Angels and liars (and another dark moment for memoirs)


Dang. Oprah is going to be seriously pissed when she sees this. Last year, she featured a compelling story that left audiences breathless: a boy in a concentration camp (cue cello) survives with the help of a girl who slips apples to him through the barbed wire fence and then years later, having resettled in America, (cue violin) astonishingly, he meets this very girl on a blind date and marries her! Herman Rosenblat first shared this heart-wrenching tale in a newspaper contest about ten years ago. It was subsequently featured on Oprah (in '96 and '07) and other media. A portion of the story was retold in Laurie Friedman's picture book Angel Girl (Carolhroda Books, 2008), and Berkley Books was gearing up to publish Rosenblat’s memoir, Angel at the Fence, in February with the film rights already optioned.

Today Lynn Andriani reports in Publishers Weekly:
Upon learning that the widely publicized Holocaust love story of Herman and Roma Rosenblat, which inspired the picture book Angel Girl, is not entirely true, Lerner Publishing Group announced yesterday that it would pull the book from shelves...The house has canceled all pending reprints and is issuing refunds on all returned books. The company is no longer offering the book for sale and is recalling the book from the market.

...After investigation by the New Republic, Rosenblat and his agent, Andrea Hurst, released statements on December 27, saying parts of his story were fabricated. Hurst’s statement said that although Rosenblat’s stories from the concentration camps were true, he invented the love story. Rosenblat also revealed that he made up the chance reunion with the girl.

This sucks on so many levels, most notably for Friedman, who took Rosenblat's story on faith (as did O) and is now going to be crucified for his sins. It's also heartbreaking for artist Ofra Amit, whose luminous paintings illustrate Angel Girl. Friedman told PW that her goal in writing the book was "to communicate that even in the darkest of times, no one should give up hope.” She might want to post that on her office wall for the next few months. She should also email it to Oprah. Since she's been chicken Freyed on this issue once before, I suspect it's going to be a cold day in Ixtapa before she features another memoir on her show, and that (said the memoirist) really kills me. The word "memoir" is becoming synonymous with "bull", and that is an injustice to all those who dig deep, do the work, and tell their true stories.

As a memoir guru, frequent flyer, and all-around motherly type, I spend a lot of my life listening to the stories of clients, seatmates, and strangers. I don't take these stories with a grain of salt; I take them with a grain of sugar. If I can't listen to someone with a willing and compassionate heart, I may as well just sit there and eat my peanuts. When you truly listen to someone's story, you're not hearing a recitation of facts; you're hearing a longing for redemption, a search for meaning, a plea for vindication or forgiveness. Some moments receive plastic surgery, others a decent burial. Shrines are built in the heart and mind. We each have our own truth.

Perhaps Rosenblat's wife is an angel in his eyes, and at what moment could an angel be more desperately prayed for? Perhaps what kept him going was the idea of a future of love and plenty. Maybe what sustained him was the faith that there would be witnesses to this terrible moment, that help was just on the other side of the wire. Or maybe he just went slightly (and understandably) nuts. In fabricating this story, either he's revealing an image created by his mind as a means of self-preservation or he's consciously spinning straw into gold, cranking out a line of BS which brought him rewards and recognition he felt he'd earned.

If Rosenblat had told this story to his grandchildren and let it go at that, there would have been no harm in it. (Oh, grow up. Sixty percent of all family lore is fairy tale. Your grandmother did not trip on the cellar stair and invent the potato pancake.) This is an elderly man who was a prisoner at Buchenwald; that much we know is factually correct. God alone knows what he actually endured and how he lived through it. If history is written by the winners, he gets to write this episode because his every heartbeat is a victory over incredible odds and unthinkable wrong. That's undisputed truth. But it's not the kind of truth that gets you on Oprah. In the memoir market, you've got to have more than truth; you gotta have a hook. The hook here was the serendipitous love story.

I wish Rosenblat had kept the angel alive for his grandchildren instead of trying to cash in on her. I also wish the story of an earth-bound woman who mended the heart of a deeply damaged man could be enough for hungry producers. And I wish there had been angels outside a lot of history's fences. In the cold light of fact, every love has lies in it, every life suffers wrongs that can never be written right. The purpose of memoir is not only to suss out emotional truth and meaning in the actual events, but also to recognize the angel and the liar in each of us. There is a way to tell what really happened and still give voice to what might have been, to what we prayed for or dreamed of. The powerful opportunity to do that here was lost in a fog of greed. This story of love and survivorship is now a saga of squandered resources, the involvement of lawyers, boxes on a loading dock at the destruction warehouse, a writer's worst nightmare.

Every time this happens, it makes me very sad for all involved and scared for the future of memoirs, which (when truly written and properly vetted) hold such healing power for both authors and readers.

Comments

Brilliant, insightful post. It's a sad situation for everyone involved.
mamele said…
beautifully said.

my next Forward column is about Angel Girl. my 7-yr-old daughter loved it. when i told her yesterday that herman made it up, she said, "that doesn't matter to me." she said a story doesn't have to be true to feel real. harry potter is made up but it feels real. and even if herman only made it up to make money, laurie friedman told his story in a beautiful way and ofra amit made beautiful pictures and the book was still good.

of course, veracity DOES matter. and as someone writing someone else's memoir, i am heartsick. but i thought josie's response, as a kid who didn't feel at all betrayed, was interesting.
Walter said…
This hoax is a tragedy. The Rosenblats have hurt Jews all over and given support to those who deny the holocaust. I don't understand why Atlantic Pictures is still proceeding to make a film based on a lie. I also don't understand how Oprah could have publicized this story, especially after James Frey and given that many bloggers like Deborah Lipstadt said in 2007 that the Rosenblat's story couldn't be true.
There are so many other worthwhile projects based on genuine love stories from the Holocaust. My favorite is the one about Dina Gottliebova Babbitt - the beautiful young art student who painted Snow White and the Seven Dwarves on the children's barracks at Auschwitz. This painting became the reason Dina and her Mother survived Auschwitz. After the end of the war, Dina applied for an art job in Paris. Unbeknownst to Dina, her interviewer was the lead animator on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. They fell in love and got married. Now that's a romantic love story! I also admire Dina for her tremendous courage to paint the mural in the first place. Painting the mural for the children caused her to be taken to Dr. Mengele, the Angel of Death. She thought she was going to be gassed, but bravely she stood up to Mengele and he made her his portrait painter, saving herself and her mother from the gas chamber.

Also, Dina's story has been verified as true. Some of the paintings she did for Mengele in Auschwitz survived the war and are at the Auschwitz Birkenau Museum. The story of her painting the mural of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on the children's barrack has been corroborated by many other Auschwitz prisoners, and of course her love and marriage to the animator of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs the Disney movie after the war in Paris is also documented.

Why wasn't the Rosenblatt's story checked out before it was published and picked up to have the movie made?? I would like to see true and wonderful stories like Dina's be publicized, not these hoax tales that destroy credibility and trust.
Joni Rodgers said…
Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

I really was sad that "Angel Girl" couldn't be kept on the market with a different cover or a new dust jacket that removed the claim that it was based on a true story. The art is so lovely and the artist was in no way responsible for the fraud. It's a crying shame.

And yes, Dina's story is wonderful. I saw a thing about her in the LA Times a while back. Something about her trying to get her paintings back, which is only right, I think.

Some of her work can be seen here:
http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-et-babbitt29nov29-pg,1,3109270.photogallery?index=1

Meanwhile, I'm curious to know if there was a ghostwriter involved in the memoir and what the legal/financial ramifications are for him/her. I'll update if I come up with that info.
mamele said…
hey, joni -- gave you a shout-out in my column. http://www.forward.com/articles/14881/. heard from professor ken waltzer at michigan state, who has been instrumental in unraveling herman's story. he has the name of herman's ghostwriter, and a copy of the manuscript (which is now to be published as a novel by a small press in white plains, btw), but he doesn't know anything about said ghostie -- and the email i have for you bounced. if you wanna contact him directly, he's waltzer AT cal.msu.edu.
Joni Rodgers said…
Thanks, Mamele. You're column was excellent. And your little Josie is wise beyond her years.

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