The modest, handmade Holocaust exhibit perched on the edge of Mel Mermelstein's Huntington Beach lumberyard is a far cry from the paneled, curated lobby of the Simon Wiesenthal Center on Los Angeles' Westside.
But each, on its own scale, fulfills a promise on the part of the Jewish people never to forget the European genocide. And both provide settings for a cable-television movie based on Mermelstein's battle to preserve and defend the memory of the Holocaust.
"Never Forget," produced for Ted Turner's TNT by Robert R. Radnitz and Leonard Nimoy, who also stars as Mermelstein, is scheduled to air in April to coincide with annual international Holocaust memorial observations.
"Never Forget" tells how Mermelstein, the sole member of his family to survive Auschwitz, took on a worldwide array of "revisionist" historians, including France's Robert Faurisson, who in the late 1970s began to raise doubts about the extent and even the existence of the Nazi death camps. The clearinghouse for these historians was the Torrance-based Institute for Historical Review, which ultimately offered a $50,000 reward for anyone who could prove the existence of the Holocaust.
In 1980, following a letter Mermelstein wrote to the Jerusalem Post about the institute, "they challenged me," Mermelstein recalled recently, to prove that Jews were gassed at Auschwitz. They wrote him a letter threatening to publicize him if he refused their challenge.
Or, as Nimoy recalls Mermelstein telling him, "They thought the Jew would cave in. At the simplest level, that's what's going on here."
Mermelstein sought assistance from the Wiesenthal Center, the Anti-Defamation League and other organizations, all of which advised him to disregard the challenge, suggesting that it was a setup, a kangaroo court designed to gain publicity for the institute. In the script, even his son says, "Don't you think you're kind of over-reacting about a dumb letter? There's always a couple of nut cases running around shooting their mouths off."
But Mermelstein refused to give up. Finally, with the assistance of an Irish Catholic lawyer who wouldn't take a fee--played by Dabney Coleman--Mermelstein lured the institute into Los Angeles Superior Court and, nine years ago this week, won.
What makes the script unusual is that--unlike some other film and television stories about the Holocaust--this one evokes the European horror, rather than portraying it. "Never Forget" is really the story of Mermelstein's stubborn, persistent efforts to save the middle-class Southern California family he built, while defending the memory of the Czech family he lost.
When the tension surrounding the court case begins to fray the fabric of his family, Mermelstein's distraught son says, "It seems like all you've ever really cared about is your first family, your European family. . . . How are we supposed to compete with them? We're alive and they're dead!"
Nimoy was the original force in bringing the project to the screen. He learned about the case five years ago through a Washington lawyer who was involved in it, then spent time with Mermelstein at his Long Beach home and his business in Orange County.
"Forty-five years after the fact, a lot of young people don't know what the Holocaust was all about," Nimoy said. "The further away from the period we get, the easier it is to forget. . . . The whole idea of never forget means never, never, never. Why should we ever let go of this memory?"
The timing for the picture is right, Nimoy said. "There are a lot of dark clouds around."
Nimoy brought the project to Radnitz, who is best known for producing feature films such as "Sounder" and "Cross Creek." He recognized it as just the kind of tale that has attracted him over the past 30 years.
"It's the story of someone who stands up for what he believes--no matter what anyone says. Mel could see even more clearly than those of us who were brought up here. . . ," Radnitz said. "We've been far too complacent."
Radnitz believes that "you should tell a story in the place where it happened." In this case all the locations were nearby. For example, the complex of sheds and warehouses that make up Mermelstein's business is surrounded by a wire fence and bordered by a railroad spur where boxcars often are parked. The layout, as the script notes, is "is eerily reminiscent of a concentration campground." Merlmelstein's longtime employees worked as extras. (Mermelstein also has a small role in the movie, playing his father.)
Mermelstein's private Holocaust exhibit--a 1,000-square-foot wooden rectangle--is on the edge of his business, tucked away in a small industrial area of Huntington Beach. The structure was so modest that the filmmakers built on a modest porch to make it look less stark. Mermelstein frequently hosts small groups of schoolchildren, which is also portrayed in "Never Forget" with the help of children from Huntington Beach's Ocean View School District.
Watching the children ask Mermelstein and Nimoy real questions about the exhibit before they recited their lines, Radnitz said, "If there was ever any question as to why we're making this picture--there's the answer."