Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2003 | 10:57 a.m.
It didn't take David Berkovitz long to understand that he was in a Nazi death camp when he arrived at Auschwitz in 1944 at the age of 13.
He said he could smell human flesh burning in nearby crematoriums.
Eventually, Berkovitz was assigned to a construction project, but his entire family, including his parents and two sisters, were sent to their deaths.
The first day 16-year-old Lydia Lebovic arrived at Auschwitz in 1944, her mother and sister were killed in the gas chambers. The Nazis later moved Lebovic to Bergen-Belsen, where she said she regularly saw "mountains of corpses" piling up in the camp as she performed manual labor duties.
At 19 Sasha Semenoff saw murder and death all around him at Sutthof, another concentration camp. Gestapo officers would carry on public executions to intimidate camp members and leave the bodies of unsuccessful escapees hanging on barbed wire fences for hours at a time, he said.
As local Holocaust survivors, these are painful memories that Berkovitz, now 73, Lebovic, 75, and Semenoff, 79, would prefer to forget -- but are reminded of when someone like David Irving comes to town to deny that 6 million Jews perished at the hands of the Nazis during World War II.
All three survivors are among many who have responded with outrage to comments this week by Irving, a British historian who is regarded as the world's most notorious Holocaust revisionist.
"I don't understand how the hate can be so big in a person like this," Berkovitz said. "He actually believes his lies."
Added Semenoff: "How can he deny this? The Nazis themselves admitted it."
Michael Berenbaum, a well-known Holocaust historian and former research director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., said the Nazi atrocities have been documented by millions of witnesses and records.
Irving, he said, has been thoroughly discredited.
"His claims are a fabrication of the highest magnitude," Berenbaum said.
As I reported Tuesday, Irving slipped into Las Vegas to address a small group of followers Monday night at the St. Tropez Hotel, but not before reaffirming in an interview with this writer his flawed contention that the Holocaust never occurred.
The 65-year-old Hitler biographer also let his anti-Semitic beliefs surface during the interview when he suggested that the affluent Jewish community in the United States in 20 or 30 years will face animosity similar to what occurred in Germany before the Nazis took power.
"What comes around, goes around," he said. "Ordinary people don't like what they see. They don't like the networking, and they get envious of the wealth. It's going to happen all over again."
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Los Angeles-based organization dedicated to preserving the memory of the Holocaust, said that statement not only exposes Irving as a racist, but also as a hypocrite.
On the one hand, Cooper said, Irving tries to debunk the Holocaust, but on the other hand he hopes for another one to occur.
"It shows the man is an anti-Semite who goes to sleep at night saying Hitler didn't finish the job the first time around and maybe we will get lucky and someone else will come along to finish the task," Cooper said.
If there is a rise in anti-Semitism in this country, it's because of people like Irving, who spread lies and practice bigotry, said Meyer Bodoff, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Las Vegas.
"That's one of the lessons we learned from the Holocaust," Bodoff said. "We don't remain silent about things like this."
There's no better example of the local vigilance than the federation's extensive Holocaust library, which has more than 15,000 books and 500 films on the subject.
Edythe Katz Yarchever, who oversees the library as the head of the Governor's Council on Holocaust Education, called Holocaust-deniers like Irving an "aberration of civilization."
But you can't fully understand the horror of the Nazi concentration camps until you talk to survivors like David Berkovitz, Lydia Lebovic and Sasha Semenoff and hear them describe the pain they suffered.
Then you imagine the additional pain they feel when Irving says their nightmare never happened.