Monday, December 29, 2008

Debunking a Tale of Love: The Angel Did Not Appear at the Fence

If you had been in Buchenwald concentration camp and survived, you wouldn't think you would have to embellish your life story. But that's what Herman Rosenblat did in his memoir Angel at the Fence. The book was scheduled for publication in February 2009 by Berkley Books, but that publication has now been cancelled. It turns out that Herman Rosenblat made the whole thing up. No word yet on what will happen to the upcoming film FLOWER OF THE FENCE that was being made from the memoir.

For about a decade, Rosenblat has been telling friends about how he met a girl at the fence of the camp one day who tossed him an apple and who then came every day and gave him apples and bread. Somehow he learned she too was Jewish but was hiding in a nearby village, living as a Christian. Later, when he came to America and met Roma Radzicky on a blind date, he said they talked and realized she had been the girl at the fence. The two married.

When I read the story last fall, I clipped it from the paper and put it in a stack of stories I wanted to mention at year's end. So, here in my blog, I repeated it.

When I did, I received an email from a reader alerting me to the reports that had begun circulating that the story may not be true. The New Republic did the most thoughtful job of investigating the tale. The point of looking into it is not to be cruel to Herman Rosenblat: it is to make sure that people who tell Holocaust tales do not invent history and thus, lend credence to those who want to believe the the Big Lie that the Holocaust never happened.

So it has been Jewish scholars who have dug into their research to find that there was no point at which a prisoner on the inside nor a child on the outside could have approached a fence at the Buchenwald sub camp where Rosenblat was imprisoned, to exchange food. It just couldn't be done. And it has been Jewish friends of Rosenblats, who survived with him in the camp, who have gone on record about the story. Ben Helfgott, a camp survivor, said he was with Rosenblat the entire time and never heard the story until recently. He said it could not have happened. "The story is a figment of his imagination."

Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, was one of the many scholars who debunked Herman's story. But she urges people to look on this tale without rancor, since Herman's lie about the girl at the fence does nothing to mitigate the suffering he endured at Buchenwald. As she told the New Republic:

"He invented a love story to go with it. I am not excusing him for doing this--of course this could be a false memory incident--but I am cautioning a note of sadness as opposed to some of the 'gotcha' things that are floating around."

For Herman Rosenblat's entire life, he may have wondered why no one ever did find a way to the prison fence to give him something so small as an apple. Why an entire world stood by and did not lift one hand to rescue his family and six million others like him from Nazi terror. Herman may have begun to believe his made-up tale as a way of redeeming his fellow man. And after what Herman Rosenblat lived through, he has every reason to believe we need a lot of redeeming.

Herman's story is a cautionary tale in many ways. It will continue to be evidence that we all need to be both sceptical and compassionate when we hear the stories people tell us of their lives.

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To Ms. Robin Chapman

It would be a fallacy to say that all the memoirs are hard facts. There remains a room for fiction-isation of the same.

To my mind, every memory is a fiction in a way. Because no one see's one thing with same eyes. The writers write something and readers read another. That's how our brain work; but it's a rule. It's not a wonder

Naval Langa

Bob Liddle said...

I disagree with Mr. Langa. There are things such as absolutes, even in writing.


Robin Chapman said...

I think Mr. Rosenblat's imagination got the best of him, and after what he had lived through, I'm not certain I can blame him.

Glenn said...

So sad that the Rosenblats lied about their story. Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which was a great book and now movie, never pretended to be true. The Rosenblats, like Madoff, harming other Jews and it's terrible.

I read a New York Times article about Stan Lee and Neal Adams the comic book artists supporting another TRUE Holocaust love story. There was a beautiful young artist, Dina Gottliebova Babbitt, who painted Snow White and the Seven Dwarves on the children's barracks at Auschwitz to cheer them up. Dina's art became the reason she and her Mother survived Auschwitz.

Painting the mural for the children caused Dina to be taken in front of Dr. Mengele, the Angel of Death. She thought she was going to be gassed, but bravely she stood up to Mengele and he decided to make her his portrait painter, saving herself and her mother from the gas chamber as long as she was doing painting for him.

Dina's story is true because some of the paintings she did for Mengele in Auschwitz survived the war and are at the Auschwitz Birkenau Museum. Also, the story of her painting the mural of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on the children's barrack has been corroborated by many other Auschwitz prisoners, and of course her love and marriage to the animator of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs the Disney movie after the war in Paris is also a fact.

I wish Oprah would do a story about Dina and her art not about the Rosenblats who were pulling the wool over all our eyes.