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Fact or Fiction?

Josie loved the book “Angel Girl,” by Laurie Friedman. She was a fan of Friedman’s Mallory books, chapter books about the travails of a modern-day third grader: friendships, pets, moving, having her mom begin teaching music at the school she attends (mortifying!). But “Angel Girl” was very different — a non-fiction picture book filled with gorgeous, lyrical, tilted-perspective paintings, about a Holocaust survivor and the “angel girl” who saved him by tossing him apples over the work camp fence.

And now we know that the survivor in question, Herman Rosenblat, invented his story. “Angel Girl” has been withdrawn from the market and its publisher, Lerner Books, has offered a refund to anyone who bought it; Rosenblat’s own memoir has been canceled.

But Josie wasn’t disappointed or upset. When I sat her down to tell her that “Angel Girl” was made up, she said, “It doesn’t matter. It still feels true.” She explained that learning that the apple and the couple’s reunion were lies didn’t affect her love of the story. “I know Harry Potter isn’t real, and there are no flying brooms or magic maps or Voldemort, but the way the writer wrote it, it feels real. And ‘Angel Girl’ feels real.” The notion that people can take risks and help each other in the face of danger and injustice, that love can triumph over evil and that serendipity or destiny have a role in human lives… for her, it was dayenu.

My daughter’s not entirely innocent of darker human motives. “Why would Herman make up this story?” I asked her. “To make money,” she answered instantly. But again, she didn’t care. The story had a life apart from its fallen hero. She loved the art. She loved the way Friedman wrote. That was enough.

Of course, it shouldn’t be. As Adam Lerner, president of Lerner Publishing Group, said in a statement: “While this tragic event in world history needs to be taught to children, it is imperative that it is done so in a factual way that doesn’t sacrifice veracity for emotional impact.” Exactly. I don’t want Josie equating the Holocaust with Harry Potter. And she needn’t. At 7, she can distinguish between the fictional characters in Lois Lowry’s “Number the Stars” and the historical truth behind the book: the way the Danes protected their country’s Jews by smuggling them to freedom in Sweden, the role of the Resistance during the war, the heroism of Danish fishermen and Swedish scientists. A note at the end of the novel clearly spells out what is real and what is fictional. It’s certainly possible to teach children history, its broad and terrible truths illuminated by flickers of human nobility and hope. Josie reads non-fiction too, and has learned that all kinds of narratives, “real” and not, can contain emotional truths. But we parents do have to make sure kids understand what veracity means in the real world.

And it’s not as though flags weren’t raised years ago. Rosenblat first told his story over a decade ago to win a newspaper contest and it’s been floating around the Internet for years. (I got it in e-mail five times.) Dozens of people have pointed out that the fence at the Buchenwald sub-camp where Herman was imprisoned was next to the SS barracks and approaching it was punishable by death; Herman and Roma couldn’t have met on opposite sides of it every day at the same time. But hey, we want to believe. Anything with the gloss of “this really happened!” gives a frisson. Memoir is more titillating than fiction. People will always invent stories and say they’re true, risking exposure, for a variety of motives we can never really know. Greed, a need for attention, the belief that the way it should have been is actually the way it was. And the public will always hunger for sensational “true” tales. Folklorists call them FOAFs — “friend of a friend” stories. This really happened! To my cousin’s sister-in-law’s hairdresser! Attaching a human, no matter how shadowy and distant, to an unbelievable narrative gives it believability.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of this sordid story is that Herman wasn’t a guy who spent three hours in jail when he said he’d spent three months there; he wasn’t a suburban rich girl claiming to be an inner-city gangbanger. He really did survive the camps. His life was already a miracle. It’s a shame that wasn’t enough, for him or for the publishers and Oprah bookers. There had to be an angel girl.

It’s also galling that everyone jumped on the Rosenblat bandwagon when there are so many powerful Holocaust narratives that deserve wider audiences. A number of comic book creators, including Stan Lee, have been trying to sell a story about Dina Gottliebova Babbitt, a young artist who painted a mural of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves on the wall of the children’s barracks at Auschwitz. Josef Mengele then had her paint portraits of gypsies for his records; because of this work, she and her mother survived. After the war, she met and fell in love with one of the animators of the original Snow White film. Today, at 85, she seeks the return of her works from the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum, but the museum refuses. Comic book creators, who know well the pain of having their creations taken from them, have taken up her cause, thus far to no effect. Wouldn’t Babbitt’s story make an incredible children’s book or graphic novel? Or could I interest you in the tale of Irena Sendler, the Polish Catholic woman who saved thousands of Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto, whose story became more widely known after four high school girls in rural Kansas wrote a play about her, in 1999? The play has been performed hundreds of times in schools around the world, and the girls got to meet Sendler in Poland several times. She died in 2008. Is this multi-generational saga not worthy of a children’s book or an HBO movie?

But maybe that’s the biggest problem of the media machine: the notion that memoirs have to be larger than life. The best personal history I’ve ever read is Mark Salzman’s “Lost in Place” (Vintage, 1996). It’s about a nebbishy short kid in the suburbs obsessed with kung-fu. There’s no gang violence, no stints in rehab. There is, well, bike-riding. And pot-smoking. (Hey, it’s Connecticut in the ’70s.) And yet it’s about big themes: yearning for meaning, finding your way in the world, creating a sense of self. It’s lyrical, funny, sweet, humane and moving. Why can’t that be enough?

I admit this entire subject gives me agita, as I’m currently wrestling with these issues while co-writing a memoir, the story of a fashion model who overcame anorexia and exercise bulimia. How can I make sure I’m telling the truth while telling a good story and making larger points about all our lives? As Joni Rodgers, the New York Times bestselling memoirist and ghostwriting guru said on her blog, Boxing the Octopus: “The purpose of memoir is not only to suss out emotional truth and meaning in the actual events, but also to recognize the angel and the liar in each of us. There is a way to tell what really happened and still give voice to what might have been, to what we prayed for or dreamed of.”

We have to resist the temptation to sugarcoat history by throwing apples and angels at it. Of course we shouldn’t overwhelm kids with more detail or darkness than they’re capable of understanding at a given age, but we also shouldn’t make the teaching of history part of the feel-good movement.

*Write to Marjorie at [email protected]. *

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