved with Holocaust history but also from non-Jews who believed in the cause—and she and Penguin built a committed British legal team.

Celebrated solicitor Anthony Julius signed on to the case—he had represented Princess Diana against the House of Windsor—and he offered to represent Lipstadt pro bono. “He felt Irving needed to be fought,” she says. “He was willing to fight as if it were the biggest commercial case to ever come across his desk.” Barrister Richard Rampton offered the team specialized legal advice and represented individuals and organizations in court.

Weisz was excited about the opportunity to explore a character as complex as the professor. “It’s a very meaty, interesting part,” Weisz said in a statement. “Deborah’s a wonderful character—she’s very colorful. I found her very outspoken and strong-willed and direct, and a lot of fun to spend time with.”

Watch the trailer below:

Lipstadt, who had seen Weisz’s performances in The Deep Blue Sea and The Whistleblower, was pleased about the British actor’s casting. “I thought she was a great actress,” she says.

To prepare for the role, the actor invited Lipstadt to spend a couple of days with her at Weisz’s New York home. “We talked about the script, the movie, my book. It was quite something to work with such a professional,” Lipstadt says.

During those days in New York, Weisz probed Lipstadt about her work as a professor of Holocaust history and the effects on her psyche. “I didn’t know anything about Holocaust denial,” the actor said. “But I was interested in knowing how she can teach such an emotional subject. How does she remain unemotional while teaching about something that’s difficult to stomach?”

During the filming of Denial, Weisz reached out to Lipstadt on several occasions. “We talked a lot on the phone,” Lipstadt recalls. “She called to ask me things like how I would say a certain word or ‘What were you feeling when this happened?’ She got my accent. A lot of friends who have seen the film think she has really captured me.” Throughout the movie, Weisz also wore some of the professor’s scarves.

Denial, says Lipstadt, “is an important film—it’s about the difference between truth and lies. Certain facts aren’t debatable. You can’t make up your own history and your own facts just because you want that to be true. That’s a big part of what this movie is.”

As for Irving’s motivations for suing her, she says, “He’s a bully. He thought I would not fight back, that ‘this is going to be too much for her. This is a British court; she is going to run with her tail between her legs.’ Most people would have settled. But I couldn’t.”

The trial—which took two and a half years to prepare for and which the film re-creates in detail—unfolded over the course of three years. During that time, Lipstadt took time off from her work and flew back and forth across the Atlantic. “It was a black cloud hanging over my life for all that time,” she says. In the end, it was worth it: “If he had won or I had settled, how dangerous would that have been to the truth of our history?”

Today, she says, she feels satisfied with a legacy that represents a profound struggle for the truth, even when it’s painful to confront. If she could choose the text for her epitaph? Lipstadt is quiet for a moment and then replies, “It would say, ‘She fought the good fight.’ ”

Denial opens in select theaters on Sept. 30 and everywhere on Oct. 21.