by Kathy Miller Haines
It’s happened again, another “memoir” cancelled because it was proven largely untrue. This time the offender is Herman Rosenblatt. His book Angel at the Fence told of his imprisonment at Buchenwald and how a young girl used to throw him apples over the concentration camp’s fence. Many years later they met and married. In fact long before he had a publishing deal, Rosenblatt’s tale was touted on Oprah as one of the “greatest love stories ever told.”
Multiple appearances on the show led to an eventual book deal with Penguin. It wasn’t the publisher’s in-house fact checkers who realized something was amiss with his story, but Holocaust scholar Kenneth Waltzer who realized that the layout of the camp would’ve made such repeated encounters impossible, not to mention that the plentiful supply of apples the girl had access to (an apple a day for seven months) couldn’t have existed during a time of heavy German rationing that followed a particularly harsh winter.
While Waltzer’s explanation for why the story rang false makes the fraud seem obvious in retrospect, it’s not hard to imagine why editors overlooked the problems with Rosenblatt’s book. If a story is artfully told, or if enough of it feels true, we are quick to ignore those little inconsistencies that might otherwise draw our notice. And if the story is about one of our sacred cows, we are even more loathe to question its veracity. After all, why would anyone lie about the Holocaust? Especially someone who really did experience it first hand?
Because that’s what makes Rosenblatt’s deception particularly difficult to swallow: he really is a Buchenwald survivor who was imprisoned during the years he claimed. And rather than telling that no doubt extraordinary tale, he felt like he had to puff up his story and make it a little bit more interesting. In fact, the whole saga apparently began when a newspaper solicited readers for Valentine Day tales of how they met. You can almost picture Herman trying to make his story as high concept as possible in hopes of winning the prize. Not only does he set it in the Holocaust, he puts apples in the plot so the story isn’t just tragic, it’s biblical.
As a fiction writer, I’m always fascinated by these tales of memoir deception. Perhaps it’s the publishing market that’s caused it – after all, non-fiction gets bigger money. Or maybe the public really wants bigger, more outlandish stories before they plunk down their hard-earned dollars. But my own appetite for memoir has waned over the years. And I find that nine times out of ten, I learn more insights about the human condition by picking up a really well-written novel than I do by looking for those covers that promise me a true story.
So what do you think drives these kinds of deceptions? Has the publishing business created this monster, or something else?