(Joseph Berger, Motoko Rich)
A man whose memoir about his experience during the Holocaust was to have been published in February has admitted that his story was embellished, and on Saturday evening his publisher canceled the release of the book.
And once again a New York publisher and Oprah Winfrey were among those fooled by a too-good-to-be-true story.
This time, it was the tale of Herman Rosenblat, who said 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. The couple celebrated their 50th anniversary this year.
Ms. Winfrey, who hosted Mr. Rosenblat and his wife, Roma Radzicki Rosenblat, on her show twice, called their romance “the single greatest love story” she had encountered in her 22 years on the show. On Saturday night, after learning from Mr. Rosenblat’s agent that the author had confessed that the story was fabricated, Berkley Books, a unit of Penguin Group that was planning to publish “Angel at the Fence,” Mr. Rosenblat’s memoir of surviving in a sub-camp of Buchenwald with the help of his future wife, canceled the book and demanded that Mr. Rosenblat return his advance.
Harris Salomon, who is producing a movie based on the story, said he would go ahead with the film, but as a work of fiction, adding that Mr. Rosenblat had agreed to donate all earnings from the film to Holocaust survivor charities.
Berkley’s decision came in the same year that another unit of Penguin, Riverhead Books, was duped by Margaret Seltzer, the author of “Love and Consequences,” her fabricated gang memoir about her life as a white girl taken into an African-American foster home in South Central Los Angeles. She had in fact been raised by her biological family in a well-to-do section of the San Fernando Valley. It also followed the revelations, nearly three years ago, that James Frey, the Oprah Winfrey-annointed author “A Million Little Pieces,” had exaggerated details of his memoir of drug addiction.
This latest literary hoax is likely to trigger yet more questions as to why the publishing industry has such a poor track record of fact-checking.
In the latest instance, no 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. Craig Burke, director of publicity for Berkley, declined to elaborate beyond the company’s brief statement announcing the cancellation of the book. In an e-mail message, a spokesman for Ms. Winfrey also declined to comment.
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 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.
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.”
According to Ms. Hurst, who represents other inspirational writers including Bernie Siegel, author of “Love, Medicine & Miracles,” Mr. Rosenblat first concocted his story in the mid 1990s as an entry to a newspaper contest soliciting the “best love stories.” In 1996, he appeared on Ms. Winfrey’s show with his wife and repeated the fabricated story. From there, it snowballed, with versions appearing in magazines, a volume of the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series, and a children’s book, “Angel Girl,” by Laurie Friedman, released in September by an imprint of Lerner Publishing. Mr. and Mrs. Rosenblat, who now live in North Miami Beach, appeared on CBS’s “Early Show” in October.
As media coverage of Mr. Rosenblat’s story spread, scholars and others began to question the veracity of the romance throughout the blogosphere, pointing out that, among other things, the layout of the camp would have prevented the pair from meeting at a fence.
In a telephone interview in November, Mr. Rosenblat defended his story against such doubts. He said that his section of Schlieben, a sub-camp of Buchenwald, was not well guarded and that he could stand between a barracks and the six-to-eight-foot fence out of sight of guards. Roma was able to approach him because there were woods that would have concealed her.
In recounting the stunning “reunion” with Ms. Radzicki 12 years later as survivors living in New York, Mr. Rosenblat said Ms. Radzicki told him she had saved a boy by hurling apples over a fence to him.
“Did he have rags on his feet instead of shoes?” Mr. Rosenblat said he asked her.
She said yes and he told her, “That boy was me.”
In a telephone interview Sunday, Ms. Hurst, who sold the book to Berkley for less than $50,000, said she always believed the essential truth of Mr. Rosenblat’s tale until last week. “I believed the teller,” Ms. Hurst said. “He was in so many magazines and books and on ‘Oprah.’ It did not seem like it would not be true.” On Sunday, Ms. Hurst said that she was reviewing her legal options because “I’ve yet to see what kind of repercussions could come from this, and I was lied to.”
Ms. Hurst said that Mr. Rosenblat did provide some documentation, including a 1946 letter from a warden with the Jewish Children’s Community Committee for the Care of Children From the Camps that said Mr. Rosenblat had attended a technical school in London. Evidence of an organization with that name did not appear in Internet searches on Sunday.
Susanna Margolis, a New York-based ghost writer who polished Mr. Rosenblat’s manuscript, said she was surprised by his description of his first blind date with Ms. Radzicki. “I thought that was far-fetched.” she said. “But if somebody comes to you, as an agent and a publisher, and says, ‘This is my story,’ how do you check it other than to say, ‘Did this happen?’ ”
That so many would get taken in by Mr. Rosenblat’s inauthentic love story seems incredible given the number of fake memoirs that have come to light in the last few years. The Holocaust in particular has been fertile territory for fabricated personal histories: earlier this year, Misha Defonseca confessed that her memoir, “Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years,” about her childhood spent running from the Nazis and living with wolves, was not true.
A decade ago, a Swiss historian debunked Binjamin Wilkomirski’s 1996 memoir, “Fragments,” which described how he survived as a Latvian Jewish orphan in a Nazi concentration camp. It turns out the book was written by Bruno Doessekker, a Swiss man who spent the war in relative comfort in Switzerland. Mr. Rosenblat, at least, appears to have told the truth about being a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camps.
The primary sleuth in unmasking his fabrication of the apple story was Kenneth Waltzer, director of Jewish studies at Michigan State University. He has been working on a book on how 904 boys — including the Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel — were saved from death by an underground rescue operation inside Buchenwald, and has interviewed hundreds of survivors, including boys from the ghetto at Piotrkow in Poland who were taken with the young Herman Rosenblat to the camp.
When Dr. Waltzer asked other survivors who were with Mr. Rosenblat about the tossed apple story, they said the story couldn’t possibly be true.
In his research of maps drawn by ex-prisoners, Dr. Waltzer learned that the section of Schlieben where Mr. Rosenblat was housed had fences facing other sections of the camp and only one fence — on the south — facing the outside world. That fence was adjacent to the camp’s SS barracks and the SS men there would have been able to spot a boy regularly speaking to a girl on the other side of the fence, Dr. Waltzer said. Moreover, the fence was electrified and civilians outside the camp were forbidden to walk along the road that bordered the fence.
Dr. Waltzer also learned from online documentation that Ms. Radzicki, her parents and two sisters were hidden as Christians at a farm not outside Schlieben but 210 miles away near Breslau.
Holocaust survivors and scholars are fiercely on guard against any fabrication of memories because they taint the truth of the Holocaust and raise doubts about the millions who were killed or brutalized.
“There’s no need to embellish, no need to aggrandize,” said Deborah E. Lipstadt, the Dorot professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University. “The facts are horrible, and when you’re teaching about horrible stuff you just have to lay out the facts.”
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company