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.