Dering v Uris

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Dering v Uris and Others was a 1964 English libel suit brought by Polish-born Dr Wladislaw Dering against the American writer Leon Uris. It was described as the first war crimes trial held in Britain at the time.

Dering alleged that Uris had libelled him in a footnote in his novel Exodus, which described his participation in medical experiments in Auschwitz concentration camp during the Holocaust. The case was tried in the High Court of Justice before Mr Justice Lawton and a jury between April and May 1964. On 6 May, the jury returned a verdict for Dering, but awarded him contemptuous damages of one halfpenny, the smallest coin in the currency. As a result, Dering became liable for the defendants' legal costs.

The trial attracted wide media coverage. In particular, The Times provided extensive coverage of the case, printing large portions of the testimony presented in court. The novel QB VII and its 1974 miniseries adaptation are loosely based on this case.[1]

Background[edit]

Dr Wladislaw Alexander Dering was a Polish doctor who was imprisoned at Auschwitz during the Second World War for resistance activities. After the war, he reached Britain, but was detained by the British government as an alleged war criminal, while the Polish government sought his extradition. In 1948, he was released, the Home Secretary having decided that there was insufficient evidence to support a prima facie case against him.[2] Dering thereupon joined the Colonial Medical Service, running a hospital in Hargeisa, British Somaliland. For his services, he was appointed an OBE in 1960. The same year, he returned to England and established a medical practice in North London.

After his return, his family drew his attention to a passage in the novel Exodus by American author Leon Uris. The passage, on page 155, read:

Here in Block X Dr. Wirths used women as guinea pigs and Dr. Schumann sterilized by castration and X-ray and Clauberg removed ovaries and Dr. Dehring performed 17,000 'experiments' in surgery without anaesthetics.

Dering issue writs for libel against Uris, his British publishers William Kimber & Co Ltd, and the printers. The printers settled the case before the trial for £500 and an apology. Uris and William Kimber admitted the words at issue were defamatory against Dr Dering, but pleaded that the words were true in substance and in fact, save for some particularized exceptions.

The trial[edit]

The trial opened in the High Court of Justice in London on 13 April 1964 before Mr Justice Lawton and a jury. Colin Duncan QC (with Brian Neill) appeared for Dering, while Lord Gardiner (with David Hirst and Louis Blom-Cooper) represented the defendants.

In court, Dering denied having carried out experimental operations. He claimed he removed prisoners' sexual organs because Schumann had asked Dering to assist him by removing the organs. He did not feel he could refuse, because he thought it was better for him to perform the operations than if they were performed by an untrained person. Furthermore, he claimed the organs he removed were already damaged, and that he removed them for the benefit of the prisoners' health. He also claimed he feared for his life if he did not comply with Schumann's request. Finally, he denied having operation without anaesthetics, and claimed that of the 17,000 operations he performed at Auschwith, only about 130 were not ordinary proper operations.

The defence admitted that the figure of 17,000 'experiments' was inflated, and that some anaesthetics was administered. However, they disputed Dering's claim that his life would have been in danger if he had not carried out the operations. They also disputed Dering's claim that the anaesthesia was effective. The defence presented a number of witnesses who had been operated upon by Dering, as well as prisoners-doctors who had worked with Dering. The doctors testifoed that they had refused the Nazi doctors' requests to assist them in their experiments, and had not been punished as a consequence.

One of the trial's most dramatic moments occurred during the testimony of Dr Adélaïde Hautval, an imprisoned French psychiatrist who worked in the camp's hospital. She testified that she refused to assist the Nazi doctors in the experiments:

Gardiner: As a result were you shot?

Hautval: No

Gardiner: Were you punished in any way?

Hautval: No.

She then testified that she told Dr Wirths that performing the operations was against her conception of medicine.

Hautval: He asked me, "Cannot you see that these people are different from you?" and I answered him that there were several people different from me, beginning from him.

Gardiner: I shall not ask you again whether you were shot. Did Dr Wirths say anything further?

Hautval: He never said anything.

The jury awarded Dering a halfpenny in damages, the smallest coin of the realm. Since publisher and author had paid a marginally larger token sum of £2 into court, Dering was liable for all the legal costs amounting to £25,000 from that point, due to court rules.[3] Dering died, however, leaving Kimber saddled with the heavy legal costs.

At a news conference held at the Howard Hotel by Uris and publisher Kimber, Uris is reported to have made a comment that future editions of Exodus would omit Dr Dering's name.[4] Uris and the publishers, William Kimber and Company, admitted that a paragraph in the book, referring to Auschwitz medical experiments, was defamatory to Dr Dering, but they also contended that it was true in substance, subject to certain qualifications.[5]

The trial received extensive coverage. Breaking with tradition whereby it only reported judgments, The Times Law Report sent two reporters to report on the trial. The Times' reports were later published in book form (Auschwitz in England, 1965). It was said that the newspaper's circulation rose for the first time since the end of the Second World War as a result of its coverage.

Uris had copied his data from Underground by Joseph Tennenbaum when he referred to doctors working in Auschwitz.[6] The complex issue of Dr Dering's role—whether villain or hero—continued to be a subject of debate through 2010.[7]

References[edit]

  1. ^ John Sutherland, Bestsellers: Popular Fiction of the 1970s (Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1981)
  2. ^ "DR. WLADISLAW DERING HC Deb 23 September 1948 vol 456 cc1070-3". Hansard. 23 September 1948. Retrieved 2013-11-12.
  3. ^ "A H'penny & the Truth Dr.Dering's Trial in London by Jack Winocour In Points of Compass Encounter, August 1964, pp. 71-88". Sunday Times. 13 September 2008. Retrieved 2013-11-12.
  4. ^ "A H'penny & the Truth Dr.Dering's Trial in London by Jack Winocour In Points of Compass Encounter, August 1964, pp. 71-88". Sunday Times. 13 September 2008. Retrieved 2013-11-12.
  5. ^ "London Court Told Poles Saved Some Auschwitz Inmates from Death". Sunday Times. April 15, 1964. Retrieved 2013-11-12.
  6. ^ "A H'penny & the Truth Dr.Dering's Trial in London by Jack Winocour In Points of Compass Encounter, August 1964, pp. 71-88". Sunday Times. 13 September 2008. Retrieved 2013-11-12.
  7. ^ "Was doctor Wladislaw Dering a hero or was he a criminal? Newsweek Polska in Filip Gańczak, Władysław Dering, doktor z Auschwitz, "Newsweek Polska" , 23 sierpnia 2010". Sunday Times. 23 September 2010. Retrieved 2013-11-12.