Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Apples Over the Fence [11]: Lipstadt Commentary on CNN.com

For some comments by me on this story see CNN.com's webpage

December 31, 2008

(CNN) -- I don't know whether to be sad or angry -- or both. The recent exposé of the fact that Herman Rosenblat's Holocaust memoir is a hoax was no surprise to me. From the first time I heard the story of his "miraculous" survival during the Nazi era, I doubted that it could be true.

Rosenblat's claim that, as an inmate in a Buchenwald sub-camp, he had survived because a young girl had tossed an apple over the fence each day for seven months just did not seem credible to me.

The notion that a concentration camp inmate could approach the fence without the SS shooting him beggared the imagination. I could not believe that a little girl whose family was supposedly passing as non-Jews would allow their daughter to engage in such an act.

The fairy tale nature of the incident was enhanced by the supposed reunion of the couple on a blind date years later when both had moved to America. The story was that they discovered each other's true identity and, after a whirlwind romance, decided to marry.

Survivors who had been in the camp with Rosenblat and had kept in touch with him since the end of the war protested that the story could not be true. They wondered why Rosenblat had never mentioned the incident until the late 1990s.

A number of other historians shared my doubts, which I posted on my blog. As one of the first to express skepticism about this, I became the target of attacks from those who thought I was demeaning the Rosenblats.

We doubters could not, however, initially overcome the power of Oprah, on whose show Rosenblat and his wife appeared twice. Credulous reporters, who should have sought some form of verification, kept writing about this "miraculous" event.

The producer who acquired movie rights tried to intimidate those of us who raised questions. He wrote to me saying, "I have traveled all over Eastern Europe for several years in preparation for what will be a major feature film. I may be more of a Holocaust expert than you, even though, I have no title nor university affiliation. What I do know for sure is before I make any statements I know the facts. You simply do not know those facts, and that Deborah, is the greatest sin to the memory of all those perished so long ago."

The publisher refused to let anyone see the book. Public relations people circulated versions of the story urging recipients to send it on so eventually it would reach millions of people.

Slowly, thanks to the power of the Internet and the work of some intrepid historians, the hoax was exposed. The publisher pulled the book. The movie producer cried foul, presenting himself as a victim who had been duped.

This is not the first time such a hoax has been perpetrated. Most of the previous stories have been spread by people who were passing as survivors. In contrast, the Rosenblats were both survivors of the Holocaust. But that fact has now been lost in the shuffle.

What, then, is the danger of these sorts of hoaxes? First of all, they give ammunition to Holocaust deniers. This is a bonanza for them.

Deniers expend great efforts in trying to implant doubts in young people about the veracity of the Holocaust. They spend so much energy attacking Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl" because it is a book that is widely read by young people.

The fact that this "apples over the fence" story has already been published as a widely successful children's story provides the deniers with a great opportunity to peddle their wares.

However, the danger posed by deniers is not the primary reason why such fabricated stories should be exposed. The events of the Holocaust are horrible in and of themselves. They do not need to be aggrandized or exaggerated to be made to sound any worse than they were. They also do not need to be rendered as joyful love stories that make us feel good about what happened.

Both are insults to the survivors and inimical to the pursuit of historical truth. The optimum way of teaching about the Holocaust and presenting its history is, to quote Detective Joe Friday from the old TV show, "Dragnet," "just the facts, just the facts."

What we need, particularly in relation to something as mind-boggling as the Holocaust, are "just the facts.

12 comments:

Jordan said...

What a wonderful story. Thank you for bringing such a thoughtful critique to what has become our society's thirst to whitewash the atrocities of the Holocaust.

I find it especially disgusting that this is the second time that Oprah has been at the center of a controversey involving the veracity of her "super special books".

This case is obviously much more troubling, but it makes me wonder at what point people in our country will stop desiring the truth entirely. At what point will we simply seek a happy ending history be damned?

Thanks again.

Andy said...

Thank you Deborah, for not allowing the perversions of commerce to get in the way of your "Joe Friday" ability to present just the facts. As a child, I visitied Bergen-Belsen and others and the holocaust is terrifying enough without having people try to cash in on fabrications.
Keep up your outstanding - and IMPORTANT - work.

Dave S. said...

Holocaust deniers are no majority.

This 'joyful love story' did not make anyone with any sense 'feel good about what happened.'

Children are much more impressionable to their parents than Holocaust deniers and overzealous academics.

The Rosenblats made up a story... a lie. Unlike the media would have us believe, it didn't hurt most people. It was a STORY. Published blogs like this are perpetuating a culture of hypersensitivity.

I dare say you're too caught up in these issues to have a realistic perspective of how the majority of people feel about the issue.

dan said...

Very good oped piece on the CNN site. Sad to say, the comments by readers, 34 at last count, were not very supportive. There is a huge disconnect somewhere. Why? Is it the same disconnect that allowed Oprah to book Herman and Roma not once, but twice, and to fully "believe" their backstory? Maybe. Ouch. Or as I like to say sometimes: oich!

Ry Schwark said...

Personally, I give the author a bye. Anybody who survives such horror gets a free pass from me for trying to find a story of hope in it... even if in the process they miss the great story of hope and redemption that is already there.

I think, however, the publisher should be slapped silly for not fact checking this and letting it get to this stage. They have no excuse for their behavior.

Gary said...

While I agree with your exposure and criticism of the fraud, I cannot agree with your "just the facts." conclusion. Extrapolating the generic from the specific is an intellectual trap.

Art plays a valuable role in understanding truth. It is often heedless of the facts in doing so. Art, by its nature, uses illusion to create its truth.

For example, The Pianist brilliantly conveys a sense of the underlying truth of the Warsau ghetto to the wider public that historical scholarship could never duplicate.

In fact, if the goal is to keep the memory of the shoah alive, art plays an irreplaceable role.

Gary

dee loc said...

you are an idiot with way too much free time. This is a touching story and should be celebrated. The people who claimed the story was true should be castigated, but that does not take anything away from the story.

SaraLynn said...

Dr. Lipstadt:
Your blog questioning Herman Rosenblat's story appeared in December, 2007, one month after his appearance again on Oprah's show. Did Oprah or Berkley books ever contact you about your concerns? Did you contact them?
SaraLynn Mandel

Rebecca said...

What I find difficult to understand is why we are seeking for inspiring stories in the awful history of the Holocaust. Why, Dee Loc, should a "touching story" that is not true be celebrated? And Ry Schwark, what is the "great story of hope and redemption" that is being missed by focusing on the apples over the fence story? The fact that Herman and Roma managed to survive the Holocaust? I don't see where either the hope or the redemption can be found in that fact - only relief that some people did manage to survive the attempts of the Nazis to kill all the Jews of Europe. Perhaps we humans (and especially we Americans) cannot bear the idea that there was no redemption in the Holocaust, but it is the truth. In the U.S., the movie Schindler's List was very popular just because it did present some "redemption" amidst the horrors of Auschwitz. The Hungarian movie "Fatelessness" was shown in the art movie houses and didn't reach a mass audience in this country - and I think it's because the movie tells no story of redemption, it just tells a story of death, abandonment by the world, and lack of welcome for the protagonist when he returns home to Budapest. A movie that would represent the experience of most of the Jews who went through the Holocaust would end with no Jews alive, since of course most Jews who were seized by the Nazis did not survive. It would end with people being killed by the Einsatzgruppen in eastern Europe or dying in the gas chambers. But such a movie would not be uplifting or redemptive. Hence, it would never get a chance to be seen by we Americans, who want our horrors tempered by hope and redemption that did not exist. If we seek for such stories in the misery of the Holocaust, that tells us something negative about ourselves and our shallow culture - it tells us nothing about the Holocaust itself and those who suffered.

Jarrod Henry said...

I am grateful you did your research and found this out to be the lie that it was.

For those who want the story to be true so badly that you are blaming Deborah, please remember this. Millions were purged by the Nazis. Each of them had a story to tell as well. Their stories are no more or less important than the truthful stories of the Rosenblats. The lies, here, are not being told by Deborah. Deborah has simply exposed frauds for frauds.

If you are upset, or angry, I suggest you be angry at the people who attempted to con you out of your money (and obviously out of your emotions) by using one of the most horrific events of our time.

It's evil that brought about the holocaust.. so what is it when someone tells a lie to profit from it?

It's certainly NOT a good thing.

Victor Frankl's book is inspirational. This was nothing more than a con game. There were many times that this could have been stopped, and wasn't.

dan said...

RE: "There were many times that this could have been stopped, and wasn't."

Exactly. The entire NEWYORKPOSTNEWYORKTIMESCNNWASHPOSTBOSTONGLOBEUSATODAYNEWSDAYAPUPI coast-to-coast media network, the
C2CMN, as I call it, was alseep at the wheel on this one.

Even Drudge, Matt Drudge, he had the info and he refused to go with it. Master Sleuth Drudge, and he would not print what I had, and what I gave him on a silver platter. They were all waiting for "someone else" to take the first step. That someone else was the Gabriel Sherman sleuthing for the New Republic. He "blew the lid off this Pandora's Box of fabrications", as CNN's Tom Foreman put it the other day while interviewing Gabe his show.

Urban, Yuppy, Hippy said...

I agree with Dave S.

I suppose you also boycott the film Titanic?

I am a third generation survivor as well...