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Why Holocaust deniers turned on one of their own

Sunday, March 04, 2001

By Dennis B. Roddy, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The night he discovered the Holocaust, Charles D. Provan was reading -- again -- the book that was supposed to put the matter to rest. Before he killed himself in 1945, Kurt Gerstein, an SS officer, gave a lengthy account of killings he witnessed in the camps and, boy, were his numbers strange.

Charles Provan with daughter Keturah, 3 (Franka Bruns, Post-Gazette)

Men, women, children -- 700 to 800 in all, more than half of them children -- were forced naked into a 16-foot by 16-foot chamber in Belzec, eastern Poland. Camp guards fired up a diesel engine. A half-hour later, soaked in sweat and urine, columns of bodies stood dead.

Seven hundred people in 256 square feet? Three people per square foot? That's three human beings somehow crammed into the space of one square of linoleum tile. Think about it. The Gerstein document, with its ridiculous numbers, became a weapon for so-called "revisionist historians" who regard the Holocaust as a wartime exaggeration or a post-war hoax. Holocaust historians sometimes glossed over Gerstein's dubious body counts, and Holocaust denier Henri Roques brought out a handsome new edition of the Gerstein document with accompanying analysis explaining the ridiculousness of the figures.

Provan, a Holocaust doubter, bought one right away. He believed Roques.

"I just thought the numbers were way off," he said.

That December night in 1990, though, the quizzical Provan was struck by a line in Gerstein's account about the victims: "... more than half are children ... ."

"Hey, kids!" Provan gave a yell. Shouting "hey, kids" in the Provan house is risking a stampede. A printer by trade, he is by avocation a Protestant lay theologian who has written against birth control. He now has 10 children.

Matthias, Tobias, Nathanael, and Susanna came running.

"Let's do an experiment," Provan told them.

The kids peeled to their underwear in an upstairs bedroom. Provan moved a chest of drawers and an old cabinet into a corner. The kids squealed and giggled as he crowded them into a tiny, tiny space he'd created.

He grabbed a doll to round the number out to five. It had to be a sight: Provan, a bearded, bulky fellow with a large, pear-shaped face, perpetually set in a smile, looking like a man who is about to laugh or has just finished, corralling kids in underwear to see how many could be executed in as small a space as possible.

His wife, Carol, heard the noise.

"What are you doing?" she asked.

"I'm gonna' see how many kids can fit in a gas chamber!" he shouted.

"Oh." A pause. "You shouldn't do that!"

After crowding the youngsters into the tiny space, Provan went downstairs to his parlor with a hand calculator, stretched out on the recliner, and did a little math.

The numbers worked. Those bizarre, impossible numbers worked.

"Then it dawned on me," Provan said. "He saw that. He saw that!" Gerstein saw those children, those old men, those mothers, he saw them jammed into a room, 700 or more at a time, bleeding, sweating, urinating in fear. He saw the doors open, saw bodies so tangled in death they lacked even the power to fall. If Gerstein was telling a truth so improbable, the other stuff had to be so, too. It happened.

Suddenly, Charles D. Provan, lifelong provocateur, was hearing the off-key note in the symphony of denial and the discordant note was the one that rang true.

"That's when I started to cry."

Some old friends still haven't forgiven him those tears.

Right from the start

The gears of Charles D. Provan have never quite meshed with the machinery of ordinary society. He counts himself as a revisionist, but a revisionist who believes the Holocaust did happen. His kids are home schooled. He runs a small print shop with somebody else's name. Profoundly conservative, he also is a local Democratic committeeman and member of the printer's union.

Provan grew up nearer the political fringe than most. His parents, Charles and Marjorie Provan, were longtime leaders in the John Birch Society. They sent their son to Bob Jones University, renowned for its fundamentalism and anti-Catholicism. Ian Paisley, the Catholic-baiting minister from Northern Ireland, held his doctorate from Bob Jones.

At 17, the younger Provan gave a closer reading to "The Blue Book," the handbook of John Birch Society beliefs, and told his parents he was leaving the group.

"I sort of thought that he was going through a stage," remembered Marjorie Provan. "When you reach 16 or 17 and you're a young man, you know an awful lot more than your parents know. I never got upset about it. He never became a socialist or anything like that."

What he became was an incessant questioner of authority. Provan left Bob Jones after a few years, studied history at the University of Pittsburgh, then quit before graduating and took a job at a Monongahela print shop. He also got heavily into Bible study, and became a regular contributor to The Christian News, a weekly publication run by Herman Otten, a renegade Lutheran minister in Missouri.

Otten's publication targets liberalism in the Lutheran Church, propounds conservative Christianity, but, weirdly, also argues editorially that the Holocaust didn't happen.

"The more you study it, the more you see how everyone in the United States has swallowed a line of bull," said Otten.

He published Provan "mainly for theological reasons. The guy's a whiz."

But as the 1980s wore on, Provan had begun reading denier literature and concluded the Holocaust numbers were a gross exaggeration. Otten's paper sent Provan to cover a meeting of the Institute for Historical Review.

The IHR, based in California, was the creation of Willis Carto, a shadowy millionaire who founded the Liberty Lobby -- one of the few Washington lobbies that advocated U.S. diplomatic relations with Rhodesia. Carto's weekly newspaper, The Spotlight, regularly features anti-Semitic and Holocaust denial articles. Its readers included Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. Another Carto creation, the Populist Party ran as its 1988 presidential candidate former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke.

But Carto and the IHR split, and split bitterly, in the early 1990s. Aides there had him carried out of the building. They are still in litigation over the ownership of the institution.

The man who remained in the director's chair after Carto's removal is Mark Weber, who holds a master's degree in history and has studied in Germany. The Simon Wiesenthal Center has accused Weber of having ties to neo-Nazis in Germany.

Provan wrote one article for the IHR's journal, a 1993 piece about American treatment of Japanese prisoners in World War II, but never ventured a published opinion on the Holocaust. While Holocaust denial has been IHR's major focus, Weber and his colleagues like to expand its concept of self-described "historical revisionism" to cover other subjects, something its critics view as merely an effort to provide a scholarly cover for an otherwise blatant exercise in fascist apology.

"Revisionism is a skeptical, informed look at history," Weber explained. But given that Provan had entered into the study of history as a Holocaust skeptic, his role as a revisionist became one of revising revisionism.

Such was the kind of curiosity that led to the top of the stairs one December night 10 years ago.

Arguing the details

Provan repeated his experiments several times. One night, he rented three mannequins from a clothing store near his home in Monongahela, Washington County. They lacked the suppleness of humans.

"Then it occurred to me -- what if the revisionists say I just made this up?"

So he built a 21-inch by 21-inch box the same height (74 inches) as the chamber in Belzec. He invited some friends over and crammed them in and took photos.

"I told them to wear some very thin clothes. We put the kids in pajamas," he explained, showing a photo reminiscent of the old college prank of jamming umpteen students into a telephone booth.

Having proved Gerstein's statement on chamber capacity, Provan set out to prove a trickier problem. Gerstein and other Holocaust witnesses said the camps in Eastern Europe used diesel exhaust to gas prisoners. While Zyklon-B, the cyanide gas, was much publicized in Holocaust accounts, the largest body counts -- in places such as Treblinka -- were attributed to diesel exhaust, and diesel engines are usually touted for their lack of toxic fumes.

Provan dug out diesel toxicity studies from the U.S. Department of Mines. He hired an instructor from the Pittsburgh Diesel Institute, took him to a neighborhood garage and asked to borrow their emissions testing equipment.

He was surprised to find that, once the timing is changed in a diesel, it burns both dirty and poisonously.

"Within a short while we had enough poison gas coming out to kill anybody in 15 minutes," Provan said.

After no small amount of debate, and a large amount of writing, the front page of the Christian News of Monday, Sept. 9, 1991, carried a headline from outer space:

"Provan Concludes: Nazis Gassed Millions of Jews."

Otten, the Holocaust-denying minister, didn't mind one bit.

"My attitude was to publish everything," he said. "If it doesn't hold up, the truth will shout him down."

Provan's problem was getting someone to shout back. He issued a public challenge for debate. His primary target was Friedrich "Fritz" Berg, a New Jersey engineer who has spent years arguing that the Holocaust was a hoax, that diesels cannot easily kill anyone, and even, as he suggested in one New York radio debate, that such Jews as were rounded up into camps had it coming.

In Holocaust revisionism debate, details often get lost amid personal rancor and arguments take on the atmospherics of a domestic dispute among a family of professional wrestlers. Disputants offer to "crush" each other, and quarrels often center on who last conceded some obscure point.

In the case of Provan vs. Berg, the debate has been over whether each has agreed to debate the other.

"I accepted his challenge. He's lied about that," Berg said. "This guy is, as far as I'm concerned, a total wacko. Nobody died in gas chambers."

By the early 1990s, Holocaust denial was becoming the focus of major attention. Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of Jewish studies at Emory University, wrote a book on the subject. Among her targets was David Irving, a right-wing British historian whose early work had gained critical acclaim. Increasingly, though, Irving was flirting with Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis and her criticism rankled him enough to file a lawsuit.

Irving's major thesis had become that there were no gassings at Auschwitz, and he based it on a chemical study done by a Massachusetts man named Fred Leuchter, an inventor of machines used to execute American prisoners by lethal injection. Holocaust deniers insisted that the "gas chambers" at Auschwitz were, in fact, underground morgues for storing bodies, and that eyewitness accounts of gas pellets being dropped in through holes in the roof were untrue because there were no holes.

Robert Faurisson, an early revisionist who lost his teaching job in France for denying the Holocaust, created the slogan: "No holes, no holocaust!"

Provan, who had become a regular correspondent with Irving, got curious.

He'd done his own gas chamber experiments at home. He scraped up money and took two of his sons to see a real gas chamber. They reached the ruins of Auschwitz-Birkenau on March 23 last year.

Fleeing SS troops had blown up the buildings used for chambers, but Provan rummaged about on the imploded roof and sent his son, Matthias, into the ruins.

"I was standing on top, asking what was going on," Provan said.

"The whole place is a wreck down here," Matthias answered. Provan had taken details from a written account of where the holes were. He suspected they hadn't been found because the roof had shifted drastically when the Nazis blew the place apart.

Provan and another son, Nathanael, took a metric measuring tape to mark the spots where the central roof beam had been. They marked out the spots where support pillars stood. Witnesses said four holes had been punched in next to the support beams.

One. Two. Then a third. Provan and his sons started finding holes. They had been blown wider by the implosion. But they were there.

This time, he didn't cry.

"It was odd. At Auschwitz, it was almost like business," he said. "It showed I was right to put my trust in the witnesses."

Does that make sense?

"You even suffer for him. He is pathetic," says a man with a deep, rolling French accent. The man is talking about Provan. "He's trying to do his best. He's a failure, but a man who is trying to do his best."

The voice belongs to Faurisson, an elder statesman of Holocaust denial. A French academic trained in literature, Faurisson grew up in occupied France during the war. After visiting a Jewish research library where librarians could not provide him a schematic of a gas chamber, he decided the Holocaust was a hoax.

Faurisson was a disciple of Paul Rassinier, the founder of Holocaust revisionism. Rassinier, though, argued simply that he could not find proof of a deliberate, genocidal plan by the Nazis. By the end of his life, Rassinier had concluded that at least some gas chambers did, in fact, exist. Strangely, Rassinier, a socialist, spent time in Buchenwald for hiding Jewish refugees.

But the movement he helped to create found fertile soil in the far right. Some were anti-Semites and Nazi apologists. A few were people such as Ernst Zundel, who started out as an indignant German expatriate who wanted to exonerate his people and ended up a bitter man, prosecuted in Canada for hate speech and now fixated on the idea that Zionists rule the world.

"I think they get the feeling they've got the Jews on the run and this is a nice stick to beat them with -- that this was a fraud for money. I stand back dispassionately and watch this with the utmost amusement," says David Irving, the historian whose libel suit against Lipstadt became a trial on the authenticity of the Holocaust. For three months in a London courtroom, Irving tried to disprove the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz. His argument hinged on whether there were holes in the roof. It was straight out of Faurisson's contention of, "No holes? No holocaust!"

It turned into a disaster for Irving, once viewed as a promising, if quirky, historian of World War II. At one moment, Irving, apparently forgetting himself, addressed the court judge as "mein Fuhrer."

The judge's decision officially declared Irving to be an anti-Semite and Third Reich apologist. Irving was saddled with $6 million in legal bills -- in Britain the losing side pays everyone's costs -- and his reputation among other historians was left in shards.

But possibly the strangest turn in the bizarre spectacle was that Provan, a declared Holocaust believer -- in fact, a man who claims to have found the very holes Irving said were not there -- was providing advice and cash contributions for Irving's side.

"He's probably like a lot of us," said Irving. "He's baffled and mystified by the legend. I don't think he's anything but sincere."

Irving's diaries show Provan sending off a list of lawyers when Irving was ousted from a military show at the Monroeville ExpoMart. Provan also sent occasional checks and wished Irving luck in litigation the historian brought when he was refused entry to Australia and Canada.

"He joined in various operations that I conducted personally," Irving said. Perhaps most surprisingly, Provan provided money and advice for Irving's lawsuit against Lipstadt.

"Looking back on it, I don't think I should have sent him money for the Lipstadt case. I don't understand what he was doing. The other donations, though, were pretty much justified," Provan said. "I wanted to keep open the lines of communication. I was basically so pleased to have access to his information files, that I considered the money to be well worth it."

In short, he was pumping Irving for information to disprove Irving's own thesis.

"Does that make sense?" Provan asked.

A traitor to the cause

When the Institute for Historical Review held its annual conference at a California hotel May 27, guests got their directions in the usual fashion. Arriving at an airport, they would telephone the organizers who -- fearful word would leak to the Jewish Defense League -- would only then direct them to the hotel.

Provan was a familiar face to members. He was invited to speak, but only to debunk an eyewitness account of a Nazi doctor whose book detailing Holocaust terrors, Provan discovered, had been published as a novel, not a history.

His expose fit nicely with the deniers' idea that Holocaust witnesses are not credible. For several years, Provan had been kept around revisionist circles as a self-proclaimed curiosity -- a revisionist who believes in the Holocaust.

"I continue to believe that he's the type of catalyst that revisionism needs. He keeps us on our toes," said Michael A. Hoffman II, an Idaho-based Holocaust denier.

Other observers thought the IHR found the presence of Provan convenient cover to show that, unlike Holocaust believers -- "exterminationists" they call them -- revisionists, which they call themselves, are open to criticism from within.

Irving was there to speak about his David and Goliath battle against Lipstadt and, by Irving's reckoning, the ominous force of world Jewry.

With the stage set, Provan arrived and, in the words of Hoffman, "may have crossed the line." Before leaving his shop in Monongahela, he had printed a 40-page booklet that turned Faurisson's slogan on its head: "No holes?" the title asked. "No Holocaust?" it asked again.

Provan laid out his argument, displayed photos, explained how the explosion had widened the holes enough to hide them in plain sight, and included 14 color photos to back up his findings.

"The 'No Holes, No Holocaust' argument is no longer possible to make," his study concluded. "Since the revisionists are now deprived of their absolutist argument, and since the other forms of evidence cannot prove the case one way or another, we are again able to view the statements of the various eyewitnesses as possible, and therefore the dominant evidence in the case."

Holocaust deniers are still fulminating.

"Chuck Provan, to me, is almost irrelevant to this thing," said IHR director Weber. "Charles Provan is not by training or background much of a specialist in this thing."

Faurisson looked over the monograph and lectured Provan about his failure to check for places where the steel reinforcement bars would have had to have been cut if holes were put into the roof.

"I think he admitted, I'm sure he admitted, that he had to go back to Auschwitz, to Birkenau because he had not in fact found those famous holes," Faurisson said.

Irving, obviously stung by his old pal, was even more dismissive.

"I said, 'Charles, if you were going to do something like this it would have been a good thing if you'd talked to your friends before doing it," Irving said. "In a way, that was designed to create maximum embarrassment to the revisionist cause."

Ernst Zundel's newsletter lashed out at Provan, especially after John Sack, a Jewish-born author, who also had been invited to speak before the IHR, featured Provan in an article in Esquire magazine. Suddenly, Provan, the harmlessly charming eccentric from an obscure town in Rust Belt Pennsylvania, was blowing holes in a theory on which Holocaust deniers had appended their hopes.

"Show us the smoking gun, John Sack," wrote Zundel's associate, Ingrid Rimland, who seemed to drop all pretense about tolerance in a rant that first let loose on Provan's appearance, then moved on to Sack's religion.

"And don't haul forth a fringy hillbilly who happens to have bought into your people's smoke-and-mirror plays -- and make him front page news. You were privy to the fact that there were many at that conference who felt that Provan should never have spoken. But do you know the difference between us Gentiles and you Jews? We cut some folks some slack. You don't."

Provan doubts he'll be invited again."It makes me wonder if part of them could put up with me, something like a moth. Before then, I was just a moth flitting it out. Till then, I was viewed as relatively harmless," Provan said. "But when I came up with the thing on the holes, I contradicted Robert Faurisson, the great father of the holes theory."

Irving, licking his wounds in London, says he wants to remain friends with Provan.

"I'm willing to allow people to have opposing views," he said. In fact, Irving, who has been forced to self-publish his books, is hoping to publish Provan.

No -- not the holes-at-Auschwitz expose. That, after all, did not happen in the history David Irving writes. Provan once did a presentation on American soldiers running amok at Dachau and slaughtering German guards. Now there, Irving will tell you, is a war crime worth writing about.

"I do hope to publish his book," Irving said.

Provan, the obscure printer whose friends are going to be strangers, isn't sure Irving means it. The moth has eaten enough holes in the cloak that the emperor of denial is feeling an uncomfortable breeze.

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