Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Apples Over the Fence [12]: Lipstadt Commentary in the Forward

For additional commentary by me in the Forward on this issue see here

A Danger Greater Than Denial

The news that Herman Rosenblat’s Holocaust memoir “Angel at the Fence” is a fraud has the press buzzing and the publishing world reeling. The book, which the publisher apparently anticipated would be a best-seller, was pulled right before it was to be shipped to bookstores. No one who has paid close attention to the story, however, has a right to be surprised.

I first heard Rosenblat’s story in June of 2007. I was on a bus headed to Birkenau together with other scholars who study genocide. None of them were Holocaust specialists. One passenger began to read aloud from an e-mail he had received about a boy in Buchenwald who was saved because a young girl threw him an apple over the camp fence every day for seven months. Years later, the two met as adults. He learned that her family had been slave laborers in the nearby town. They were posing as non-Jews. They fell in love, married and recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

Long before my fellow passenger got to the fairy tale ending, I was skeptical. How could a young girl stand at a concentration camp fence without guards noticing? Would a Jewish family passing as Polish non-Jews permit their daughter to wander around near the camp? Could a prisoner go near the fence without being shot? Was the fence low enough for a small girl to throw an apple over?

When the professor finished, I declared, “Fiction. Bad fiction.” Some of the scholars suspected that years of skirmishes with Holocaust deniers had made me a hardened skeptic. After later coming across numerous renditions of the story — which, it turned out, was all over the Internet — and learning that the Rosenblats had appeared on “Oprah,” that a children’s book on the story was already published and that a memoir and film were forthcoming, I felt I could no longer remain silent. On my blog I stated that this story could not be true. The attacks came in quick succession: How could I question Holocaust survivors? Who was I to defame them?

The most vituperative attack came from Harris Salomon, who was making a film based on Rosenblat’s story. In an e-mail to me, he pronounced my opinion “worthless.” He declared that, since he had traveled throughout Eastern Europe doing research, “i may be more of a more of a [sic] holocaust expert then you.” He closed by accusing me of having committed “the greatest sin to the memory of all those perished so long ago.”

In the interim, Michigan State University historian Ken Waltzer, an expert on Buchenwald, had done the research that reporters, publishers and producers did not do. He spoke with historians who knew the layout of this sub-camp and with people who were interned there with Rosenblat. The story was clearly a lie.

The New Republic’s Gabriel Sherman spoke with additional survivors who further confirmed that this was a hoax. Even Rosenblat’s sister-in-law admitted never having heard the story of the girl with the apples, either at the Rosenblats’ wedding or in the 40 years that followed.

In response to the growing scrutiny, Salomon went ballistic. He complained to one of Waltzer’s deans and intimated that he would hold Waltzer “responsible” if Rosenblat’s health suffered because of the questions being raised about his memoir. The publisher, Penguin’s Berkley Books, stonewalled anyone who contacted them.

When Sherman found yet more survivors who contradicted Rosenblat’s story, the whole thing fell apart. The publisher pulled the book. Rosenblat admitted making up the story. Suddenly, Salomon, the great historian, told the press that he was “extremely angry” about being the victim of a scam (although he has said he still plans to make his film, albeit now as an acknowledged work of fiction).

Sadly, Herman Rosenblat overshadowed his genuine Holocaust story with a completely fabricated one. What really happened to him and his family has been lost in his lies.

There are various lessons to be learned from this: Facts about the Holocaust must be checked. Historians should never build their understanding of events based on one story from one person. But Rosenblat had enablers. His publisher, agent and movie producer pounced on his story. Reporters never bothered to check it out. They all seemingly wanted a story that made the Holocaust heartwarming, even though, as Waltzer aptly put it, the “Holocaust experience is not heartwarming, it is heart rending.”

Salomon believed that this kind of “candy-coated message” would reach “Middle America” and “do more to teach people about the Jewish experience during the Holocaust in a way nothing before has done.” Jewish sources also allowed themselves to be co-opted. Aish HaTorah featured the story on its Web site. A Chabad rabbi, whose relatives died in the Holocaust, was swept off his feet by this phony tale and arranged a belated bar mitzvah for Herman, garnering even more publicity for the Rosenblats and himself.

I have spent much of my academic career studying Holocaust denial. But the much greater danger to our collective memory of the event is posed by Holocaust trivialization and romanticization. What the Rosenblats and their enablers did was create yet another obstacle for the remaining survivors to convince others that their stories are true.

Rosenblat claims that all he wanted to do was make people love each other more. The Chabad rabbi probably thought the story would inspire faith. Salomon wanted to teach Middle America about the Holocaust.

These may be worthy goals. But the Holocaust should not be reduced to a means for trying to fulfill these or any other ends. The instrumentalization of the Holocaust, the use of it to fulfill something else, is the ultimate degradation of the event. If Holocaust deniers were smart, they would sit back and let the Rosenblats, Salomons, Berkley Books and the like peddle their wares. Within a short time, no one would know what was truth and what was fiction.


Jeremy Graeme said...

I cannot comprehend how lies serve to bring truth.

Lies bring nothing but lies. Lies bring false dreams, false hopes, false ideas.

The story of the Holocaust has inspiration in survival. It has truth. It has raw, bitter, and sometimes heart wrenching truth.

It's in that truth that we should find solace. It's in the knowledge that we find those acts reprehensible that we should find solace. As a species, mankind has made many, many mistakes.. but we have done so many good things too.

Carl Sagan wrote, in his book Contact (a work of fiction, clearly), that humanity "is capable of such great dreams.. and such horrific nightmares." While that was a work of fiction, the sentiment holds true. We cannot allow what happened to millions to become tainted with lies and sugar coated. We must atone for those actions as they were. We must condemn them for what they were.

Or else, we'll never really move on. We'll always be stuck, having the same horrific nightmares.

I am curious, though. Was this a little white lie that got away, or was this a concerted effort to profit on the Holocaust? Did someone actually take their story, and decide "Hmm.. this would be so much better if..."

Where did this fiction come from? What causes someone to invent such things, at the expense of others?

I find it hard to blame him outright.. but I would like to know why he felt the need to do this. Was it just about the money?


Jarrod,\ you ask good quetsios let me answr in caps below...... "I am curious, though. Was this a little white lie that got away, YES YES S YES .... or was this a concerted effort to profit on the Holocaust? no nO NO NO NO......Did someone actually take their story, and decide "Hmm.. this would be so much better if..."....maybe MAYBE YES.......INVESTIGATING STILL I AM....

Where did this fiction come from? What causes someone to invent such things, at the expense of others? neurOSIS neUROSIS NEUROSIS AND NEED FOR LOVE AND APPROVALOF PEERS....

I find it hard to blame him outright.. but I would like to know why he felt the need to do this. Was it just about the money? NO NO NO THIS WAS NOT FOR MONEY OR FAME...THIS WAS TO MAKE MEANING OF HIUS LIFE......IT E WAS A LITTLE LIE FOR A NESPAPER CONTEST THAT GOT CARRIED AWAY AND COULD NOT BE STOPPED UNTIL........

Jeremy Graeme said...

I guess, Dan, considering that he sold it to another publisher who seems to have no problem with it..

It IS just about the money.

The time for it being a "little lie" is over.

I long for the days when non-fiction was actually non-fiction.

Now we have to worry about "false memories" and treat "false memories" as reality.

This whole thing is sad. It just proves that if you repeat a lie enough, it will be true just through persistence.


Poor Herman did not sell his book to another publisher. I don't know where you heard or read that but it is just not true. Let's leave the stuff about money and Herman aside, because that is NOT what he was after. Just exactly what he was after, yes, we all still want to know. I hope some enterprisiing reporter will get a foot in his door down there in Miami and ask both Herman and Roma just what excacty it was they were after. It was not money. Trust me, They live in a modest apartment, hardly rich at all, more like lower middle clas, the guy is 80, he never had a big paying job in life, I am sure he is living on Social Security and peanuts. He doesn't need a BMW, he can't drive now. He doesn't need a rolex, time is not important at 80. So first, Jarrod, Herman did not sell his book to another publisher. What I think you read or heard is that a publisher somewhere, I don't know which one, has agreed to publish at some point in the future the "screenplay" text, the actuall Hollywood screenplay of a movie based loosely on Herman's fable, tale, we can call it that now, but this movie has not even started yet and movies take one or two or three years to shoot, edit and do post-production work, so it won't hit movie screens until 2011 at the earliest, probably more like 2012 or 2013. Chill, give it a rest.

If someday the screenplay of that movie that still has not been made yet gets published on real paper by a real book company, it won't be what his now-cancelled book was, that text is now HiSTORy, gone with the wind, ashes to ashes, pulped and shredded by his publisher.

What there might be, yes, is the screenplay text, but as you know screenplay texts are never big sellers, have you ever read a screenplay, Jarrod? So there will NOt be a lot of money coming to Herman for that book, if and when it really sees the light of day.

And that book will be labeled as fiction. As will the movie. But all these things are still to be completed in the future. Movies take a long to make. It doesn't happen overnight.

I say: relax. Let Herman be Herman. The old man has suffered enough. How much longer does he have to live? Ten, twenty years? Less? Leave him be. Let it be.

The book was stopped, the Penguin book that is. Good. That book was not well produced, and the publisher now agrees they made a bad decision.

But Herman is not going to make alot of money from any screenplay text that is published. Let it be.

This whole thing was about something much more important, and much more tragic, than money. Let us never forget. Never again. On Earth!

Jeremy Graeme said...

And that leaves me feeling sorry for your folly, sir.

It is clear that Herman has been picked up by another publisher. It's clear as day. What you are seeing is NOT the screenplay text, but the actual book from York House Publishing.

Now whether it was him or his agent, I do not know. But it is HIS book.

Good day.