Mel Mermelstein, Auschwitz Survivor Who Won Case Against Holocaust Deniers, Dies at 95

"I made a promise to my father in the camp that I would tell what happened if I did survive," Mel Mermelstein — who died of COVID-19 complications — once said of his commitment to sharing his story

Mel Mermelstein
Mel Mermelstein. Photo: Robert Lachman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Mel Mermelstein, who survived Auschwitz and successfully took on a group of Holocaust deniers in court, has died. He was 95.

Mermelstein died from COVID-19 complications at his California home on Friday, his daughter Edie Mermelstein told the New York Times. His death took place one day after International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

In 1944, when Mermelstein was 17 years old, he and his family were moved from their hometown — which was a part of Hungary at the time — to the Nazi German concentration camp, per the newspaper. By the end of the Holocaust, Mermelstein was the only living member of his family.

In January 1945, Mermelstein was among over 3,000 prisoners who were forced to march from Auschwitz to the Gross-Rosen concentration camp, a distance of about 155 miles, per Smithsonian Magazine. Afterwards, he traveled for three days and nights without food or water to the Buchenwald concentration camp. He arrived weighing just 68 pounds and suffering from typhus.

Two months later, Buchenwald was liberated by U.S. forces.

Mermelstein made the decision to move to the U.S. in 1946, eventually making the jump from New York City to Long Beach, California with wife Emma Jane Nance. There, he launched a wooden pallet-manufacturing company, per Smithsonian Magazine.

Starting in 1967, Mermelstein began to speak publicly about the Holocaust to ensure what happened was never forgotten, according to the outlet.

"I grew up with the Holocaust," his daughter Edie told the magazine in 2018. "Dad was never afraid to talk about it. Confronting the Holocaust became his mission."

That year he made his first visit back to Auschwitz and eventually opened a small museum filled with artifacts called the Auschwitz Study Foundation, according to the Washington Post. He also published a memoir in 1979 called By Bread Alone: The Story of A-4685.

Mel Mermelstein
Mel Mermelstein (in the third row, 4th from left), Elie Wiesel (in the second row, 7 from left) and more liberated prisoners of Buchenwald concentration camp on April 16, 1945. DB NARA Harry Miller/picture alliance via Getty Images

Shortly after the publication of his memoir, Mermelstein became outraged over the actions of a group of Holocaust deniers — and decided to take action.

In 1979, the Institute for Historical Review offered a $50,000 reward to anyone who "could prove that the Nazis operated gas-chambers to exterminate Jews during World War II," per the Washington Post.

The group went on to challenge Mermelstein directly to accept their offer, claiming that his family members were still alive and living under false names in Israel, per the newspaper.

"They wouldn't stop harassing my father," Edie previously told Smithsonian Magazine, noting that while he was advised "to leave it alone…there was no way he was going to live with being smeared."

However, when he submitted a notarized account of his experience watching his mother and sisters be taken into a gas chamber, the revisionist institute claimed it did not count as sufficient proof, per the New York Times. So Mermelstein decided to sue them.

"Mel Mermelstein did a gutsy thing way back in the 1980s when he first took on Holocaust deniers," Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt said in an interview with the Washington Post. "Many people thought it was a foolhardy thing to do, but he went ahead and did it anyway, and he won."

Mel Mermelstein
Mel Mermelstein, providing testimony in court. Bettmann Archive

In 1981, a judge made a pretrial determination that "it is simply a fact" that "Jews were gassed to death at Auschwitz," per the New York Times.

Four years later, the institute was required to pay Mermelstein the $50,000 reward as well as issue a letter of apology, according to the newspaper.

"A judge, an American judge, stood up and said, 'Yes, the Holocaust is not subject to dispute,'" Mermelstein previously said to Smithsonian Magazine. "That moment stands out in my mind. Now and forever after, the judicial notice stands."

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The legal case went on to be depicted in the 1991 film Never Forget, in which Leonard Nimoy portraying Mermelstein.

At the time, Mermelstein told the Los Angeles Times that the film's release was a fitting "culmination" of his efforts to not let anything stand in the way of sharing the truth of what happened during the Holocaust.

"I made a promise to my father in the camp that I would tell what happened if I did survive," he told the newspaper, calling it "a promise fulfilled."

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