Lipstadt surprises airplane passengers watching 'Denial'

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Jan. 13, 2017

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Traveling from London to Seattle, Emory historian Deborah Lipstadt (left) was surprised to discover she was part of the in-flight entertainment. She decided to introduce herself to passengers watching "Denial," the film about her battle with a Holocaust denier, leading to a moving conversation with Maddy Flemming and her mother, Mary Pennylegion.

Awaiting takeoff aboard a flight from London to Seattle earlier this month, Emory historian Deborah Lipstadt was surprised to discover that she was part of the in-flight entertainment.

Specifically, her story — as depicted in the 2016 film, “Denial” — was among the movie selections that would be offered during the flight.

Based upon Lipstadt’s experiences with an internationally publicized libel suit filed against her by Holocaust denier David Irving, the critically acclaimed film follows her court battle to challenge Irving’s distortions of the truth.

On the plane, Lipstadt, Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies, suddenly faced another moment of truth: If she noticed someone watching the film, should she identify herself?

For fun, Lipstadt floated the question on social media. Out of the 142 responses that quickly followed, the answer was a resounding, “Yes, of course! Go for it!”

With that encouragement Lipstadt eventually left her seat and wandered down the aisle, curious to see who might be viewing the film.

That’s when she encountered Mary Pennylegion, of Kirkland, Washington, and her 20-year-old daughter, Maddy Flemming, an actress and student at Southern Oregon University who had encouraged her mother to watch the film, which raises issues both women found especially important given the current political climate.

After watching the “lovely, moving story,” Pennylegion says she was stunned to glance up and find a red-haired woman standing next to her.

“Excuse me. Did you like it?” the woman asked her.

Pennylegion — who said the film had left her teary-eyed and emotional —placed her hands on her heart.

That’s when the woman introduced herself: “I am Deborah.”

Both mother and daughter were overwhelmed. Pennylegion recalls feeling so astonished that she couldn’t really speak.

“I loved it,” Lipstadt recalled on her Facebook page. “Even got a bit verklempt (overcome with emotion).”

Grabbing her daughter’s hand, Pennylegion introduced her to Lipstadt as “the person who insisted that I needed to watch your movie,” adding that the historian took the time to visit with them casually for several minutes, even asking to take a photo of the pair.

“She was delightful,” Pennylegion says, describing the meeting as “almost magical.”

Reached later, Pennylegion said the encounter was both a surprise and an utter thrill. “At the outset of the flight, my daughter, who had already seen the movie, told me that I really needed to watch it, not only for the subject matter but for the strong female lead,” she recalls.

Lipstadt was portrayed by Academy Award-winning actress Rachel Weisz. “Denial” was released this month on Blu-ray and DVD.

For Flemming, the film held a special resonance. Last fall, she appeared in a student production of “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui,” a 1941 “parable play” by Bertolt Brecht that mirrored the rise of the Nazi Party in pre-World War II German, heralded as a cautionary tale for election-year America.

After landing, Lipstadt posted an update about her experience on social media, sharing a photograph of her two newest fans and asking, “Anyone know these folks? I would love for them to see the lovely comments my encounter with them engendered.”

Pennylegion herself responded: “This is my daughter and I! We were so delighted to meet you. I thought of so many questions to ask you after this encounter and wish I would have been quicker in the moment.”

The story was eventually picked up in The Algemeiner Journal, a New York-based newspaper covering American and international Jewish and Israel-related news.

“The fact that a movie has been made about my legal battle is overwhelming, especially since I think it is such a good movie,” Lipstadt says. “But watching people watch it on the plane was a sort of out-of-body experience.”

“My encounter with Mary and Maddy, especially the way it played out in ‘real time’ over social media, left me flabbergasted,” she acknowledges. “I’m still smiling about it.”

Since then, Pennylegion and her daughter have enjoyed sharing their experience with friends and colleagues.

“I still can’t believe the whole interaction happened,” she says. “When I posted something about it on my Facebook page, all of my friends started calling, saying kind things. My daughter’s friends, who are all actors, couldn’t believe it.”

As for Lipstadt? On her next flight, she jokes that she’ll be telling people she’s Bridget Jones.