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Daniel Miranda / Daily Staff
Holocaust revisionist Bradley Smith speaks in the Student Union on Passover, April 6. The controversial writer and speaker targets college campuses in spreading his message.
Speaker questions Holocaust
Crusade to 'revise' history brought to campus; critics say arguments are baseless
By Mari Sapina-Kerkhove
Daily Staff Writer
April 15, 2004
Pacing before a handful of people in a slightly stuffy room in the Student Union, Holocaust revisionist Bradley R. Smith was on a mission.
"I am here to talk about why there is a worldwide movement to criminalize dissent about (the Holocaust)," he said during his April 6 appearance at San Jose State University.
Daniel Miranda / Daily Staff
Moving systematically through his speech, note card to note card, Smith left little room for interruptions.
A Q-and-A session, he reminded the audience, had been set aside for the end.
As the 74-year-old, who started out with a lengthy introduction about light and darkness, intellectual freedom and censorship, moved on to question the deaths of millions of Jews in Nazi gas chambers, his audience became restless.
Daniel Miranda / Daily Staff
Someone in the front, who said he had been to concentration camps and seen gas chambers with his own eyes, challenged Smith's claims.
Another person asked whether Smith was trying to imply eyewitnesses have been lying about the Holocaust.
Growing increasingly annoyed with the disruptions, Smith had a hard time standing his ground. He grappled to get back to his speech.
"Are you going to let me speak or not?" he asked a man who interrupted him several times.
But by the time Smith worked through his pile of note cards, several people had already gotten up and left.
"Some of his reasoning under pressure seemed a little weak," recalled Jacob Orrin, a business administration major who attended the event.
Orrin said he was surprised by how poorly prepared Smith was for some of the critical questions from the audience.
"If he's an expert, he should be better prepared," he said.
Smith is the director - and currently the only member - of the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust, an organization that has been on a public crusade to "revise" Holocaust history for the past 17 years.
Among the things needing to be revised are the existences of gas chambers, the number of Jews killed and the existence of a genocide plan by Nazi Germany, Smith stated in his 20-page pamphlet, "The Campaign to Decriminalize Holocaust History."
While revisionists claim to be different from Holocaust deniers, some of the critics interviewed said there is not much difference, other than revisionists being less blunt in their arguing. The outcome, they said, is the same.
"We would prefer to refer to them as deniers," said Jonathan Bernstein, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in San Francisco. "(They) are seeking to deny what is arguably one of the best-documented events in history."
Indeed, Smith never claims that the Holocaust didn't exist. But he does call it an "immense collection of war stories - some are true and some are false."
It is questionable that Nazis used gas chambers to deliberately kill the Jewish population, Smith said.
He said what have been called gas chambers were actually crematories where, just as today, dead bodies were cremated. When asked where all the bodies came from, he failed to give an explanation.
Without ever stating the source of his information, Smith also claims that the piles of corpses photographed at the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp in northwestern Germany, were not a result of systematic extermination, but a consequence of disease and starvation caused by overcrowding.
Finally, when asked whether he believes that six million Jews died during the Holocaust, he said, "I don't believe it happened" - meaning the number of people killed has been greatly exaggerated.
When challenged as to how he supports his claims, Smith remained vague.
"He doesn't really provide the source or any proof for his theories," said Michael Avrukin, a computer science sophomore who attended last Tuesday's event in the Student Union.
"His best answer was, 'Well, show me the papers, show me the proof,' " said Orrin, who recalled this to be Smith's recurring answer to anyone confronting him with the existence of documents and eyewitness accounts.
Smith claims recent research and scholars support his theories.
The American Historical Association, however, distanced itself from such scholars in a 1991 public statement.
"The American Historical Association Council strongly deplores the publicly reported attempts to deny the fact of the Holocaust," the association states. "No serious historian questions that the Holocaust took place."
Bart Sharlon, executive director of Silicon Valley's National Conference for Community and Justice, said Smith's reference to "scholars" proves nothing.
"That somebody doubts (facts about the Holocaust) doesn't make it false," Sharlon said. "This doesn't change the fact that the history has been written and that the Holocaust has been documented by the perpetrators themselves."
Because of the Nazis' obsession with documenting their atrocities, the Holocaust is one of the best-documented events in history, Sharlon said.
"This is no theory - it's documented," he said. "If you find one name wrong out of one million, what does that prove?
"There's not a lot you can do with someone that fanatic and wrong. It's not about truth, it's about persuasion," Sharlon said.
Bernstein, the Anti-Defamation League director, said Smith's claims that gas chambers were crematories or postwar creations built by the Soviets are ludicrous, considering the fact that there are blueprints, documents and eyewitness accounts testifying to their existence.
And while Smith views eyewitness accounts as just that - eyewitness accounts that cannot be proven - Holocaust survivor Alicia Jurman said she doesn't need any proof that millions of Jews were systematically eradicated at the hands of Nazis, by gunfire, gas and torture.
Jurman was the only one in her immediate family to survive the Holocaust. To her, Smith's statements are so absurd they aren't even worth a discussion.
"I must have had a mother; otherwise, I wouldn't have been born," she said. "I don't discuss these (claims) with adults."
Controversial college speaker
Despite the shaky ground he is walking on, Smith is determined to keep promoting his beliefs. And for the past 13 years, college campuses have been his primary focus.
While he likes to call himself a "First Amendment activist" who wants to educate students about free speech, Smith's critics say his real motive is to plant seeds of anti-Semitism within a generation increasingly detached from the Holocaust.
According to an article published by the Anti-Defamation League, Smith has consistently been targeting student newspapers with ad campaigns questioning facts about the Holocaust.
Most of Smith's ads make some kind of reference to "free speech" or "open debate," something Bernstein and other critics perceive as bait to get young, inexperienced advertising directors and editors to publish anti-Semitic material.
"This has nothing to do with the First Amendment," Bernstein says. "Universities shouldn't allow themselves to be used for his purpose. We could spend time debating whether the Earth is flat, too, but those are not topics for a university campus."
According to Bernstein, the number of college campuses willing to publish Smith's material has been decreasing over the past years.
Smith believes this to be a result of censorship and sanctions on free speech, which he now claims to counteract with his new "Campaign to Decriminalize Holocaust History."
"No subject has been more vilified on college campus over the past decade than historical research that questions various aspects of Holocaust history," Smith wrote in his campaign pamphlet.
Passover appearance irks some
While some Jews said they were displeased with Smith's appearance on campus, others say he had every right to speak.
Avrukin, an SJSU sophomore who was also present at Smith's speech, said while he shouldn't be denied the right to say what he has to say, the university should have been more considerate about allowing Smith to appear on campus on a Jewish holiday - the first day of Passover.
Because of the holiday, a large number of Jewish students were not on campus, which deprived them from responding directly to Smith's speech, Avrukin said.
When asked whether his appearance at SJSU during Passover was a deliberate move, Smith said it was not.
"It's coincidence," he said. He said the same thing about circulating his ads on Holocaust Remembrance Day several years ago.
According to Leanne LoBue, scheduling supervisor at SJSU event services, which is responsible for renting out rooms in the Student Union, Smith contacted her in January.
LoBue said she was unaware the day he reserved was the first day of Passover.
As for second thoughts on allowing him to speak on campus, Kevin McBride, event services coordinator at the Student Union, said his department follows a policy of generally allowing anyone who wishes to speak to do so.
"We don't exercise any type of public censorship, (unless) there's a public safety concern," McBride said. "We wouldn't tell him 'no' due to political correctness."
Jacob Orrin, an SJSU student who heard Smith speak, said while everyone has the freedom to say what they want, it is equally important to stand up against claims that are false or insulting.
"It upset me to hear what he was saying, but it felt good that I wasn't the only one in the room (who disagreed with him). To see that no one even showed (up) felt good," he said.
Janet Berg, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council for Silicon Valley, said Smith's claims are an insult to the Jewish community.
"The fact that he says gas chambers didn't exist is such a lie. It trivializes the memory of six million Jews and others," she said.
While there is a responsibility to educate younger generations on the facts about the Holocaust, she said most people are too smart for Smith to skew their knowledge of the Holocaust.
"I don't think he's dangerous," she said. "But I think his message is dangerous, because we should never ever forget."
Alice Jurman, who lost her family in the Holocaust, said Smith's claims about it are so false they don't even cause her to worry.
"I am not surprised (by him), because I know that people like that exist, but I don't want the intelligence of young people to be insulted," she said. "That makes me angry."