The news that Herman Rosenblat’s Holocaust memoir “Angel at the Fence” is a fraud has the press buzzing and the publishing world reeling. The book, which the publisher apparently anticipated would be a best-seller, was pulled right before it was to be shipped to bookstores. No one who has paid close attention to the story, however, has a right to be surprised.
I first heard Rosenblat’s story in June of 2007. I was on a bus headed to Birkenau together with other scholars who study genocide. None of them were Holocaust specialists. One passenger began to read aloud from an e-mail he had received about a boy in Buchenwald who was saved because a young girl threw him an apple over the camp fence every day for seven months. Years later, the two met as adults. He learned that her family had been slave laborers in the nearby town. They were posing as non-Jews. They fell in love, married and recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.
Long before my fellow passenger got to the fairy tale ending, I was skeptical. How could a young girl stand at a concentration camp fence without guards noticing? Would a Jewish family passing as Polish non-Jews permit their daughter to wander around near the camp? Could a prisoner go near the fence without being shot? Was the fence low enough for a small girl to throw an apple over?
When the professor finished, I declared, “Fiction. Bad fiction.” Some of the scholars suspected that years of skirmishes with Holocaust deniers had made me a hardened skeptic. After later coming across numerous renditions of the story — which, it turned out, was all over the Internet — and learning that the Rosenblats had appeared on “Oprah,” that a children’s book on the story was already published and that a memoir and film were forthcoming, I felt I could no longer remain silent. On my blog I stated that this story could not be true. The attacks came in quick succession: How could I question Holocaust survivors? Who was I to defame them?
The most vituperative attack came from Harris Salomon, who was making a film based on Rosenblat’s story. In an e-mail to me, he pronounced my opinion “worthless.” He declared that, since he had traveled throughout Eastern Europe doing research, “i may be more of a more of a [sic] holocaust expert then you.” He closed by accusing me of having committed “the greatest sin to the memory of all those perished so long ago.”
In the interim, Michigan State University historian Ken Waltzer, an expert on Buchenwald, had done the research that reporters, publishers and producers did not do. He spoke with historians who knew the layout of this sub-camp and with people who were interned there with Rosenblat. The story was clearly a lie.
The New Republic’s Gabriel Sherman spoke with additional survivors who further confirmed that this was a hoax. Even Rosenblat’s sister-in-law admitted never having heard the story of the girl with the apples, either at the Rosenblats’ wedding or in the 40 years that followed.
In response to the growing scrutiny, Salomon went ballistic. He complained to one of Waltzer’s deans and intimated that he would hold Waltzer “responsible” if Rosenblat’s health suffered because of the questions being raised about his memoir. The publisher, Penguin’s Berkley Books, stonewalled anyone who contacted them.
When Sherman found yet more survivors who contradicted Rosenblat’s story, the whole thing fell apart. The publisher pulled the book. Rosenblat admitted making up the story. Suddenly, Salomon, the great historian, told the press that he was “extremely angry” about being the victim of a scam (although he has said he still plans to make his film, albeit now as an acknowledged work of fiction).
Sadly, Herman Rosenblat overshadowed his genuine Holocaust story with a completely fabricated one. What really happened to him and his family has been lost in his lies.
There are various lessons to be learned from this: Facts about the Holocaust must be checked. Historians should never build their understanding of events based on one story from one person. But Rosenblat had enablers. His publisher, agent and movie producer pounced on his story. Reporters never bothered to check it out. They all seemingly wanted a story that made the Holocaust heartwarming, even though, as Waltzer aptly put it, the “Holocaust experience is not heartwarming, it is heart rending.”
Salomon believed that this kind of “candy-coated message” would reach “Middle America” and “do more to teach people about the Jewish experience during the Holocaust in a way nothing before has done.” Jewish sources also allowed themselves to be co-opted. Aish HaTorah featured the story on its Web site. A Chabad rabbi, whose relatives died in the Holocaust, was swept off his feet by this phony tale and arranged a belated bar mitzvah for Herman, garnering even more publicity for the Rosenblats and himself.
I have spent much of my academic career studying Holocaust denial. But the much greater danger to our collective memory of the event is posed by Holocaust trivialization and romanticization. What the Rosenblats and their enablers did was create yet another obstacle for the remaining survivors to convince others that their stories are true.
Rosenblat claims that all he wanted to do was make people love each other more. The Chabad rabbi probably thought the story would inspire faith. Salomon wanted to teach Middle America about the Holocaust.
These may be worthy goals. But the Holocaust should not be reduced to a means for trying to fulfill these or any other ends. The instrumentalization of the Holocaust, the use of it to fulfill something else, is the ultimate degradation of the event. If Holocaust deniers were smart, they would sit back and let the Rosenblats, Salomons, Berkley Books and the like peddle their wares. Within a short time, no one would know what was truth and what was fiction.
Deborah E. Lipstadt is the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University. She is the author of “History on Trial: My Day in Court With David Irving” (Ecco, 2005).