Another Faked Holocaust Memoir
This story has been brewing for a couple of weeks, with lots of “is it or isn’t it?” speculation–accusations by the New Republic that, in fact, the story was a lie, and defenses by the author and publisher and so forth.
The memoir is called Angel at the Fence, and was due out in February. In it, Herman Rosenblat recounted his time as a teenager in Schlieben, a sub-camp of Buchenwald. As the story goes, he met a woman who lived on a farm on the other side of the camp–a Jew pretending to be a Christian–who tossed him an apple a day over the barbed-wire fence. The war ended, everybody went their separate ways, but then the two met again, entirely by chance, on a blind date in New York in the 1950s, and figured out that she was the apple tosser and he the apple tosse. They married and lived happily ever after.
The thing was, in pre-pub, already getting fair acclaim–Rosenblat appeared twice on Oprah, who called his story “the single greatest love story, in 22 years of doing this show, we’ve ever told on the air,” and there were lots of appearances elsewhere, and the rights were sold to turn the book into a movie.
The “real life fairy tale” began to be called into question when scholars began to have a closer look–as The New Republic had reported,
While, in theory, there is a slim chance Herman was able to conceal these meetings–and the apples he received–from his fellow prisoners, [Professor Kenneth Waltzer, the director of the Jewish Studies program at Michigan State University,] 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.
And, after the initial defense, it looks like the author has ‘fessed up–the story was, indeed, a fabrication, and publication of the book will be canceled. Both Rosenblat and his wife are indeed Jews who went through the Shoah, but she was hidden at a different farm, 200 miles away from Buchenwald, and the apple thing never happened.
Faked Holocaust memoirs have become somewhat of a genre–whether about a survivor who lived with wolves or written by a non-Jew who had never come close to the camps. And, of course, even Elie Wiesel’s Night has been called into question, some wondering whether–despite the author’s claims that the book is all memoir–it might not be better read as a novel.
In some ways, I suppose this is all just a sub-genre of the “faked memoir” phenomenon, which has plenty of other entrants in its categories, but it seems to strike a particular nerve with folks. Which is understandable–in a lot of ways, it’s an attempt, basically, to exploit and profit from an atrocity, to benefit from the dead and manipulate the feelings of the living.
There’s a reason that the memoir genre is so popular these days; we all love a good story, and we all love to peek into others’ lives, and there’s a magic to glimpsing something of “what really happened” out there in the big world. Reading memoir can be a great way to learn about history or other cultures or just to walk into someone else’s life, and of course one small story can illuminate a whole universe of questions and ideas–reading Gandhi and Merton‘s autobiographies were transformative for me, personally, and not (just) because the authors happened to have had interesting lives.
Of course, many a great author has written about real life under the guise of fiction, and obviously if one is not able to stick straight to the facts of one’s life, one does have an obligation to “relabel” the story to reflect its fabricated elements (in other words, to call it semi-autobiographical fiction, or just “fiction”). As someone who’s written both memoir and a novel that was, effectively, a highly subjective/literary account of something that really happened (and is condemned, as it should be, to the drawer labeled, “well, this was good for practice”), I can tell you that there is a difference in the act of creation. If you’re writing something you’re calling memoir, you have an obligation to maintain strict integrity–it has to reflect not only internal truths, but external ones as well. Frey had evidently originally shopped A Million Little Pieces as a novel and changed the label to “memoir” to sell the thing–he knew what he was doing, and learned the hard way that people don’t like being lied to, or even “fibbed” to.
And still, I keep coming back to the genre of “faked/’embellished’ Holocaust memoir.” Is there something different–worse, perhaps?–about a faked Holocaust story? Or is it the same bad form as any other kind of attempt to dupe people into accepting a truth that isn’t true? Is there more sympathy for the falsified memoir of a survivor who married another survivor as opposed to, say, someone who never went through the Shoah at all but tried to pass off a story as his/hers? Should we evaluate Night in a different way than Rosenblat’s story, and are either of them different from Fragments? Or is it all the same in the end? What do you think?