Nearly every case of literary fraud I’ve covered on this blog (Anthony Godby Johnson, James Frey, Misha Defonseca, etc.) has one thing in common with every other case: Oprah Winfrey. I don’t have anything against Oprah, but I gotta say that woman is gullible. With a capital G. After being burned so many times, you’d think she might consider using just a tiny fraction of her riches to hire a part-time fact-checker who can screen the memoirs and other “true stories” she promotes on the air. If she doesn’t do that soon, I’ll have to assume that she doesn’t mind subjecting millions of her viewers to hoaxes and cons, like the one perpetrated for over a decade by the Rosenblats.
11-year-old Herman had been ripped from his family in Poland and imprisoned at Schlieben, a sub-camp of Buchenwald, in 1942. He lost his mother. Roma’s family, who lived on a farm near Schlieben, avoided capture by pretending to be Christians.
Young Herman was forced to carry bodies from the gas chamber to the crematorium at Schlieben. One day in 1945, he noticed a girl about 9 years old hiding beneath a tree on the other side of the barbed-wire fence. He called out to her, asking if she had anything to eat. Fortunately for him, Rosa had brought an apple and a bit of bread. She offered the forbidden food to the boy, and for the next six months she was able to carry small bits of food to him every day, helping him retain his strength. The situation is remarkably similar to that in John Boyne’s 2006 novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and the recent movie of the same name. In fact, when I went to Synecdoche, New York about a week ago, I glanced at the poster for the film and thought, “That’s a haunting image, but no way could these two boys meet at the fence like that. Someone would notice.”
When Herman was transferred to another camp, then rescued by the Russians, he didn’t think of the girl again. He emigrated to New York in 1951, joined the Army, and took night classes to become an electrician. One night in 1957, he reluctantly went on a blind date with a Polish girl named Roma Radzicki. As they discussed their wartime experiences, Roma mentioned she had given bread and apples to a boy at Schlieben every day.
Herman proposed immediately. He recalled that just before he first saw Roma at Schlieben, his mother had come to him in a dream to tell him she was sending an angel.
The Rosenblats’ beautiful story has been touching hearts for years. Oprah, among many others, embraced it. She twice invited the Rosenblats on her show (in ’96 and last year), calling theirs “the single greatest love story…we’ve ever told on the air.”
It was included in Chicken Soup for the Couple’s Soul.
Laurie Friedman based her children’s book Angel Girl on it.
A feature film, Flower of the Fence, is slated for production by Atlantic Overseas Pictures.
In 2006 a Long Island rabbi who saw the couple on a New York TV show hosted a bar mitzvah for Herman, because he had been in the camp on his 13th birthday.
However, some scholars and survivors were troubled by the story at the core of the book. Professor Kenneth Waltzer, head of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University, encountered Herman and Roma’s account while researching his upcoming book about child prisoners at Buchenwald. Studying maps of the camp, he realized the fence would have been inaccessible to both prisoners and outsiders; one spot where Roma could have thrown the apples and bread to Herman was directly beside SS barracks. He believes Herman couldn’t have gotten anywhere near the fence without being spotted, and doubts he could have smuggled food away from the fence every day without being caught with it.
One of Herman’s fellow survivors, Ben Helfgott, told Professor Waltzer the story isn’t true. He says Herman never mentioned the girl to him.
Professor Waltzer’s approaches to Penguin, he claims, were ignored.
Deborah Lipstadt, Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, doubted the Rosenblats’ story from the first time she encountered it. She worries that embellished Holocaust stories could provide fodder to Holocaust deniers who want to paint all Holocaust memoirs as fake.
On Christmas Day, The New Republic printed an article by Gabriel Sherman, “The Greatest Love Story Ever Sold”, which detailed the concerns of Lipstadt and Waltzer.
The producer of Flower of the Fence, Harris Salomon, is staunchly defending his friend’s memoir, pointing out that its critics have not even read it. However, the man he selected to vouch for the book’s authenticity, Michael Berenbaum, (former director of the United States Holocaust Research Institute at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum) has also not read the memoir. Berenbaum admits he doesn’t know how to verify the fence story.
The matter was publicly resolved yesterday, following Penguin’s announcement that it will not be publishing Angel at the Fence. Through his agent, Andrea Hurst, Herman Rosenblat admitted that the love story was a fabrication. No one threw food to him over the fence at Schlieben. However, he insists his intentions were noble; he wanted to tell an inspiring story of love, hope, and tolerance. He apologized for his deception.
The filming of Flower of the Fencewill go forward as planned.
While the Rosenblat deception is disturbing, Angel at the Fence doesn’t fall entirely into the category of fake Holocaust memoirs. Herman and his brothers were imprisoned in the camps. The only apparent fabrication is the love story. For this reason, I don’t believe Herman Rosenblat should be the latest addition to the Bogus Holocaust Memoirists Hall of Shame. To me, it is sad that anyone would feel an already tragic story like Herman Rosenblat’s needed to be juiced up in order to attract attention. Are we such a jaded society that “plain old” Holocaust stories aren’t worth our time anymore?