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WHY HOLOCAUST DENIERS TURNED ON ONE OF THEIR OWN
DENNIS B. RODDY, POST-GAZETTE STAFF WRITER
03/04/2001
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
REGION
A-12 (Copyright 2001)

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.

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.


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