A New Museum Exhibit in Toronto Confronts Holocaust Denial
The Evidence Room, an installation on view at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), is a stunning reminder of how difficult it is to prove criminal intent – in this case, the planned systematic murder of 6 million European Jews.
The exhibit was inspired by the testimony of expert witness Robert Jan van Pelt, a Dutch-born professor of architecture at the University of Waterloo, Canada, in the landmark libel case brought by British historian David Irving in January 2000 against Deborah E. Lipstadt, professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, and her publisher, Penguin Books, for labeling Irving a Holocaust denier in her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust.
At issue in the case before the British High Court in London was the question: Did the Holocaust really happen, or was it an elaborate hoax? Van Pelt’s interpretation of the architectural blueprints and remains of the crematoria and gas chambers at Auschwitz were crucial in what remains the most decisive victory against Holocaust deniers to date.
Van Pelt’s 700-page report, the basis for his book The Case for Auschwitz, helped establish a new discipline – architectural forensics, combining elements of architecture, technology, history, law, and human rights.
The Evidence Room exhibit features life-size replicas of the main architectural elements of the gas chambers, including the gas columns, which Van Pelt identified as the most evil piece of the killing apparatus. Each column consisted of an inner metal column through which a cup of pelletized cyanide gas (Zyklon B) was lowered into the chamber from an air-tight hatch above, and a stronger outer column to prevent the 2,000 panicked people inside from interfering with the gas delivery system.
In addition to the architectural replicas, the walls of The Evidence Room are lined with white plaster reproductions of blueprints, architects’ letters, contractors’ bills, and photographs Van Pelt used as evidence in his testimony. Plaster casts, we are told, are “the traditional material in forensics, useful in the preservation of evidence.”
Van Pelt could not provide material proof of the columns existence because the SS removed them before the camp’s liberation and because they were not in the original architectural plans of the death factory, but a later adjustment. We know of their existence and use from eyewitness testimony, mainly from Sonderkommandos, Jewish inmates tasked with disposing of the bodies of the more than 1 million people murdered at Auschwitz.
Justice Charles Gray of the British High Court ruled in favor of the defense, concluding, “No objective, fair-minded historian would have serious cause to doubt that there were gas chambers at Auschwitz and that they were operated on a substantial scale to kill hundreds of thousands of Jews.”
What led Irving to stake his reputation as a historian on the outcome of a libel suit?
Twelve years earlier, in 1988, Toronto resident Ernst Zundel, a major publisher of Holocaust denial propaganda, had invited Irving to testify in his defense in the District Court of Ontario. Zundel was charged with willfully making false statements to incite hatred of Jews.
Zundel hired Fred Leuchter, an engineer specializing in gas chambers used to execute death row inmates in Missouri, to serve as an expert witness. Leuchter traveled to Poland to investigate the remains of the crematoria in Auschwitz and Maidanek, and after three days concluded, “these facilities… could not have been utilized for execution gas chambers.”
Irving enthusiastically endorsed Leuchter’s report and agreed to testify. Zundel lost the case but won the support of an influential historian who had until then not crossed the line to outright Holocaust denial. Irving had previously acknowledged the Holocaust but insisted it was done behind Hitler’s back by subordinates.
Irving breathed new life into the world Holocaust denial movement by publishing the Leuchter Report in 26 languages. Only after Irving’s book sales started to plummet and he suffered some financial losses, says Van Pelt, did Irving initiate his libel suit against Lipstadt.
The cold and impersonal quality of The Evidence Room at ROM is offset in an adjacent room with a display of 12 personal, prewar photos brought by deportees to Auschwitz.
Of the 2,400 such images recovered in 1945, many depicted people from one town – my father’s birthplace of Bedzin Poland.
On a wall across from the photos, a poem by Charlotte Delbo makes a plea to exhibit visitors:
You who are passing by
I beg you
Learn a dance step
Something to justify your existence
Something that gives you the right
To be dressed in your skin in your body hair
Learn to walk and laugh
Because it would be too senseless
For so many to have died
While you live
Doing nothing with your life.
(from Auschwitz and After)