Art and Entertainment

J. Pat Carter/AP
Herman and Roma Rosenblat pose for a photo in their North Miami Beach, Fla. home.

Oprah and Publishers Duped Again: Holocaust Memoir is a Fake

December 29, 2008 02:02 PM
by Rachel Balik
Berkley Books has canceled publication of a Holocaust memoir after the author revealed it was a fabrication; why didn’t they realize sooner?

“Angel at the Fence” Blurs Fact and Fiction

“Angel at the Fence,” Herman Rosenblat’s Holocaust memoir, recounts the story of how he met his wife as a boy imprisoned in a concentration camp; she lived nearby, disguised as a Christian farm girl. For seven months, she came and threw apples over the fence to prevent him from starving to death. Years later, they met again on a blind date in New York and discovered their connection.

Unfortunately, none of that story is true. When Rosenblat admitted the fabrication, Berkley was forced to cancel publication, just months after another division of the same publisher was embarrassed by revelations that Margaret Selzer’s gang memoir was false.

False memoirs seem to be a dime a dozen these days, but for some reason, publishers continue to fail to employ the proper fact-checking methods. The public craves memoirs, and authors can make a great deal more money on memoirs than they can on works of fiction.

The New Republic’s coverage of the Rosenblat controversy noted that what made the book so compelling was that it billed itself as a true story. But several Holocaust experts had already expressed doubt about whether the details of the romantic tale checked out. Michigan State University’s Kenneth Waltzer, who directs the school’s Jewish Studies program, said it would be impossible for Rosenblat’s wife Roma, or anyone at all, to get close enough to the fence to toss apples over it. Other Holocaust experts contacted by the New Republic also challenged facts of the book. Waltzer made numerous attempts to contact the publishers to discuss these issues, but was met with no response.

Both Berkley Books and Harris Salomon, president of the company adapting the memoir into a movie, “The Flower of the Fence,” adamantly defended the book until the last possible moment. The book was fact checked by Michael Berenbaum, former director of the United States Holocaust Research Institute. But he told the New Republic that he had no way of knowing what actually took place.

For Holocaust researchers, the fear is that false Holocaust stories perpetuate the theory that the Holocaust itself never happened. A number of fake Holocaust memoirs have surfaced over the years, including “Surviving with Wolves,” an entirely fabricated memoir written by a Catholic woman who claimed to be a Jewish woman whose parents died in the Holocaust and who survived by living with wolves. Another was “Fragments,” supposedly the true tale of a Latvian orphan in a concentration camp, but which was actually authored by a man who spent the entire war safe in Switzerland.

Background: Penguin’s recent mistake

In May 2008, Margaret Seltzer, author of the gang memoir “Love and Consequences,” was exposed by her own sister as a sham. By the time the scandal hit, Riverhead Books, another division of Penguin, had published the book, and it had already received a rave review in The New York Times. The end result was humiliation for the publisher, but the incident raised fresh questions about why the reading public values memoir over fiction.

Related Topic: Memoirs true and false

Rosenblat’s “Angel at the Fence,” which Oprah dubbed the greatest love story she’d ever heard on her show, is further indication either that the talk show host is too trusting, or that there are too many people passing fake stories off as true just to land a better book deal.

Oprah also promoted James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces,” the Jossip blog notes. The highly exaggerated tale of drug addiction and recovery received plenty of public attention, both before and after the discrepancies in the story were pointed out, but it’s simply one of many instances of fabricated truth to come to light recently. Jossip lists the four most notorious lying writers of the past 10 years.

As a result of the near-success of these books, the flood of fake memoirs has continued, and all such stories have become slightly suspect. Even comedic icon and essayist David Sedaris has been accused of exaggeration.

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