Arts & Culture

Another Holocaust “Memoir” Bites the Dust

As I’m never one for Hollywood happy endings, or Lifetime melodramas, it takes a lot to tug at my jaundiced heartstrings. But just over ten years ago when I first heard about the sensationalized Holocaust-aided love story of Herman and … Read More

By / January 2, 2009

As I’m never one for Hollywood happy endings, or Lifetime melodramas, it takes a lot to tug at my jaundiced heartstrings. But just over ten years ago when I first heard about the sensationalized Holocaust-aided love story of Herman and Roma Rosenblat — thanks to my mom’s strange love of The Oprah Winfrey Show I momentarily had the closest thing to a misty-eyed moment that I could muster. This is not saying I gave into the urgings of Oprah and others, but rather to the seeming sincerity with which Herman and his wife conveyed their story. It was hard not to be swept in by the inspirational tale of child-love amidst the devastation and genocide of the Holocaust. The idea of two preteens meeting through the fence of the Buchenwald concentration camp only to be reunited years later on a blind date at Coney Island, though inherently corny and slightly implausible, was a rarefied positive glimpse of one of history’s darkest moments. Deemed by Winfrey as "the single best love story, in 22 years of doing this show, we’ve ever had on the air," the Rosenblats appeared to be an elderly couple drawn together by terrifying events of the past and the magic of serendipity, not the type of people you would automatically identify as shady or deceiving; their hands clasped tightly, their eyes teary, their love endless. Why would anyone have to question such a tale? More importantly: who would make something like this up?

Perhaps it was the potential of greater fame, or the motivation of greed, that led Rosenblat to sell his tale and publish his memoir Angel at the Fence: The True Story of Love That Survived, which up until a week ago was slated to be released in February by Berkley Books (a division of Penguin). After two appearances on Oprah, a smattering of media coverage and even a mention in the feel-good book series Chicken Soup for the Couple’s Soul, Herman Rosenblat was ready for morewhich was most likely incited by the promise of a hefty book advance. Originally inspired by a vision of his mother recovering from a gunshot wound in the hospital, Rosenblat explains that it was time for him to go public with his surreal story of love and survival. The crucial detail he failed to mention was that at the time of Rosenblat’s hospital staythe result of a shooting during a botched burglary that occurred in his TV repair shop, leaving his son Ken permanently wheelchair boundhis business was down the tubes and would eventually close after he was healed and released. It seems as if it was a vision of dollar signs, not his sympathetic mother, that urged Rosenblat to submit his story to a contest he entered and won in the New York Post that would eventually attract the omnipotent Oprah’s attention.

It actually wasn’t until he put his trite words to paper that Herman Rosenblat began to draw critical speculation. From the details in the memoir that fluctuate from fuzzy and vague to overly descriptive that are far from the childlish musings of a preteen ("…but it really was the color in her cheeks and the sweet innocence in which she stared to artlessly and candidly across the wire that drew me to her") to the shaky premise of Herman and Roma’s supposed first meeting between the concentration camp barbed-wire fence, things didn’t seem to add up. According to Kenneth Walzer, head of the Jewish Studies department at Michigan State University who was coincidentally writing his own book on children at Buchenwaldthe story was impossible. The more witnesses who were at Buchenwald with Rosenblat that Walzer interviewed, and the more research he did, the more it became clear that Angel was undoubtedly a lie.

At this point, after all of the news stories, the Oprah appearances and even a children’s book (Angel Girl by Laurie Friedman, inspired by Herman and Roma’s account), a memoir, and a movie in the works, why didn’t anyone fact-check, or at least make sure the story was legit? And why did Herman and Roma Rosenblat’s other family members stay mum about this? As more and more details came to light, and the legitimacy of Roseblat’s story was called into question, thanks to much critical speculation and an article by Gabriel Sherman in the New Republic in which Walzer’s findings became public, it became abundantly clear that the fantastical story of the Rosenblats was nothing but a fabricated Holocaust memoir, creating more fodder for adamant deniers of the Holocaust and ultimately the watering down and de-intensifying of the true survivor stories. In its wake, Angel has left a collective bad taste in the mouths of many, and the embarrassment of all parties involved. At this time it is uncertain as to whether the movie about the Rosenblat’s story will still go into production, especially since Herman’s final defender, the movie’s director Harris Salomon, is outraged and is asking for a public apology on Oprah. With so much controversy swirling around Herman Rosenblat, who claims to have lied only to "bring happiness to people," it is apparent that he was not only an opportunist who capitalized on the backs of other survivors, but also a fame-monger who needed to bring his fibbed story to the public arena. Without considering the possible repercussions of his memoir or his responsibility for humiliating his family with his lies (his son Ken is quoted as saying "I didn’t agree with is, I didn’t want anything to do with it.")  Rosenblat never thought his story would be questioned. I guess he thought he’d get rich watching Dustin Hoffman playing himself on the big screen, but instead Berkley asked for his advance money back in full.