Mel Mermelstein dies: Survivor took on Holocaust deniers

At just 17, Mel Mermelstein was unsure of his fate when he was forced to board a train bound for Auschwitz.

In the Nazi death camp, he watched as soldiers led his mother and two sisters to the showers where they were gassed. As the months passed and his body withered to 68 pounds, he learned that his father had died as a forced laborer at a nearby coal mine and his brother had been fatally shot on a death march to another camp.

When the Nazi concentration camps were finally liberated and the gates swung open for the whole world to finally see the atrocities that had unfolded within, Mermelstein promised himself that he would forever be an open public witness to the Holocaust.

His vow came into full play decades later when he took on a right-wing group that claimed the Holocaust was a myth and offered to pay $50,000 to anyone who could prove Jews had been killed in the concentration camps. By the time Mermelstein was done with them, the Torrance-based Institute for Historical Review was forced to pay double the reward, publicly apologize, and stand humiliated when a Los Angeles trial judge — decided — ruled that the Holocaust was “a undeniable fact.”

Never far from his mission to keep the Holocaust from fading from the worldview, Mermelstein died Friday at his Long Beach home of complications from COVID-19, his daughter Edie Mermelstein said. He was 95.

As an author, lecturer, and keeper of memory, Mermelstein made more than 40 trips to Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and other World War II death camps, collecting strands of barbed wire, cyanide canisters, bone fragments, parts of ovens used in cremations, and other somber signs of the death camps. He even returned from a trip with a grainy photo of himself huddled in the barracks with a group of starving men.

Mermelstein eventually built a museum at his Huntington Beach lumber yard, where he displayed the artifacts — nearly 700 in all — and then invited students to tour the facility, which is part of his nonprofit Auschwitz Study Foundation. His daughter said the wartime artifacts are now being curated and will have a permanent home at the Chabad Jewish Center in Newport Beach.

Mel Mermelstein speaking from a chair in 1986.

Mel Mermelstein in 1986.

(David Muronaka / Los Angeles Times)

Born on September 25, 1926, Moric Mermelstein grew up in a Jewish enclave in Mukachevo in what was then Czechoslovakia and later Hungary after Adolf Hitler forcibly annexed the city. In 1944 he and the rest of his family were rounded up and taken by train to Auschwitz in German-occupied Poland, the largest of the Nazi death camps, where more than a million people died, most of them Jews.

As the only survivor of his family, he left Europe after the war and came to New York, where an aunt and an uncle lived. When he married Jane Nance a few years later, the young couple moved to Long Beach in search of warmer weather. He opened a lumberyard in Huntington Beach specializing in the manufacture of wooden pallets.

At first he spoke only sparsely about the Holocaust. But during the Six-Day War in 1967, he said, some of the heated rhetoric of political leaders, particularly in Egypt, reminded him of Hitler’s incendiary speeches. From then on he spoke freely, often and loudly about the Holocaust.

In 1980, Mermelstein became aware of the Institute for Historical Review and its provocative offer to anyone who could prove that Jews were slaughtered in the Holocaust. He responded with outraged letters to the editors of the Los Angeles Times and the Jerusalem Post. In return, the institute began to persecute him.

“They really got in his face, sent him bloody hair in the mail and said his parents were still alive and living under an assumed name,” his daughter said.

Although some friends and other survivors urged him to ignore the group, saying that chasing the reward would only bring undue attention to a ragtag collection of anti-Semites, Mermelstein instead took them to court and offered his 1979 memoir, By Bread Alone” and the writings of Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal and others as evidence.

After five years, with a mountain of evidence now three feet high, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Thomas L. Johnson put a stop to it and ruled that the Holocaust was an undeniable fact.

“A judge, an American judge, stood up and said, ‘Yes, the Holocaust cannot be denied,'” Mermelstein told Smithsonian Magazine in 2018. “I remember that moment particularly well. The court order applies now and forever.”

His legal battle against those who dared change the narrative of the Holocaust was chronicled in the 1991 TV movie Never Forget, starring Leonard Nimoy as Mermelstein.

His greater reward, his daughter said, was the legions of students who listened to his stories, however vivid and stunning, and walked away inspired by his resilience.

“He persevered,” she said.

In addition to his daughter, Mermelstein is survived by his 60-year-old wife, Jane; children Bernie, Ken and David; five grandchildren and one great-grandson. Mel Mermelstein dies: Survivor took on Holocaust deniers

Caroline Bleakley

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