About to be published Holocaust memoir revealed as hoax

Oprah Winfrey had called it “the single greatest love story” she had heard. A movie was going to be made from the book, Angel at the Fence. As reported in today’s New York Times, the book has been canceled, but the movie of the book will still be made—as a fiction.

Herman Rosenblat’s story, which he invented in the mid 1990s and told on Oprah’s TV show in 1996, was that

he first met his wife while he was a child imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp and she, disguised as a Christian farm girl, tossed apples over the camp’s fence to him. He said they met again on a blind date 12 years after the end of war in Coney Island and married.

Doesn’t that seem on the face of it absurdly far-fetched? Yet the publisher, Berkley Books, a unit of Penguin, never did any fact-checking.

[N]o one at Berkley questioned the central truth of Mr. Rosenblat’s story until last week, said Andrea Hurst, his agent. Neither Leslie Gelbman, president and publisher of Berkley, nor Natalee Rosenstein, Mr. Rosenblat’s editor at Berkley, returned calls or e-mail messages seeking comment.

With this story coming just two weeks after the Bernard Madoff scandal, the common theme this month is Jews fooling credulous Jews. But it was also Jews who uncovered Rosenblat’s hoax. Kenneth Waltzer, director of Jewish studies at Michigan State University, asked other survivors who were with Rosenblat at Buchenwald about the tossed apple story, and they told him the story couldn’t possibly be true. Then,

After several scholars and family members attacked Mr. Rosenblat’s story in articles last week in The New Republic, Mr. Rosenblat confessed on Saturday to Ms. Hurst and Mr. Salomon [the producer of the movie] that he had concocted the core of his tale. Ms. Hurst said that in an emotional telephone call with herself and Mr. Salomon, Mr. Rosenblat said his wife had never tossed him apples over the fence.

The true part of the story is that Rosenblat had been a prisoner at Buchenwald, and that his future wife and her family had avoided arrest by living on a farm disguised as Christians (I assume it’s also true that he met his wife on a blind date at Coney Island). But, due to the layout at Buchenwald, no outsider would have been able to interact with a prisoner across a fence without being observed by guards, and the farm where Roma, his future wife, lived was 200 miles away from Buchenwald.

What motivated Rosenblat to make up the story of the apple tossing? Somewhat like Bernard Madoff, he wanted to make people happy:

In a statement released through his agent, Mr. Rosenblat wrote that he had once been shot during a robbery and that while he was recovering in the hospital, “my mother came to me in a dream and said that I must tell my story so that my grandchildren would know of our survival from the Holocaust.”

He said that after the incident he began to write. “I wanted to bring happiness to people, to remind them not to hate, but to love and tolerate all people,” he wrote in the statement. “I brought good feelings to a lot of people and I brought hope to many. My motivation was to make good in this world. In my dreams, Roma will always throw me an apple, but I now know it is only a dream.”

Given human nature, none of this is surprising. Whatever a society rewards materially or spiritually, whether it’s heart-warming Holocaust stories and lessons in tolerance, tales of victimization of blacks by racist whites, or homelessness, it will inevitably get more of that thing.

At the same time, this explanation of Rosenblat’s motive does not explain the astonishing credulousness and lack of critical thought shown by Rosenblat’s agent and publisher and everyone else who swallowed his story. It seems beyond belief that it didn’t occur to anyone in all these years to ask Rosenblat the obvious question, “How could it be that Roma, then a girl, who was disguised as a Christian in order to escape arrest by the Nazis, would have deliberately drawn the Nazis’ attention to herself by repeatedly walking up to the fence of a Nazi concentration camp and giving food to a Jewish prisoner?”

But perhaps the answer is the same as what I said above. Humans are all too willing to believe whatever pleases or profits them. And, in liberal society, what most pleases and profits people are stories confirming the liberal view of existence.

- end of initial entry -

Alan Levine writes:

I was astounded to read of the Herman Rosenblat tale. It beats me how anyone could possibly have been taken in by this cretin. Apart from anything else, it was impossible for anyone inside any Nazi camp, whether a concentration camp or an ordinary POW camp, to approach the outer fence, and there was invariably a large bare space between the outer fence and any cover outside. In many KZs the outer fence was electrified…

LA replies:

The story is unbelievable on its face. In order to believe it, people had to turn their brains off.

By the way, how many hoaxes has Oprah Winfrey been taken in by?

Neil P. writes:

I hate to sound like a Holocaust denier (which I’m not), but this isn’t the first Holocaust story shown to be a hoax. And considering that the Nazis tried to exterminate the Jews, shouldn’t we be a bit suspicious about the hundreds of thousands of people still alive who claim to have been in extermination camps?

It reminds me of the guy a few years ago during the Maryland shooting spree who claimed to have seen a white van and a gunman. We all want to feel important.

LA replies:

You are allowing yourself to get carried away, and you are sounding like a Holocaust denier. From one man making up part of his story, (and from other stories from time to time that have been exposed as false), you jump to virtually disbelieving everything that happened to European Jewry. In fact, as you can read in this entry and in the Times, Rosenblat’s story was exposed as a fraud by his fellow prisoners at Buchenwald who explained to Kenneth Waltzer of the Jewish Studies Department at Michigan State University that no one in that camp could have approached any fence. Thus falsehoods are sifted from truth. But for you, there would be no truth—we should be “suspicious” of the very existence of concentration camps which turned into death-by-starvation-and-disease camps (such as Buchenwald), of death-by-slave-labor camps (such as Auschwitz), of death-by-truck-exhaust camps (Treblinka), of death-by-gas-chamber camps (Bergen-Belsen), as well as mass death by Sonderkommando firing squads in Poland and Russia (Babi Yar), and of the Holocaust itself. Therefore we should be suspicious of the notion that the people who purportedly were at Buchenwald were really there, and therefore we should be suspicious of the claim that they had sufficient knowledge of Buchenwald to tell Kenneth Waltzer that Rosenblat’s story couldn’t be true.

With an attitude of knee-jerk suspicion such as you express, no one could ever tell the truth about anything.

And of course Anne Frank died in a tragic drowning accident in the Riviera at age 23 while working on her second novel.

John B. writes:

As for the publisher’s failure to assess the story’s likelihood: I’m reminded of a moment in a movie whose title I can’t recall but that was written, I think, by Nora Ephron. In a scene set at a party attended by literary types, the camera moves through the crowd and picks up snatches of conversation before reaching the main character. A publishing-industry figure is heard saying:

“I thought, ‘Not another Holocaust book’—but it’s selling.”

(Didn’t see the movie. The moment was mentioned in Newsweek’s review. This was a long time ago.)

John B. writes:

My apologies to Elaine May. It was she, not the just-as-talented Nora Ephron, who penned the moment I cited. The Newsweek review describes it as an unused part of the 1994 movie Wolf. (The line of dialogue is highlighted at the end of the tenth paragraph of the linked page.)

LA replies:

You never saw the movie, but 14 years ago, you read a review of the movie, and the review included a description of a scene that had been deleted from the movie, and you remember the description of that deleted scene?

There must have been something about that deleted scene that really made an impression. :-)

John B. replies:

Evidently. The joke was just so efficient. Now that I’ve identified the movie, by the way, I realize I did see it—though my recollection that I’d not seen the actual moment is borne out.

LA replies:

I’m really glad we have that worked out now.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 29, 2008 08:37 AM | Send

Email entry

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):