BOOKS AND ARTS DECEMBER 25, 2008
Update: On Saturday, December 27, Berkley Books announced that it is canceling publication of Angel at the Fence. Click here to read more about it.
On February 3, Berkley Books, the mass-market division of the Penguin Group, is slated to publish a Holocaust memoir titled Angel at the Fence: The True Story of a Love That Survived. The author, Herman Rosenblat, who is a retired television repairman now living in Miami, recounts his experience as a teenage boy during the Holocaust at Schlieben, a sub-division of the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp. In the winter of 1945, Herman meets a nine-year-old girl--herself a Jew masquerading as a Christian at a nearby farm--when she shows up one day outside the camp and tosses him an apple over the barbed-wire fence. For the next seven months, the girl at the fence delivers Herman food each day, until he is suddenly transferred to another camp. Fast forward to Coney Island, 1957: Herman, now in his 20s and settled in New York, reluctantly agrees to a blind date with a young Polish immigrant named Roma Radzicki. They speak of their time during the war. Roma mentions a boy she had helped to survive in a camp. She said she fed him apples. A flash of recognition. Months later, Herman marries Roma, his angel at the fence.
Since going public with his story a decade ago, Herman appeared twice on “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, who called it “the single greatest love story, in 22 years of doing this show, we've ever told on the air," and has been featured on the Hallmark Channel, Lifetime Television, and CBS News. He has been the subject of newspaper articles and inspirational mass-email chains. In March, a feature film, Flower of the Fence, based on Herman’s life, is scheduled to go into production with a budget of $25 million dollars. A children’s book, Angel Girl, was published in September. Berkley Books’ Angel at the Fence has all the makings to become a best-seller. Berkley’s winter catalogue for booksellers and reviewers describes Angel at the Fence as “the true story of a Holocaust survivor whose prayers for hope and love were answered,” noting that it makes “a perfect Valentine’s Day gift.”
The power of Herman’s narrative is largely due to the fact that the incredible story actually happened. Herman himself writes of his first encounter with Roma with such disbelief. “I noticed a small girl hiding behind a tree on the other side of the fence. I could scarcely believe my eyes,” an excerpt of his memoir in the Berkley catalogue reads. “Could this possibly be real?”
An increasing number of prominent Holocaust scholars say no. Though archival records show that Herman was interned in concentration camps during the war, scholars who are investigating the story believe that the central premise of his narrative--that a girl met him at the fence and that very girl became his wife--is, at the very least, an embellishment, and at worst, a wholesale fabrication.
Herman and Roma kept their amazing story private virtually their entire lives, according to Harris Salomon, the producer of Flower of the Fence, who remains close friends with Herman. One day in the early 1990s, Herman was shot by a burglar at the shop were he worked as a television repairman in Brooklyn. While in the hospital, Herman’s mother, who died in the Holocaust, came to him in a vision and told him he needed to share his love story with others, Salomon said Herman told him.
It was after this traumatic event that Herman and Roma started talking publicly about their epic meeting and reunion. On Valentine’s Day a few years later, according to Salomon, Herman entered a competition in a newspaper to award the most romantic story. Not surprisingly, he won. His story then made its way to the pages of Chicken Soup for the Couple’s Soul. Oprah Winfrey featured Herman and Roma on a special 1996 Valentine’s Day show, and again in November 2007. (A spokesperson for Oprah had no comment about whether they fact-check guests’ stories). Herman signed with the Ambassador Speaker’s Bureau, a conservative agency that represents clients like Alan Keyes and Stephen Baldwin (the evangelical brother of Alec and Billy). He also signed with literary agent Andrea Hurst, and in December of last year, sold the rights to his memoir to Berkley Books.
Professor Kenneth Waltzer, the director of the Jewish Studies program at Michigan State University, first began to doubt the truthfulness of Herman’s tale a couple of years ago, when he came across his story while researching his own forthcoming book about child prisoners at Buchenwald and its sub-camps.* Waltzer, who has not read the Herman’s manuscript, heard the story through Herman’s many print and television appearances. Waltzer’s main critique is that the book’s central premise--that Roma threw Herman apples over the fence outside the Schlieben camp in the winter of 1945--is an impossibility. Waltzer is one of the first scholars to draw on the recently opened Red Cross International Tracing Service Archives of Nazi-era documents on the camps. He also interviewed many of the survivors who were with Herman at the time. No one from Herman’s time in the camps could recall him ever mentioning a girl throwing apples over the fence or their remarkable reunion in America after the war. While, in theory, there is a slim chance Herman was able to conceal these meetings--and the apples he received--from his fellow prisoners, Waltzer concluded from studying maps of Schlieben that it was impossible for either a prisoner or civilian to approach the fence; the only spot where one could access the perimeter at all was right next to the SS barracks. “The story is a made-up story,” Waltzer told me by phone last week. “So far as I can discern, it didn’t happen.”
On December 9,* Waltzer interviewed Ben Helfgott, a Schlieben survivor who went through the Holocaust with Herman every step of the way, and never once heard of the girl at the fence until Herman spoke publicly of his story in the 1990s. Helfgott is upset that Herman has been telling this story and is publishing the book. “The story is a figment of his imagination,” Waltzer says Helfgott told him. “There is not a word of truth in what he is saying.” Waltzer says that Herman’s late older brother Sam told Helfgott he become “ashamed” when he had heard that Herman was telling his Holocaust love story. In March 2008, Helfgott scheduled a meeting with Herman in Florida to confront him about his issues with the book. Herman canceled the meeting the day before they were to meet. (Helfgott could not be reached for comment.)
“That he was able to meet at a fence with a girl in hiding every day through the winter months of 1945 without anybody knowing, or anybody seeing,” Waltzer said, “it’s just not plausible. She couldn’t get to the fence on her side, he couldn’t get to the fence on his side. They didn’t meet at the fence.” In his continuing efforts to corroborate Herman’s story, Waltzer is now trying to verify whether Roma’s family, the Radzickis, were living in the vicinity of Buchenwald at the time. Working with a local researcher, a preliminary search has yielded no record of the family. Waltzer says that he has also been consulting with specialists in the field of memoirs and literature, who “have quickly discounted [the book’s veracity]” and expressed concern “about the general issue of memoirs, memory, [and] truth.”
On November 21, Waltzer emailed Hurst, Herman’s agent, requesting a copy of the book, and mentioned the possible historical problems he discovered with the narrative. Hurst responded that review copies would be available in January, and any questions about the book needed to be addressed to Penguin’s public relations department, according to a copy of the email exchange provided by Waltzer. Waltzer followed up on November 25 with an email to Julia Fleischaker, the publicist in charge of the book. Getting no response, Waltzer sent an email the following week, on December 4, to the book’s editor, Natalee Rosenstein. After telling her of his academic credentials and forthcoming book on the subject, he wrote to her:
I am currently preparing to write a review of Herman Rosenblat's Angel at the Fence, to be published in February. […] I have considerable reason to believe that the story is at best embellished and perhaps invented. The story raises many questions that suggest doubtful veracity. I have no axe to grind, and I want to read the manuscript carefully and see what the final versions says or doesn't say. I'd be happy to be proved wrong in my suspicions.
Rosenstein never responded, Waltzer says. On December 20, Waltzer sent a similar email to Leslie Gelbman, the president, publisher, and editor-in-chief of Berkley Books, saying that Herman’s “timeline and numerous claims he offers in his story are erroneous, and survivors who were with him every step of the way have told me the story is a figment of his imagination.” Waltzer says he never received a response from Gelbman either.
For Penguin, the stakes are high. Last year, it was revealed that the memoir Love and Consequences, Margaret Seltzer’s story of running with Los Angeles gangs that was published by Penguin’s Riverhead division, was a fraud. It was pulled from bookshelves a week after it debuted. In recent years, the publishing industry has been whipsawed by a slate of memoir scandals, most famously James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. And last March, another Holocaust memoir, Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years, was exposed as a hoax.
On December 19, I called Rosenstein, the book’s editor, to inquire about Waltzer’s claims, and was told by her assistant to speak with Berkley Books’ publicity arm. When I called Fleischaker, the book’s publicist, to ask how the book was vetted, she said, “We have fact checked the book,” but then abruptly told me she needed to put me on hold; after a few minutes, she returned to tell me she could no longer speak about the book. “I’ll have to call you back,” she said. No one at Berkley has called me back or returned subsequent calls, despite numerous emails and phone messages seeking comment. When I called Rosenstein at her home number, she screamed, “How dare you call me at my home!” and hung up. No one at Penguin has responded to numerous requests for comment about Angel at the Fence, nor my requests to speak with the author, nor my request to receive a review copy of the book. Herman’s agent, Andrea Hurst, said in an email that all questions about the book need to be addressed to Berkley.
Deborah Lipstadt, the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, who was appointed by President Clinton in 1994 to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, says she first heard Herman’s story while on a research trip to Auschwitz about the same time Waltzer started examining the narrative. Someone had read her an email chain that they had printed out that recounted Herman’s amazing love story. “I said, ‘I don’t believe it,’” she told me, recalling the episode.
Lipstadt, who wrote the 1993 book, Denying the Holocaust, is troubled by the possibility that Herman’s love story is fabricated, because she believes it could be co-opted by the Holocaust denial movement. “If you make up things about parts, you cast doubts on everything else,” Lipstadt told me. “When you think of the survivors who meticulously tell their story and are so desperate for people to believe, then if they’re making stories up about this, how do you know if Anne Frank is true? How do you know Elie Wiesel is true?”
In addition to the impossibility of being able to approach the fence, Lipstadt disputes other details of Herman’s story. “Based on what I have seen thus far, I would say that this story is not exactly a shining example of verisimilitude,” she wrote on her blog on December 15.
Over the summer, Harris Salomon, the president of Atlantic Overseas Pictures, the company producing the movie, contacted Lipstadt because she had posted a critique of Herman’s story on her blog. Salomon reacted angrily when Lipstadt pointed out factual problems with versions of the story circulating on the Internet. On June 24, Salomon responded in an email:
There is no point in me having an argument with you. I have to admit I have heard some harsh things about you since we started exchanging emails. Hothead is a word used by at least two of your peers in the Holocaust community. … Your opinion Deborah at the moment is worthless as you are making statements based on third party web sites that do not contain the words of Mr. Rosenblat or what is in his book. … I have traveled all over Eastern Europe for several years in preparation for what will be a major feature film. I may be more of a Holocaust expert then you, even though, I have no title nor university affiliation. What I do know for sure is before I make any statements I know the facts. You simply do not know those facts, and that Debroah [sic] is the greatest sin to the memory of all those perished so long ago.
Salomon is infuriated that Waltzer and Lipstadt are challenging Herman’s story. “Deborah Lipstadt has never read the book,” he told me when we spoke last week. “She has never spoken to Herman Rosenblat. I find that to be pretty disgusting.” Salomon told me he spoke on the phone with Waltzer this week, and said that Herman’s health has been suffering as a result of his questions, and that he would hold Waltzer personally liable for a decline in his health. “As a friend of Herman, I hold him responsible for what he says,” Salomon told me. Salomon also contacted a dean at Michigan State University to express his concerns about Waltzer’s research. “I would like to work this out,” he told the dean. “I don’t want to impinge on Ken Waltzer’s research, but the fact that he is speaking to you [The New Republic] is bloody repugnant. He’s going after a Holocaust survivor without any proof.”
Salomon conceded that memory could have distorted the literal truth of Herman’s story. “All too often when you write about love, you embellish things a little bit,” he says. When I pressed him on Waltzer’s specific claims--that it would have been impossible to approach the fence--Salomon didn’t respond directly or offer any third party source that could verify Herman’s story. But Salomon says he is extremely close to Herman, and believes his story, 100 percent. “I have my reputation vested in this story. I have my money vested in this story,” he said. “If anybody writes a memoir, there’s no way to know whether these things happened the way the individual wrote. You either believe, or don’t believe.”
Michael Berenbaum, the former director of the United States Holocaust Research Institute at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, was asked by Salomon to vet the manuscript of Angel at the Fence. When I asked Berenbaum about his fact-checking methods, he said that he had read a copy of the manuscript over the course of an airplane flight, and that he did not conduct any interviews or historical research. He said his fact-checking involved assessing the narrative’s tone and general context, drawing on his extensive experience with survivor stories. When I asked Berenbaum if it would be possible for Roma to throw Herman apples over the fence day after day for seven months, he said he had no independent way to check the story. “I wasn’t there, I can’t vouch for it. But I don’t find it incredible,” Berenbaum said. “I see it as his memory. And with that comes some of the [problems] of memory, but I’m tolerant of those,” he said.
Berenbaum’s response illustrates the difficulty of applying journalistic or historical scrutiny to a survivor’s tale. Is the reality of a story how one remembers it, or how it actually happened? “Survivors have a knowledge of what they were doing, what they were feeling, a little bit of the way they were thinking,” Berenbaum told me, “but they don’t have a context of what it means. They didn’t have a calendar.”
For Lipstadt, that does not give license to Herman or others involved with his projects to market his story as true. “The most tragic part is that [Herman’s] embellishments have no impact at all on the essence of the story of his suffering,” Lipstadt told me me via email. “He invented a love story to go with it. I am not excusing him for doing this--of course this could be a false memory incident--but I am cautioning a note of sadness as opposed to some of the ‘gotcha’ things that are floating around.”
The battle over Angel at the Fence is part of a larger struggle for control over the Holocaust narrative. Scholars like Waltzer and Lipstadt are disturbed by the media blitz pushing Herman’s story to the masses. “My hair is standing on edge,” Lipstadt told me. “He has instrumentalized the Holocaust. This is the worst possible thing you can do on so many levels.” To them, selling the Holocaust as Hollywood kitsch sanitizes its horrors. “It makes it nice,” Lipstadt says. “I just wait to hear in the movie for the violins.”
Salomon, the movie producer, disagrees. He believes that the mass appeal of Herman’s story is precisely what makes it so important to be told. “The strength of Herman’s story is in Middle America,” Salomon said. “Because of the candy-coated message of this story, it has picked up resonance all over. Herman’s story can do more to teach people about the Jewish experience during the Holocaust in a way nothing before has done.”
Before our conversation ended, Salomon told me that I should go see The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a new film that, like Herman’s tale, tells the story of a young boy at a concentration camp who befriends a German boy on the other side of the fence. I pointed out to Salomon that The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is based on a novel.
Gabriel Sherman is a special correspondent for The New Republic.
* Corrections: Professor Waltzer's book is about youths who were at Buchenwald and at Buchenwald sub-camps, including but not exclusively Schliebenbut, as was originally reported. Also, Waltzer spoke to Ben Helfgott on December 9, not December 8.
By Gabriel Sherman