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Copyright (c) 1998 - Ingrid A. Rimland

February 8, 1999

Good Morning from the Zundelsite:

Now that I have given you the background to the dramatic and historically ever-so-important pioneering expedition of Fred Leuchter, the author of the best-selling "Leuchter Report," I want to give you excerpts of the magnificently written article in the New Yorker, February 1999 issue, titled "The Friendly Executioner: How did an electric chair repairman come to deny the Holocaust? And other odd questions" by one Mark Singer.*

Speaking strictly from a writer's point of view, I say this article is a decided masterpiece - although, of course, having been penned by a Jewish writer steeped in the traditional "Holocaust" fare, you find the conventional "villains":

You and I, ". . . members of the Holocaust denial mob . . . " -

The ". . . loathsome British historian David Irving . . . " -

Dr. Faurisson, whose ". . . conceit that the so-called myth of the gas chambers could be exploded by forensic analysis of the crematoria at Auschwitz and its much larger annex, Birkenau . . . just needed a capital punishment expert to prove it . . . "

and, of course,

Svengali Ernst Zundel, ". . . a German national who, to the chagrin of Canadian authorities, resides in Toronto . . . "

The Leuchter expedition itself is described as an undertaking that was

". . . expensive - it cost thirty-seven thousand dollars - but within a few weeks Zundel reaped the yield from his investment in the form of a twenty-page document that eventually acquired near-Biblical stature among devout negationists."

"The bottom line of "The Leuchter Report" - sorry, no gas chambers at Auschwitz - rested upon the observation that there was no ventilation or exhaust equipment or gasketed seals, or even hydrogen cyanide residue amid the weathered ruins of the crematoria . . . "

To which the article writer, Mark Singer, delivers this shiner:

"Leuchter did much to reinforce a maxim favored by negationists: 'Only lice were gassed at Auschwitz' - a slur that echoed, not coincidentally, Hitler's characterization of Jews as a plague of vermin."

But having said that, among others, what shines throughout this article is a skilled wordsmith's many-layered portrait of three principal players:

* The filmmaker Errol Morris, a neurotically artistic fellow with an obsessive yen for the funny yet macabre -

* the feature writer Mark Singer himself, clad in his Yad Vashem garb, yarmulke on his head - and, of course,

* Fred Leuchter, popping up all over this article like some benign poltergeist, a man with a "dorky charm" possessing an ". . . unsettling, earnest forthrightness, a capacity to trigger cognitive dissonance."

"A lot of what Leuchter had to say," writes Singer, "was dangerously off the wall, and Morris was well on his way toward creating yet another compulsively watchable movie."

Indeed. That's what he seems to have done. A filmmaker described as "engagingly tormented", Morris is characterized as having turned out, for two decades,

". . . at a slightly swifter than glacial pace, highly idiosyncratic nonfiction narratives in which the profoundly funny harmonizes with the poetically disturbing."

"Morris's newest film, which in a not quite completed state was just shown at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, characteristically (and unsurprisingly) has the working title "Mr. Death." The Mr. Death in question is Fred A. Leuchter Jr., a geeky middle-aged fellow with a high forehead, prominent ears, a pasty complexion, thick-framed eyeglasses and a marbly Boston accent - so quintessentially an Errol Morris character that, as the film progresses, his delivery into the filmmaker's clutches seems preordained, one more component of an eerie fate."

Here is a portrait of Fred's avocation in his own voice:

"'I became involved in the manufacture of the execution equipment because I was concerned with the deplorable condition of the hardware that's in most of the states' prisons, which generally results in torture prior to death,' Leuchter declares in an opening monologue. 'A number of years ago, I was asked by a state to look at their electric chair. I was surprised at the condition of the equipment and I indicated to them what changes should be made to bring the equipment up to the point of doing a human execution.'"

"This last phrase," writes Singer,

"confirms what we already know - that we've waded into the realm of chin-deep irony."

And it gets better. If the film is anything like this article, the world is in for a real treat with a bushel full of sardonic wit, macabre puzzlement, and genuine confusion as to what really lies behind the "Holocaust":

"Morris (gives us) glimpses of Leuchter's personal life, including several shots of coffee brewing and being stirred in a cup. (In one scene, a reflection of Leuchter's face shimmers.) We learn that Leuchter has a forty cup-a-day caffeine habit, and that he used to supplement it with six packs of cigarettes. While hanging out at a Dunkin' Donuts in his home town, Malden, Massachussetts, where the coffee was especially to his liking, he met his future wife, Carolyn, who worked there as a waitress. They became engaged in late 1987, and shortly thereafter they went to Toronto to meet a man named Ernst Zundel."

"And then, at roughly the midpoint of 'Mr. Death,' an intertitle announces 'The Trial of Ernst Zundel', and the movie jumps the divider with headsnapping suddenness. In a blink, it feels as if one had dashed to the lobby for popcorn, then dashed back into the wrong theatre where - whoa! - a movie about holocaust denial was being screened."

"Zundel, it turns out, is a notorious neo-Nazi, the author of, among other works, 'The Hitler We Loved, and Why,' and is also the publisher of books with titles like 'Did Six Million Really Die?' and 'The Auschwitz Lie.' And straight-talking Fred A. Leuchter Jr., a self-described 'engineer,' a passionate and compelling champion of even the most odious individual's right to be executed in a nice way, is about to be reintroduced to us in another of his identities - as the author of 'The Leuchter Report,' which is one of the most treacherous documents ever generated by the Holocaust-denial movement."

From there on, the article becomes what Ernst described on the phone to me as ". . . two Jews groping each other in the dark about the meaning of the Holocaust."

". . . (w)ithout giving a hint of where the film is heading, Morris allows Leuchter to expatiate upon his life and his craft." (...)

"'Because Fred used a handheld camera and shoots with available light, his film is somehow authentic, vérité-in-a-nutshell, 'true' cinema,' Morris said. 'The irony here is that his cinema vérité is in the service of falsehood. And my contrived material, I like to think, is in the service of the underlying truth' - a two-beat pause - 'but, of course, I could be wrong.'"

Another rather minor, though quite outspoken, player in this article is a fellow named van Pelt, a holocaust promoter who was involved in writing a history of Auschwitz back to the 12th century and also dabbled in the analysis of gas chambers cum crematoria.

He is the finger-shaking one - and does he ever:

"Leuchter did something utterly appalling," van Pelt is quoted as saying. "Auschwitz-Birkenau is now a museum, and every day pilgrims to the crematoria recite memorial prayers and leave behind lighted candles and tiny wooden tablets inscribed with the names of Holocaust victims. This did not deter Leuchter from hacking away wherever he pleased with a hammer and a chisel. The video camera recorded his labors. Sometimes wearing a surgical mask and sometimes not, he gouged a wall here and a ceiling there, sealed the dislodged fragments in plastic bags, and offered a simultaneous narration that sounded like a parody of the old 'Mr Wizard' kids-television program. When it came time to leave the country, he wrapped these souvenirs in his dirty laundry and concealed them in his luggage."

"Back home, Leuchter delivered his plunder in Ashland, Massachusetts, and there a chemist named Jim Roth, unaware of the origin of the material, performed an analysis that found a significant level of cyanide in fragments removed from the delousing building but negligible or no traces in the specimens from the crematoria - proof, according to Leuchter's logic, that the mourners of Auschwitz have come to the wrong place."

"If I had to create a geography of evil, this would certainly be my center paint," van Pelt said. "Many people consider this the most important place in their life. I'm not a Catholic, but I wouldn't go into a Catholic church and piss on the altar. There are standards of human decency. Fred Leuchter came here for two or three days and took samples. I don't want to deny people the right to doubt. But I want them to do it after they've done their homework. I hate Holocaust deniers not just for their moral atrociousness but because they're sloppy craftsmen. I walk around here, and I still find things that I don't understand - why they're here."

The article then goes on to say, here somewhat condensed:

"At Zundel's 1988 trial, Leuchter was allowed to appear as an expert on contemporary gas chamber design, and the findings from his Auschwitz journey, 'The Leuchter Report,' were submitted to the court on Hitler's birthday. A copy of the report was accepted as an informational exhibit, but not as evidence."

"After Leuchter took the stand, the judge stipulated that the Holocaust had, in fact, occurred. Zundel was again found guilty; on balance, Leuchter's testimony hadn't much mattered. What did matter was that 'The Leuchter Report' survived beyond the trial."

"Unavoidably, Leuchter became a target of Jewish activists, and it was only a matter of time before prison wardens stopped hiring him. In Massachusetts, he was prosecuted and threatened with jail for practicing engineering without a license."

"In 1992, he went to Germany again to testify on Zundel's behalf (Zundel had been charged with violating Germany's Holocaust denial statute after organizing an International Leuchter Congress in Munich); while there he, too, made what the authorities deemed a Holocaust denial speech."

"The next year, Leuchter was again lured to Germany, ostensibly to appear on television to talk about electrocution, but he was arrested the day he arrived and charged with 'slander of the murdered Jews.'"

Writes Singer, thoroughly perplexed:

"It's an important Morris principle: We never truly know what we presume to know."

"(H)ow complicated could Leuchter be? Wasn't he a simple sower of foul deeds, a perpetrator of calculated cruelty? Morris perceived, instead, a 'truly enigmatic character.' Conspicuous Holocaust deniers occasionally get their homes or offices firebombed or they get beaten up or, more often, they get sued or prosecuted; the potential for martyrdom clearly lends an allure to the enterprise. In the film, Leuchter comes across by turns as an accidental and defiant martyr, a banal but strange man launched on an inexorable, often hilariously grotesque, journey - a legend, as the saying goes, in his own mind."

And then a minor Revisionist highlight:

"Morris described to me the screening of an early rough cut at Harvard, which had left him shaken. 'It seemed that the audience had no place to stand outside Fred,' he said. 'They became trapped in his ego. They took him quite literally. And when the film was over, there were people in the room who wondered whether the Holocaust had really happened.'"

And Morris himself:

"His version of what (Leuchter) saw in Auschwitz and what happened to him afterward seems to come right out of Nabakov - the clueless narrator, the narrator so far out of touch with what he's saying that it's totally absurd. But how clueless could he possibly be? That's the central mystery. Do we all live these self-invented fables? There's a deep mystery about Fred's doing what he's doing, and for me it connects with the mystery of the Holocaust - the mystery of not whether it happened but ***how it could have happened***. (Emphasis added)

"Is it happenstance that Fred, a person obsessed with death - not unlike me - ended up at Auschwitz?. . . If he becomes a person who makes us think about how the Holocaust came about, then it's useful."

The article also briefly describes how the film itself came about:

"Not until a year ago did Morris finally have the funds, thanks to the Independent Film Channel 4, to create the movie he had in mind, and by then he was far from certain how to make sense of his subject. The Leuchter he had trotted out in an early fund-raising prospectus was a decidedly sinister figure - 'an insidious force that must be examined closely so that his views can be challenged, and ultimately he can be deterred.'

"By the time Morris had secured the money, though, he realized he had options more daring than representing his protagonist as evil. The story would be far more interesting if it plumbed the underlying mystery of Leuchter's identity and motivation."

"Had Zundel set him up? Was he a patsy? In any event, was there a risk that by giving a denier of the Holocaust a platform, Morris would end up legitimizing him? In the end, Morris elected to let Leuchter and other witnesses tell the story of 'The Leuchter Report' in their own words: how it derailed Leuchter's life, how it became its author's tar baby - a piece of personal history from which he could never escape."

And, furthermore:

"After returning home from Auschwitz to Cambridge, Morris had a sinking spell. In recent years, he has supported his filmmaking by directing television commercials, and now, studying the footage of Auschwitz, he began to worry that it looked like "product."

"B)etween takes, Morris said, 'Fred hasn't questioned anything we've asked him to do over the last five days. I haven't lied about anything. I haven't had to; he's too honest and decent a man. I look over all this, and I think he's just misguided. He got mixed up with the wrong group of people. There are people who think he's evil, but he's not. The movie, I think, is becoming a kind of odd danse (sp?) macabre, with Leuchter as my brand of existential hero, or if you like, existential anti-hero - the completely benighted human being who still deserves our sympathy."

"Cinema vérité!" Morris exulted after one successful take. "The camera loves Fred."

"Perhaps so," writes Singer, sourly.

"Something or someone surely must love Fred Leuchter, though neither love nor any form of penitence I could imagine would erase the stain of his most noteworthy achievement - careening from one mass murder site to another with a busted moral compass, along the way bringing joy to truly depraved people who were determined to obliterate the most basic truths about the crimes of the Third Reich."

"During the making of 'Mr. Death,' Morris augmented his usual complement of anxieties with a sense of dread at what might happen when he showed Leuchter the completed film. . . . (Yet) at one point, Leuchter reversed roles and asked Morris: 'What's the film about to you?'

"'It's a good question,' Morris said, laughing. 'What it is about is my curiosity - how you got yourself into this fix.'"

Writes Singer, utterly perplexed:

"It didn't bother (Morris) in the least that seeing the movie hadn't altered any of Leuchter's basic opinions. 'Nor did I want to try to convince him that the Holocaust happened,' Morris told me later. 'Say I did get him to admit that poison gas was used, that there were gas chambers at Auschwitz - so what? Would that make me any different from Zundel?

"He's the Florence Nightingale of death row. When he testifies for Zundel, he's the champion of free speech, the civil libertarian, the humanist, humanitarian, seeker of truth, martyr. By the end, there's Fred as fall guy, Fred as victim of the Jews.

"When he talks about how at Auschwitz he was afraid of the guards, how he had an escape plan in case he got caught - it's as if he were talking about himself as a Jew in 1943 or 1944, rather than as a Holocaust denier vandalizing the site.

So, in the end, I'm left with the question 'Do I know who Fred is? Plus one other question, which I assume will stay with me for a while: 'Do I know who I am myself?'"

(end of excerpts)

I make two predictions: This documentary, if it is as finely crafted as this article suggests, will become the target for all-out, vicious censorship.

And, if that happens, we'll have another Revisionist-by-default in Errol Morris.

Persecution is an accurate and faithful intellectual boomerang, as Galileo proved.


Thought for the Day:

In this world man must be either anvil or hammer.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.


(*Note: Paragraphs from the New Yorker article have been broken up to conform to ZGram style)

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