BOOKS DECEMBER 26, 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 2, 2007, Herman Rosenblat’s older brother Sam died. When he was on his deathbed, Herman went to visit him in the hospital in Florida. “When Herman tried to talk to Sammy, he looked away,” Sam’s widow Jutta Rosenblat told me on the phone on the afternoon of December 25. The brothers had been estranged for more than a decade, ever since Herman began telling the story of his reunion with and marriage to the girl he says helped him survive the Holocaust by bringing him apples through the fence of Schlieben, a subdivision of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Sam, who was with his brother in camp, considered the story an invention. “Laying in bed, he was looking away from him,” Jutta says. “He didn’t want to have nothing to do with him. Herman never apologized. He felt that this is the right thing to do ... They wanted a good book.”
Later that year, Herman went on to appear for the second time on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and Herman’s agent sold his memoir, Angel at the Fence, to Berkley Books, the mass-market division of the Penguin Group, which is publishing it on February 3. The book is described as “the true story of a Holocaust survivor whose prayers for hope and love were answered.” A children’s book about Herman’s story, Angel Girl, was published in September, and a $25 million film version, called Flower of the Fence, dramatizing “the harrowing true love story of Herman Rosenblat” is set to start production in March. For the past year, two Holocaust scholars have expressed serious doubts about the plausibility of the central premise of Herman’s story (detailed in The New Republic’s original piece).
Jutta, who is 85 and now living in Yonkers, New York, is speaking for the first time about the purportedly true-life story at the center of Herman’s Holocaust memoir, which Winfrey called “the single greatest love story, in 22 years of doing this show, we’ve ever told on the air.” Herman’s story anguished the four Rosenblat brothers, who together survived the Holocaust and remained close with Herman until he first submitted his tale to a newspaper contest in the mid-1990s, Jutta told me. “My husband was so mad with it. He didn’t want to read it. He was upset,” Jutta says. She added that many of Herman’s friends from the brothers’ time in the camps also stopped speaking with him. “They were mad, they didn’t talk to him anymore. Where the hell did you get the apples [story] from?”
Jutta has known Herman since the Rosenblat brothers first went to England following the war. After moving to New York, Herman stayed at Jutta’s one-bedroom apartment, and she attended his wedding to Roma a half century ago. Jutta told me that at the wedding, there was never any mention of apples or Roma’s assistance to Herman during the Holocaust. “There was no story. The story came after they married,” she says. “Someone or something pushed him to make up a story. ... Now the book is coming out. What can you do about it? What can you do about it?”
Jutta says that her husband was personally stung by Herman’s story. During the war, Herman’s three older brothers protected him, risked their lives to steal food for him, and vowed to die together if one of them was singled out to be killed by the Nazis. “They fed him in the concentration camp,” Jutta says. “They pushed food in him. He was the youngest. They made him older to save his life,” she said, explaining that if Herman could pass as a boy old enough to work, the Nazis wouldn’t kill him.
Since The New Republic first called into question the veracity of the 79-year-old Herman’s forthcoming memoir, Angel at the Fence, survivors who were with Herman during the Holocaust have come forward to speak out against Herman’s story.
In 1996, the night before Herman was set to make his debut on the Valentine’s Day special of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” his wife, Roma, confided to their friend Sidney Finkel, a 77-year-old Holocaust survivor, that she had only first met Herman years after the war, in New York. Herman told Finkel on the same evening that he had originally turned down several requests by Winfrey’s producers to appear on the show. It was only when Winfrey personally called him that he agreed to sit for an interview.
“It’s made up,” Finkel told me by phone on December 24. “He likes to makes thing up. He’s very good at it.” That evening in 1996, Finkel and his wife, Jean, met Herman and Roma at the Omni Hotel in downtown Chicago. Finkel is two years younger than Herman and the two had known each other since their time in Piotrkow, a Jewish ghetto in Poland.
Finkel said that in 1944, they passed through Buchenwald separately, but met again in the Theresienstadt camp in the Czech Republic, where they were liberated in the spring of 1945. Finkel kept in contact with Herman after the war. Their older brothers were best friends in the camps, and became roommates not long after in England, where a group of some 732 boys were sent to be rehabilitated. Finkel and Sam were among the young Holocaust survivors discussed in the 1996 book The Boys: Triumph Over Adversity, written by the historian Sir Martin Gilbert, best known for authoring Winston Churchill’s official biography.
Over dinner at the Omni Hotel, Finkel says Roma told him that she was hiding in Poland, aided by a Catholic priest. “She was very candid with me,” Finkel says. “She told me where she was. Never was there any reference in this conversation of her being close to a concentration camp or meeting Herman.”
Finkel says he remembers the conversation clearly. “She was the only person I knew who made it through the war [hiding]” he says, adding that he had been so taken with her story that he later took down notes of their conversation at dinner. I asked him how Roma could speak so freely the night before she planned to tell a fabricated story on national television. Finkel believed that the couple had simply developed an act that they could perform together. Each played their part. “The two were separate,” he said, speaking of the life they lived and the story they told about it. “One was an acting thing, the other one was reality.”
Herman’s publisher, Berkley Books, an imprint of Penguin Group, declined repeated requests to make Herman and Roma available for comment. Harris Salomon, the producer making a feature film adaptation of Herman’s story, would not make Herman available. A message left on Herman’s cell phone wasn’t returned. A spokesperson for Oprah Winfrey did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment on how her show verifies its guests’ stories.
In a statement released to the Associated Press on the morning of December 26, Berkley states that they stand behind Herman’s story. “The author and publisher of a disputed Holocaust memoir are defending the book’s story of love between two survivors, but say it’s a work of memory and not of scholarship,” the AP reported. The AP also reported that the “author Herman Rosenblat says the work is his personal story as he remembers it.”
Shortly after the Associated Press reported that Berkley, in their statement, noted that Holocaust expert Michael Berenbaum “had found the story credible,” I called Berenbaum. He told me that he did not vet the book for Berkley and did not hear from anyone at the publishing house about the memoir until the afternoon of December 23, the day The New Republic first published questions about the book’s veracity and quoted Berenbaum on the matter. Natalee Rosenstein, Herman’s editor at Berkley, called Berenbaum to ask him about the allegations Michigan State University professor Kenneth Waltzer and other Holocaust experts had made about the book. “She sounded concerned,” Berenbaum told me when I reached him on December 26. “Everyone is concerned on two levels: Not only the reputation and credibility of the book, but also for the feelings of a survivor.”
Berenbaum provided insight into Penguin’s bare bones or nonexistent effort to fact-check Herman’s memoir. The publisher ignored serious red flags that could have easily been discovered by making cursory phone calls to Holocaust scholars and survivors.
Even their use of Berenbaum to support Herman’s story is flawed. Berenbaum explained to me how one would actually fact-check the book. “I was not there, and consequently, there are issues outstanding. One, was Herman at those camps? Yes. Two, was she in the vicinity of those camps? There would be no records of her being in the vicinity if she was hiding under false pretense. The third question would be, did she have access to the fences surrounding the camps? I would have to physically assess the camp and interview those who were alive at that point to assess what the relationship was between the inhabitants nearby and the camp. And I haven’t done that,” he says. Berenbaum distanced himself from the book. “They did not approach me initially,” he says. “I had no contact with them until last Tuesday afternoon.”
In his conversation with Rosenstein, Berenbaum told her that his prior comments about the memoir to The New Republic were now part of the public record, and the publisher could use them as they saw fit. But Berenbaum told me again, repeating his statement from our earlier interview, that he did not fact-check the book. He did not make phone calls or consult any historical records. “To the limits of my knowledge, I read the book. I know the general history of the Holocaust. I have no particular knowledge of that camp. I have never met Herman,” he says. When I told him that Herman’s sister-in-law says that Herman’s story couldn’t be true, Berenbaum told me, “You have to go with your reporting.”
Jutta Rosenblat confirms that Roma was in hiding during the war, but not at Schlieben. She told me that Roma “was with her parents in Poland. That’s what I know.”
Whatever reservations Herman harbored about telling his story on national television had evaporated by the time he sat down for dinner with Finkel at the Omni. “He was really bragging, showing off this thing with Oprah, and how they really wanted them. And how he could get the best deal from them,” Finkel remembers. Herman gave them a tour of his hotel room and boasted that he had negotiated “double coupons” for extra meals and tickets to the show. After dinner, Finkel showed the couple around Chicago, and took them to the Sears Tower. Herman invited Finkel and Jean to attend the next day’s taping. On the drive back to their home in suburban Matteson, Illinois, Jean told Finkel she wouldn’t go watch Oprah the next day. “My wife wouldn’t go because she felt the whole thing is a lie,” Finkel told me. “But I went. I thought, ‘Let him have his glory.’”
Looking back, Finkel regrets that he didn’t press Rosenblat more on his plans to tell a false story. “I didn’t want to embarrass him,” he says. “I should have come out and asked him, ‘How come you’re talking about this thing?’ I felt guilty, too. I kind of enjoyed the publicity--good things were happening for him. I kind of thought, if he can get away with it, why not? My moral judgment was suspended.”
Since Rosenblat went public with his story on “Oprah,” survivors of Piotrkow have privately discussed the many problems with his story but have been reluctant to confront him about it. “Every time I would meet with them, we would just shake our heads,” Finkel says. Several years ago, when Finkel learned that producer Harris Salomon was making a movie based on Rosenblat’s life, he wanted to set the record straight. “It was too much when I read they were going to make a movie,” Finkel recalled. “I thought I should warn the director that it’s wrong.” He e-mailed Ben Helfgott, the famous Piotrkow survivor, for advice. In the Piotrkow community, Helfgott is looked to as a father figure. After the war, Helfgott went on to represent England at the Olympics in 1956 and 1960 in weightlifting and was a leader in prominent Jewish organizations in the U.K., including the Yad Vashem Committee of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, of which he was the chairman. Finkel told me that Helfgott’s assistant wrote him back and said, “We should let it go.” Seeing Helfgott’s comments to Kenneth Waltzer, the director of the Jewish Studies program at Michigan State University--”The story is a figment of his imagination”; “There is not a word of truth in what he is saying”--in The New Republic spurred Finkel to break his silence.
Helfgott confirmed his conversation with Waltzer when I spoke with him on the morning of December 26. Herman’s story is “simply an invention,” he told me. “I was with him in Piotrkow where the deportations took place. I was with him in labor camps in Poland. I was with him everywhere,” Helfgott explains.
“Just to give you an example which completely destroys what he says: He said he used to go every day to the barbed wire and talk to her. The days’ darkness came at four o’ clock, five o’clock. We didn’t get back to the camp until 6:30 in the evening,” he said. ”We were not on a holiday. We had to be at work at six o’clock in the morning, and we didn’t get back until 6:30 at night. If you just take this one example, it immediately knocks it down. Nobody ever went to the barbed wire. When we got back to the camp, we got our rations and we went to sleep. I never ever approached the fence. And I can tell you I was much more enterprising than he was.”
Other survivors who have known Rosenblat are also distressed that his book is being released. “It’s a lie. It’s one big lie,” says Henry Golde, 79, who was liberated with Herman from Theresienstadt, in 1945. Rosenblat “was normal,” Golde adds. “I don’t know what happened. Something went haywire, to tell a lie like that on national TV. It’s terrible.” Golde, a former New York City cab driver who now lives in Appleton, Wisconsin, says he was angry when he first read about Herman’s story in the 1990s. “What the hell? I said. What the hell is he writing about?” Golde remembers.
Regina Samuelson, who was with the Rosenblat brothers in 1943 before they were sent to Schlieben, and became close friends with Sam in Florida in the 1990s, first learned about Herman’s story after his Oprah appearance in 1996. “He should be ashamed of himself to write such a story,” she told me. “I don’t know if you saw the movie lately, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas--at least they say this is a fantasy! But here he makes it sure you would believe it. Things like that didn’t happen.” Samuelson is angry that Rosenblat’s account could call into question other survivors’ tales. “It was horrible as it was, the Holocaust. And how dare him make up such a fantasy!” Samuelson says.
In recent years, Finkel, who is a retired sales manager, has become increasingly alarmed at the exposure Rosenblat’s story has received. In the mid-1990s, Finkel attended a reunion of the survivors of Piotrkow, in Florida. Finkel spent the week at the house of Sam and Jutta Rosenblat. “When we got together, we usually talked about the past,” Finkel says. “[Sam] was very unhappy, and he was really upset that his brother did this. He was disgusted with Herman. He said, ‘You see what Herman did? You see the stories he’s telling?’”
To Finkel, Rosenblat’s story seems to have snowballed out of control. “He’s not a liar,” Finkel says, wrestling with Rosenblat’s motivation in sticking to his story all these years. “My own feeling looking back on it, and it’s just a feeling, is that going on Oprah’s show was something you couldn’t take back.”
On December 25, I reached Herman and Roma’s son Ken Rosenblat, who lives in New Jersey. Ken had been shot along with Herman in a store robbery back in Brooklyn, and remains in a wheelchair. I summarized to Ken the various accounts that dispute the veracity of his parents’ story. With pain in his voice, he replied, “I can’t help you with this. It’s something--I don’t talk about this very much. I appreciate what you’re doing. I wish you luck. I understand and appreciate it. As far as what I know, my father’s story is true. I just--you know--it’s something I don’t talk about.”
Ken’s sister, Renee Rosenblat Enea, told me that as children, they never heard Herman tell his story. “I grew up in a family where my parents never talked about their experiences. The reason being they wanted me to grow up as normal an American as I could be,” she told me by phone from her home on Long Island. It’s been upsetting to Renee that fellow survivors are questioning her father’s story. “All my father is trying to do--he’s trying to educate schools on the Holocaust and educate people on love and not to hurt people and that you’ll find love like he found love,” she says. When I relayed the account by Finkel and others that Herman invented his story, she grew angry. “He wrote a story that is from his heart and soul and that he lived. That’s who he is. He lived this story. This happened to him. This is what it is. It’s a true story. As far as the world knows, and he knows, it’s true.”
Renee, a freelance stylist who has worked for Playboy and New York’s WPIX television station, adds, “If you want to know the truth, I have not [read it]. I don’t know the bad, I don’t need to know the bad. I think it will hurt a lot. I don’t need to know bad things, and I’m sensitive.” But she said she understood why people have been trying to undermine her father. She told me that her experience in fashion and media taught her that successful people are always targets. “I know how this works,” she says. “I know people want to take other people down. And to deny a 78-year-old man his life is disgusting.”
Harris Salomon, the president of Atlantic Overseas Pictures, the company producing the film adaptation of Herman’s story, told me he stands by Herman’s account. “I have no change in my position from my earlier conversation with you,” he said. When I asked Salomon to explain the inconsistencies in Herman and Roma’s story, he said that Herman told him that Roma has had “mental problems over the years” and is on “medication of a psychological nature.”
“I know she’s on medication, I can’t say whether what she told someone was correct or not,” Salomon told me. He added that he hadn’t spoken to Herman since The New Republic’s earlier piece ran, and couldn’t make either Herman or Roma available for comment. He said that is up to the publisher or his agent. “I have nothing further to say,” he said.
Herman’s editor at Berkely Books, Natalee Rosenstein, did not respond to messages or e-mail by deadline. Leslie Gelbman, the editor-in-chief of Berkley Books, did not respond to e-mails by deadline.
Berkley’s winter catalogue includes an endorsing quote from Rabbi Anchelle Perl. “We live in a time where we need hope and a positive outlook in life, and Herman’s story reminds us that goodness will always overcome badness, and light will overcome darkness,” Perl is quoted. In February 2005, Perl bar mitzvahed Herman in Mineola, Long Island, which attracted a new round of media attention. When I asked Perl about the quote, he said Berkley took his comments out of context. “Any quote they have has nothing to do with the book,” he told me. He said that his comments referred only to Herman’s bar mitzvah at the age of 76, not to his reunion with Roma.
“There’s no possibility this is true, I wish there was,” Finkel says. “You have to give him credit, he has a very fertile imagination ... The one thing you need to know about survivors is that everybody is competing with everyone else. The unfortunate thing, is everyone wants a better story. And he wanted to have the best story.”
“We lived with fear, we lived with hunger, we were eaten by lice and bugs, and to start writing about a love story? It makes good reading, but it’s not necessary,” Helfgott says.
“A love story set in a concentration camp as a way of teaching about the Holocaust actually inverts the reality of the Holocaust, denies it in its own way,” Waltzer wrote me in an e-mail. “The reality of being in a concentration camp was that ... [n]ormal impulses like those of young lovers were disrupted, collapsed. The idea that two people in the circumstances described--a prisoner in a camp, in a group of brothers, the primary source of loyalty, and a girl in hiding under false identity with a family group, her primary source of loyalty--would put all up for grabs by meeting daily in the open at a guarded electrified fence means that the writer didn’t really understand, and the publishers and moviemaker didn’t really understand either. And this is why all this is so important. There is denial of the Holocaust, this isn’t that, but there is also denial of the substance or reality of the Holocaust--and this is definitely that.”
Helfgott told me he still views Herman as a friend. “I speak up with great sorrow,” he says. “I don’t like it. He is my friend, and he will always be my friend. He got intoxicated with it. And so he wants to carry on.”
Jutta says she hasn’t tried to talk to Herman about his story since her husband died two years ago. “I have nothing to do with Herman or his story,” she told me. “It’s his life. It’s his conscience.”
Gabriel Sherman is a special correspondent for The New Republic.