It seems implausible that a high school dropout who failed English three times would become a celebrated writer, but that’s the unlikely but true story of the subject of this article. It’s also implausible that the brief reference to a World War II German concentration camp doctor which was buried in the many pages of this author’s best known novel would lead to a defamation trial in London, and that the story related to the trial would be the inspiration for yet another of that author’s bestsellers, but that happened, too. The amazing accomplishments of this author don’t end there either: The book about the defamation trial became the first miniseries aired on U.S. television.
Leon Marcus Uris was born to Jewish parents in Baltimore, Maryland on August 3, 1924. His mother was from Russia; his father from Poland. Leon, who loved to write, struggled in school, and dropped out in his senior year to join the U.S. Marine Corp shortly after the Japanese attached Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Uris served in the Pacific with the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines for a while, but was hospitalized with dengue fever and malaria. While he was recuperating his battalion suffered heavy casualties in the brutal Battle of Saipan. Uris would later write about his battalion in Battle Cry (1953), and would write the screenplay for the popular 1955 movie based on that book.
Exodus (1958), the most popular novel since Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936), recounts the story of the Jewish immigrants on the ship SS Exodus, and the subsequent founding of Israel. The book was Uris’ most popular work by far, and the 1960 film version of the book was nominated for three Academy Awards. (Ernest Gold won the award for Best Original Score and the Theme from Exodus became one of the most popular instrumentals of all time based on music from movies – principally due to the recording by pianists Ferrante and Teicher.) The cast included Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint, Sal Mineo (nominated for Best Supporting Actor), Ralph Richardson, Peter Lawford, and Lee J. Cobb. Director Otto Preminger, in a courageous act, chose the blacklisted screenwriter and author Dalton Trumbo to pen the script. (Trumbo was blacklisted in 1947 after he refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. But that’s another interesting story for another time.)
Exodus is a work of historical fiction, so many of the incidents, and some of the people in the book were real. Uris wrote briefly about a physician named Wladislaw Dering who practiced medicine in Auschwitz, and that brief reference led to a defamation trial in which Uris was the defendant.
“Here in Block X (the Roman numeral) Dr Wirths used women as guinea pigs and Dr. Schumann sterilized by castration and X-ray and Clauberg removed ovaries and Dr Dehring [Was this an intentional misspelling of the real Doctor’s name?] performed 17,000 ‘experiments’ in surgery without anesthetics.”
Dering sued Uris for libel, and the case was heard in Queens Bench VII (QB VII) at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. During the 23 day trial, which made international headlines, Dering hotly denied Uris’ claims, but testimony and evidence presented by the defense made Dering’s claims of innocence of the crimes he had been accused of in Exodus seem shaky at best. Due to the different nationalities of the many witnesses, the proceedings took place in English, Greek, Polish, Hebrew, German, French, and Ladino. The jury ultimately found Uris guilty of defamation, but awarded Dering only a halfpenny – the smallest coin in the British monetary system – and Dering was ordered to pay all court costs as well as the expenses of both Uris and his publisher.
Uris later used the events associated with the trial to write one of his best known works, QB VII (1970), and in 1974 QB VII became the first miniseries in U.S. television history. The six-and-a-half-hour miniseries began airing on ABC on the night of April 29, 1974. The cast, which included Ben Gazzara, Anthony Hopkins, Leslie Caron, Lee Remick, and numerous other well-known actors, was a critical success that won six primetime Emmy Awards. Gazzara portrayed Abraham Cady (Uris in the actual trial), and Anthony Hopkins, in a magnificent performance, portrayed Dr. Adam Kelno (Dering in the actual trial).
The book goes into great detail about the irradiation and removal of prisoners’ sexual organs and about the claim that Dering did the operations without the use of anesthetics. After reading QB VII I watched the miniseries to see how closely it followed the book. I was stunned to see that it retained much of the lurid detail of the book. Remember, this was at a time when actors who portrayed married couples had to sleep in single beds with a nightstand between them so that audience members weren’t scandalized.
Uris’ wrote many other popular books include Mila 18 (1961), Armageddon: A Novel of Berlin (1963), Topaz (1967), Trinity (1976), and The Haj (1984).
His personal life was something of a mess with three wives (the last a 22 year-old whom he married when he was 45), and lots of unpleasant encounters with people – including his children – due to his abrasive personality and his know-it-all attitude. In fact, one of his children remarked that “He wasn’t much of a father.” As he aged he became more and more reclusive, discarding many of his former friends. Leon Uris died from renal failure on June 21, 2003 at the age of 78.
Most of his novels are still in print. Read one and you’ll probably wonder (as I did) if it could possibly have been written by a high school dropout who struggled with English.