I have learned tonight that Penguin Berkley Press has pulled the memoir, Angel at the Fence, which I and others have been investigating, from publication. Herman Rosenblat has shared the news that he invented the false story with Harris Salomon, president of Atlantic Overseas Pictures, and Harris Salomon has told the publisher. Penguin Berkley Press will seek restitution.
I am saddened by the whole thing. First, Herman and Roma Rosenblat are of course to be faulted for making up a Holocaust love story and seeking fame and public attention, but their lying and dissimulating are actually understandable. Less understandable is the widespread belief in their story – by the culture makers, including the publisher and movie maker and many thousands of others who have encountered it over a decade.
Second, such belief suggests a broad illiteracy about the Holocaust and about experience in the camps -- despite decades of books, serious memoirs, museums, and movies. This shakes this historian up.
This memoir was at the far end of implausibility, yet until yesterday, no one connected with packaging, promoting, and disseminating it asked question about or investigated it. Some actively resisted such investigation and tried to shut mine down.
The idea of a prisoner autonomously going to the fence daily, every day, in a Nazi concentration camp and meeting a young girl at the guarded, electrified fence who was allegedly hiding under false identity with her family in the nearby village and who threw him food beggars the imagination. Prisoners in konzentrationslager could not approach guarded fences; persons in hiding with a primary family group would not risk detection by going daily to a camp where SS guards were concentrated. The actual fence in Schlieben was right next to the SS barracks.
So Herman and Roma overreached and actually demeaned their own Holocaust stories -- Herman forgot his brothers who kept him alive in the camps, Roma forgot her own remarkable and sad family story hiding not in Schlieben but elsewhere more than 200 miles away.
But where were the culture makers on this one? What kind of questions did Penguin Berkley Press bring to bear regarding a memoir about a love story set in a concentration camp? What kind of strategy did Harris Salomon embrace to elevate a candy coated Holocaust love story to bring Holocaust education to Middle America? This was not Holocaust education but miseducation. Holocaust experience is not heartwarming, it is heart rending. All this shows something about the broad unwillingness in our culture to confront the difficult knowledge of the Holocaust. All the more important then to have real memoirs that tell of real experience in the camps.
I want to thank those who have worked with me – particularly forensic genealogists Sharon Sergeant and Colleen Fitzpatrick, and amateur Schlieben historian Uwe Schwarz and his associate Jean-Luis Rey. I also want to thank the many survivors, including Ben Helfgott and Sid Finkel, who put their trust in me and shared their knowledge. Gabe Sherman’s reportage at the New Republic has been remarkable, and there will be more to say in the coming days.
Director, Jewish Studies
Michigan State University