Remembering a Master Denier — and a Dear Friend
As the world prepares to formulate its elegies and encomiums for the great Cándido López, it will no doubt damn him with faint praise as its leading Holocaust denier. In so doing, it will miss the intellectual revolution that Lopez was fomenting at the end of his life — the denial not merely of the Holocaust, but of Jews and Judaism in their entirety.
As Cándido (or Candy, as I liked to call him) himself remarked, by focusing all our efforts on denying the Holocaust, we were missing a chance to “fry the greater fish — the Jew himself.”
I spent many a happy afternoon with Candy over cups of freshly brewed Venezuelan coffee (a great patriot, he always insisted that his coffee be as native as he is), weaving gossamer webs of speculation over who could have invented the myth of the Jew. As he liked to remark, “Only the Jew could have been so devious as to invent himself.” It was the sort of paradox that he savored like a peppermint.
A native of Apure, a province that borders with Colombia, Candy first discovered the joys of historical denial at an early age. His first teacher was Don Luis Gardena, a local farmer whom Candy describes as “a passionate amateur rebuffer — amateur in the original and highest meaning of the word, for he always denied from love.” Gardena schooled Candy in the classical techniques of nay-saying: obfuscation, logical sleight-of-hand, snowing through jargon and pseudoscientific analysis, and epistemological philosophizing that laid the groundwork for Candy’s astonishing career. A precocious student, Candy denied, along with Gardena, everything from atrocities against indigenous peoples to ordinary occurrences about town. He caused a local stir at age 12, when he boldly denied a recent rainstorm while the ground was still wet.
By the time Candy made his debut, as it were, in 1941 at the Universidad Central in Caracas, he was a dashing, rakishly handsome young man whose passion for denial enthralled his classmates and impressed his professors. “Too many people think of denial as a passive activity, but true denial is a vibrantly active endeavor,” he later wrote. “One must throb with denial in every fiber of one’s being.”
The Holocaust was in its infancy, and yet the young Cándido boldly began to deny it before many observers even fully understood what was happening. In response to one tepid academic who protested that young Lopez did not even know what he was denying, Candy hotly countered, “What I know, I deny, and what I do not know, I deny even more!”
In 1947, Candy published his first masterpiece, “Let’s Not Get Worked Up About a Few Staged Photos,” which boldly planted the flag for Holocaust denial, arguing that the whole of World War II had resulted in “at most, the deaths of a few hundred Jews — most of them, interestingly, in Japan.” It is a telling sign of the high standard that Candy set for himself that he would later regret this statement — a high watermark for brazenness in the career of most denialists — for its timidity. “After all,” he later told me, “for a Jew to die, he must first exist.”
It was a sign of Candy’s great ambitions that, a year later, when many of his fellow denialists — by their own admission, more acolytes than peers — criticized the formation of the State of Israel as a sop and a fraud to compensate for the falsified horrors of the Shoah, he refused even to acknowledge that such a place existed. “My own study of the geography of the Eastern Mediterranean,” he stated, with not a little slyness, “indicates that the territory in question is actually underwater.”
To recite even the highlights that followed in Candy’s illustrious career — his groundbreaking article “Summer Camps, Not Concentration Camps,” his brilliant dissection of railroad timetables demonstrating that the so-called “cattle cars” were actually devoted to resort travelers — would take far more space than we have here, and these exploits will be recounted at great length elsewhere.
But my connection with Candy was far more personal. To me, he was a master, a white-haired prophet from another era, eschewing political correctness to declaim in the public square those untruths that he thought the world needed to hear. He was generous to a fault in the time he devoted to this wide-eyed, would-be denier, and helped instill the conviction that denial is a way of life, and a sacred path.
And he never lost his ability to astonish. I remember on one stroll through the streets of Caracas with Candy, I gestured to a synagogue we were passing and remarked that within its walls, the course of empires had been charted and the very thoughts of our fellow citizens were formulated. Candy harrumphed and responded: “That’s not a synagogue; there’s no such thing. It’s a combination cafe-Laundromat.”
That remark staggered me, as Candy’s epigrams so often did. Suddenly, the vistas of denial, which had come to seem so cramped and overcrowded, were as vast as imagination itself. My brain began to teem with new possibilities of nonexistence — the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds, the entire corpus of Shmuel HaNagid. With a single, candy-sweet phrase, he had dispatched them all.
Candy, sensing the turn my thoughts had taken, winked at me and said, with a sly smile, “I claim as my prerogative the nonexistence of the Old Testament.”
Such was my respect and love for the master that it was a request I wouldn’t think to deny.
Ilan Stavans is not Jewish and has never visited Venezuela or Israel, and we have no compelling proof that he does, in fact, exist.