Mr. Death - A Bribe Blinds Even the Wise
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Mr. Death - A Bribe Blinds Even the Wise

Mr. Death - A Bribe Blinds Even the Wise

One man's self-delusion shows up the human weakness to see what one wants to see.

by Avraham Mensch

Fred Leuchter "knows" there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz.

How does he know?

The documentary "Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.", tells the story of how -- and why -- he came to this conclusion.

Fred, an electric chair repairman residing in Malden, Massachusetts, traveled to Poland and chiseled samples from the walls and floors of the Auschwitz buildings to be tested for traces of cyanide. When the lab reported that it had discovered no cyanide in the samples, Fred concluded that no gas executions occurred at Auschwitz.

Convinced? Well, you probably have a few questions:

           
  • Does cyanide penetrate into brick, plaster and rock? If so, how far?        
  • Could cyanide be expected to be found in rock 45 years later?        
  • Did the rock obtained by Fred come from the buildings in which gassings took place or from the many other buildings on the site?        
  • Is there any evidence that perhaps gas chambers were dismantled or their bricks moved?

In "Mr. Death" we learn that the gas chambers indeed had been dismantled and dynamited by the Germans before being liberated by the Allies. It appears that locals also used crematoria bricks over the years to construct nearby farmhouses. The remaining structures were then exposed to the elements for 43 years before Fred came along.

When he brought his samples back, the lab crushed them rendering the test useless.

The chemist who analyzed Fred's rock samples explains that due to cyanide's molecular nature, it would have bonded with the iron in the bricks only on the surface, ten microns deep, one-tenth the thickness of a human hair. But Fred had chiseled several inches into Auschwitz's walls and floors.

Then when he brought his samples back, the lab crushed them and diluted them with water as part of the process of testing for cyanide, rendering the test useless. The chemist summarizes: "I don't think the Leuchter results have any meaning."

WHY FRED ABANDONED REASON

You may have not needed all that to be skeptical of Fred's conclusion that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz. Should the lack of cyanide in the rock samples lead a reasonable person to conclude that thousands of survivor accounts, volumes of Nazi correspondence, and countless other evidence of the gassings were fabricated?

So what's with Fred? He claims he's not an anti-Semite, nor is he stupid.

Fred decided there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz because his decision made him the darling of the neo-Nazis.

As "Mr. Death" demonstrates, Fred decided there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz because publishing his findings -- commissioned by Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel as part of Zundel's defense in his 1988 trial in Toronto for inciting hatred -- made Fred the darling of the European neo-Nazi lecture circuit. As Stephen Holden wrote in his review of the movie for "The New York Times":

...Although "Mr. Death" offers counter-arguments to Leuchter's research, the movie finally is not about who is right or wrong. Any sensible person (including the filmmaker) accepts the reality of the Holocaust. The movie is really a study of hubris, the myth of objectivity and the fatal attraction of needy people to attention and flattery even if it comes from the wrong quarters....

Let's not call it the "the myth of objectivity," but the difficulty of objectivity.

The talented filmmaker, Errol Morris, manages to take a rather bizarre example -- a lonely, empty person whose desire for recognition has led him to adopt a conviction that most people know is wrong -- and raises a disturbing issue that affects us all: how do we really know what we think we know?

IMPAIRED JUDGMENT

The Torah prohibits a judge from accepting a bribe (Exodus 23:8), even if he accepts the payment with the sincere, stated intention of declaring the innocent party innocent and the guilty party guilty. This is because "a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and distorts the words of the righteous" (Deuteronomy 16:19). As the Maharal of Prague explains, the phrase "blinds the eyes of the wise" means that the correct argument will not occur to him. And the phrase "distorts the words of the righteous" means that even if his attention is drawn to the correct view, he will distort it.

The Talmud (Ketubot 105b) relates the following story: Rabbi Yishmael, who was a judge, had a tenant-farmer who used to bring him a basket of fruit every Friday. This was Rabbi Yishmael's own fruit from his own orchard. One week the tenant-farmer brought the basket of fruit to Rabbi Yishmael on Thursday, one day earlier than normal. Rabbi Yishmael asked the tenant-farmer the reason for the change and the tenant-farmer replied that he had a court case in town that day and he thought he would drop off the fruit on his way.

Rabbi Yishmael was concerned that he might be influenced by the fruit delivery, so he refused to accept it.

Rabbi Yishmael was concerned that he might be influenced by the slight benefit of having his fruit delivered one day earlier than usual, so he refused to accept it. Although he did not take the fruit, he nevertheless feared that his judgment might have been affected by the fact that the fruit had been offered to him one day earlier, so he disqualified himself from judging the tenant-farmer's case.

During the hearing, Rabbi Yishmael happened to pass by the courtroom and he heard the arguments in progress. He caught himself silently crafting arguments in favor of the tenant-farmer. Upon introspection, Rabbi Yishmael realized that his legal arguments were colored by the basket of fruit. He exclaimed, "Damn the souls of those who take bribes! If I, who did not take anything -- and even if I had taken, it would have been my own that I took -- was influenced, how much more influenced are those who do take bribes!"

DAY TO DAY PRECONCEPTIONS

We are all in the position of judges, continually placed in the position of having to decide the correctness of our behavior and the truth of our views. We are also continually being offered "bribes."

Most of us are lazy when it comes to re-thinking an issue from scratch. It's much easier to stick to our original preconceived notions even when faced with contrary evidence.

We prefer to hold on to the smug and comfortable feeling that we are right at the expense of recognizing error.

Most of us find it difficult to admit we're wrong. We prefer to hold on to the smug and comfortable feeling that we are right at the expense of being open to recognizing error and the fear of having to change our position.

Ingrained prejudices and subtle fears color everything. So how can we be objective and arrive at correct decisions?

The Torah teaches us that the first step is to realize that there is a battle continually going on within us: to face reality or run from it. To be open to the rigors of being an honest intellectual or buried in the comfort of prejudices.

The second step is to realize that we have "known" things that were completely wrong because we accepted a bribe.Whether it was prolonging an argument because we had to win, or because we didn't want to admit fault, or because we caved into social pressure to do things we knew we shouldn't have.

The third step is to realize that we have an inner "truth" register.

The third step is to realize that we have an inner "truth" register. We know what's right and wrong. We analyze arguments and make decisions about right and wrong, true and false, constantly.

You're doing it right now, considering and deciding whether the ideas you're reading make sense. Moreover, if you want to, you can perceive the truth even after you've accepted a bribe to "know" the opposite.

"Mr. Death" is a disturbing film. Although Fred Leuchter may be a creepy, pathetic figure, his bizarre story is difficult to dismiss. It carries profound lessons for all of us as we face our own struggles and tests in living up to the truth.

Published: January 17, 2000


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