The Chosen Ones is a weekly column by author and comedian Periel Aschenbrand, who interviews Jews doing fabulous things.
There are rumors that my grandfather, Yerachmiel Wirnik, who was originally from Poland, was in the Mossad, though my mother gets irate when I say this. Anyway, the official story is that he and Menachem Begin were Jabotinsky’s secretaries. Not like go-get-me-a-coffee secretaries, but his aides. He was also a journalist and author, and the foreign correspondent in Paris for Cherut, Begin’s party, before the establishment of the state. He spoke seven languages and taught himself to speak English by reading The New York Times. He liked to eat herring and raw onions and he drank straight vodka with freshly pepper ground into it. Even though he died when I was 12, I have very clear and warm memories of him. In one, when I was about 3 years old, he let me draw all over his bald head with a red lipstick.
Also, he married my grandmother in order to save her life. The rest of what would have been our family was burned in the ovens by the Nazis. All this to say that while I don’t really like to go see movies in movie theatres, I accepted the invitation to see Rachel Weisz’s new film, Denial:Holocaust History on Trial, because I do have a soft spot for my own history.
The film is based on the book, History on Trial, My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, by Professor Deborah Lipstadt, in which Lipstadt faces off in a British court (and, equally as important, in the court of Jewish public opinion) with pseudo-historian David Irving, who is actually suing her for libel—for calling him a Holocaust denier.
It goes without saying that David Irving is a piece of shit and Timothy Spall does an epic job of portraying how vile of a human being he is. Weisz masterfully transforms herself into Lipstadt, a Jewish professor originally from Queens. So much so that I was actually shocked to discover, upon meeting her, that Weisz herself is actually British. (And that, my friends, is one of the great things of doing little to no research about people before you meet them—it’s more like real life, complete with surprises and discoveries.)
I caught up with Weisz in a New York City hotel, where she was on a press junket. And while I didn’t have as much time with her as I would have liked, she could not have been more lovely, and I now feel sorry for making her cry. (Full disclosure: Her mother had recently passed.)
Periel Aschenbrand: Can you tell me a little bit about why you wanted to do this film?
Rachel Weisz: There are some things that are not debatable, and in this current climate…
PA: Do you have any history with the Holocaust?
RW: I was suckled on it. Both of my parents are survivors. My mother is from Vienna and my father’s family is from Budapest. Hungary was the last country to deport Jews.
PA: I didn’t know that!
RW: My mother, who recently passed, taught me that you have to stand up to bullies. Even recently, she vividly remembered being 5 years old, when the new anti-Semitic laws were passed in Austria and her friend Little Fritz stopped talking to her.
PA: Oh my God, are you okay?
RW: I’ve never cried in an interview before.
PA: I’m so sorry, I had no idea.
RW: I guess you have that effect on people?
PA: Let’s change the subject. How did you so perfectly mimic a Queens accent?
RW: I watched a lot of her public speaking, I worked with a dialect coach, I listened to a lot of her lectures.
PA: Right, that makes sense. You’re an actress. What’s your favorite drink?
RW: A cup of tea.
PA: That’s so British! How do you eat your eggs?
RW: Soft boiled.
PA: How do you drink your coffee?
RW: Very rarely, but milky.
PA: What’s your favorite Jewish holiday?
RW: Ever since I was kid, it’s always been Simchat Torah because there’s lots of candy.
PA: Did you have a bat mitzvah?
PA: What shampoo do you use?
PA: Gefilte fish or lox?
RW: Oh God, I really don’t like either.
PA: Five things in your bag right now?
RW: A Just William book, a book about Othello because my husband is going to play Iago, a dress I was going to wear, a phone charger, and a Love Me juice (from Juice Press).
PA: Favorite pair of shoes?
RW: A boot with a heel that I can run in.
PA: That’s very Jewish! Who makes the best ones?
RW: Rag & Bone, they have the perfect heel!
Periel Aschenbrand, a comedian at heart, is the author of On My Kneesand The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own.