Prof. Robert Faurisson had a question for his audience.
How many, the French professor wanted to know, had any doubts that the Nazi Holocaust of 6 million Jews is, in fact, nothing more than a hoax?
The audience was silent.
Heads swiveled as people looked to see who was willing to acknowledge publicly the belief that maybe the Nazis had murdered all those Jews, many of them in gas chambers.
Slowly a hand was raised, and another.
The final count was five, out of an audience of about 200.
What was billed as a debate on the Holocaust on Tuesday in Torrance turned into a one-sided conference for people who call themselves "historical revisionists." The event was sponsored by the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust, a group with ties to the Institute for Historical Review, a group that formerly had offices in Torrance and asserts that the Holocaust is a fabrication.
No spectators who believed unequivocally in the Holocaust showed up, nor did four speakers who were supposed to argue the case for the Holocaust.
The militant Jewish Defense League, which had clashed with people attending an anti-Holocaust conference in Huntington Beach last weekend, stayed away as well under the belief that the debate had been canceled, according to Irv Rubin, its national chairman. "These people are scum," he said in an interview later.
With the drama taken out of the event, the revisionists had only themselves to talk to.
Among the statements that received approving nods: The numerous eyewitness accounts of gas chamber operations from concentration camp survivors have no value because the witnesses have not been cross-examined. At Auschwitz, what is identified as a gas chamber is in fact a mortuary that could not have been used as a gas chamber without killing guards and people in a nearby hospital. Instead of 6 million Jews dying, the true figure is no more than 300,000, who died from starvation, disease and Allied bombing.
Also: Rather than being victims, Jews have made a flourishing industry of the Holocaust, and they control too much of the world's mass media.
There were delighted smiles when one speaker declared that the name of Nobel laureate, Holocaust author and concentration camp survivor Elie Wiesel accurately stands for its translation into English--"weasel."
And laughter greeted the recounting of statements that the Nazis made soap and lubricating oil of the corpses of Jews.
Rick Louk, head of the Torrance police intelligence unit, was on duty at the hotel in case trouble developed. Professionally impassive at the event, he said afterwards that he could not help being affected by the audience.
"If you were there and listened to those people laugh about how they disposed of body parts that were still quivering. . . . It was gross," he said.
"It was amazing that people could joke about atrocities."
Louk said he also noticed that speakers never talked "about the bad things the Nazis had done."
After the morning session, he said, he was surprised to see almost the entire audience return after lunch. "Those people are so fanatical," he said. "I am just glad that it went off without any problems."
A number of audience members declared their belief that the Holocaust story is part of a Jewish-Communist conspiracy.
Testimony of 'No Value'
Faurisson, a professor at the University of Lyons, said at the meeting that he places "no value" on statements from former concentration camp inmates if they have not been subjected to cross-examination.
Faurisson conceded that his cross-examination requirement is unusual but said it is justified because the accusation that the Nazis used gas chambers is so serious that it should be treated with legal, rather than historical, methods.
Asked if this standard would not also invalidate much of what is known about Stalinist labor camps--which many consider to be on a par with Nazi atrocities--Faurisson said he has not studied the Soviet Gulag and is not prepared to say whether the camps were as bad as they are claimed to have been.
Faurisson, an associate professor of literature, added that he had problems with accepting the writings of Alexander Solzhenitsyn about the camps because the Soviet emigre author and Nobel laureate is a novelist and not trained in historical methods.
Besides the problem with drop-out speakers, conference organizers had trouble finding a meeting place. They changed the location twice, from the Tetelestia Christian Center to the Calvary Church of the Coastlands to the Quality Inn.
The churches backed out after Louk called and explained that the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust is tied to the Institute for Historical Review, whose offices, formerly in Torrance, were fire-bombed in July, 1984, in what is still an unsolved case. Louk said he also told church officials that the Jewish Defense League had a record of confronting the institute.
"You are liable to get caught in the middle for providing the facility," Louk said he told church officials.
Although Jewish groups stayed away, they were not silent.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said it was a "sorry state of affairs" that the event attracted any news coverage. "I think those who call for a debate (on the Holocaust) deserve about the same attention as the Flat Earth Society," he said.
"You can classify revisionists into two camps. (Some) people . . . deny the Holocaust because they are more comfortable not believing the reality of the Holocaust. The second group says the Holocaust never occurred and, given the chance, they would like to finish the job."
Said Rubin: "These people are dedicated Jew-haters. The tragic, reprehensible thing about this movement is they are mocking not only the Jewish people but America, because America fought Hitler."
On the factual issues raised by the revisionists, Prof. Raoul Hilberg, author of the three-volume "Destruction of the European Jews," said in an telephone interview from Burlington, Vt., that the evidence of a Holocaust was overwhelming.
"We deal at the outset with a disappearance of a lot of people," he said. While scholarly debate continues over the numbers, the lowest "responsible" figure is his computation--5 million, he said. Three million died in concentration camps, 1.3 million were shot and 700,000 to 800,000 died in ghettos, where policies of starvation led to death rates of 1.5% a month, he said.
Captured German documents, including railway records and a Gestapo report, detail the number of Jews deported to specific camps and the number of shootings, he said.
Explanations that deportees were taken to concentration camps for labor but not for killing do not wash, he said, because of the large number of Jews that German rail records show were taken to the camps.
"There is absolutely no possibility that these camps were transit stations of some sort or places in which people were kept until the end of the war. As one German railway official said, otherwise Auschwitz would have become a metropolis."
"We have the testimony of SS men, not just one but quite a few, not just from the Nuremberg trials, but from trials in 1960s, '70s and '80s," he said. "The SS testimony is absolutely explicit that people were put to death in gas chambers at Sobibbor, Treblinka, Belzec, Kulmhof and Maydanek, in addition to Auschwitz."
He added pointedly that "in every one of the trials, cross-examination is built into the procedures. Most everything the SS has said was subject to cross-examination. SS people don't write books. If we had absolutely no testimony from Jewish survivors, we would still have that testimony and that picture."
Hilberg said a report that an Auschwitz building could not have been designed as a gas chamber is correct but irrelevant.
"It was not the primary place for killing," he said. "The Germans blew up the gas chambers. . . . The ruins are still there. We do have two additional pieces of evidence. We have the floor plans for the gas chambers--they are still around in the Auschwitz museum--and aerial photographs retrieved by the CIA (showing the buildings)."
The same sort of analysis refutes claims that the Germans were using the cyanide-based chemical Zyklon B for fumigation only, he said. The manufacturers' records shows that the orders sent to Auschwitz are far in excess of what is needed for fumigation, he said.
"We have the plans and the ruins, the testimony and the photos and they all coincide, reinforce each other," he said.
Faurisson, the French professor, said at the revisionists' meeting that he is critical of Hilberg's work because it does not examine the evidence that the Holocaust did not occur.
In response, Hilberg said that was like criticizing someone writing about the first trip to the Moon for not presenting the case that the trip did not occur.
"It is no fun for me after 40 years of research to have to reiterate and reiterate," he said.