Bostonia: The Alumni Magazine of Boston University

By Caleb Daniloff

In her 1997 autobiography, Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years, Belgian-born Misha Defonseca claimed to have trekked war-pocked Europe for four years, starting at the age of seven, in search of her deported Jewish parents. Along the way, she wrote, she took up with a pack of wolves, slipped in and out of the Warsaw Ghetto, and killed a Nazi soldier.

Sharon Sargeant Sergeant says she wanted to set the record straight on what she believed were attempts to exploit human tragedy for personal gain. Photograph by Vernon Doucette

In Europe, the book was a smash, translated into eighteen languages and made into a hit film. In the United States, however, it had sold poorly — so poorly that Defonseca and her ghostwriter successfully sued their publisher for $33 million for inadequate promotion, one of the largest judgments in publishing history. Two years ago, publisher Jane Daniel fought back, twenty-first century style: she launched a blog, called Bestseller, questioning Defonseca’s story, hoping to nullify the court’s decision by proving the author was a fraud.

It was there online, one day in December 2007, that Sharon Sergeant (MET’83), now an adjunct faculty member in BU’s genealogical research program, stumbled upon the controversy. And she thought she might be able to help.

Since then, Sergeant has become widely known as a hoax buster, putting to work the forensic skills she’s honed over twenty years to help debunk three fraudulent Holocaust memoirs. The tools of her profession include photographic timelines and databases — vital records, census reports, property deeds, maps, newspaper interviews, obituaries, phone directories — and living relatives. Skype, online records, and blogs have also broadened her reach, and DNA testing is an option if she needs it.

“The generic view of genealogy is that it is about tracing relatives, the ‘begats,’” says Sergeant, a board member and former programs director with the Massachusetts Genealogical Council. “It’s evolved.”

But her involvement in cracking open three Holocaust hoaxes is about more than an interest in the latest technology. A former college dropout who raised a family and worked in computer engineering before discovering genealogy, Sergeant was drawn to the Defonseca case because it offered a rare opportunity to showcase her field and to set the record straight on what she believed were unconscionable attempts to exploit human tragedy for personal gain.

“I got involved because I knew the solution would have two benefits,” she says. “It would illustrate the methodology in a high-profile case, whatever the results were, and it would raise awareness for other Holocaust families about what could be done with modern genealogy techniques and records access. Simply put, I viewed it as an opportunity for the profession.”

Connecting the Dots

It was one little thing that first raised Sergeant’s eyebrows about Defonseca: the peculiar omission, in the French edition, of photos used in the American edition. Sergeant worked with photo identification experts, including occasional genealogical collaborators Colleen Fitzpatrick and Maureen Taylor, to create visual and geographic timelines. Sergeant also wondered why Defonseca had changed what she said was her adopted name, Monique De Wael, to Monique Valle. Could it have been an effort to conceal the facts from people in that part of the world who might have known her?

“Part of figuring out the story is connecting the right dots,” says Sergeant. “When we do our research, we use lots of information in the form of names, dates, places, events, activities, but they can create lots of different stories. The true story can be mixed in with other stories.”

Sergeant mined the various translations of the book and used the discrepancies among names and dates to piece together Defonseca’s true identity, which was in fact Monique De Wael. She also noticed a number of Catholic references in the text, and through contacts in Belgium, including Evelyne Haendel, a genealogist who herself had been an orphan hidden during the war, she came up with a baptismal certificate proving De Wael was not Jewish. School records showed De Wael was enrolled in grammar school, along with the sister of Defonseca’s future husband, at the time she was supposedly running across the countryside, hiding from Nazis and living with wolves.

Official documents later showed that De Wael’s father was, in fact, a Catholic resistance fighter turned collaborator. In the end, it took Sergeant a little more than a month to expose Defonseca, who had moved to the Boston area in 1985 and who had been telling her tale of desperation for twenty years.

“It didn’t start out as personal,” Sergeant says. “Once I began working with Evelyne, it became personal. I felt horrible that Evelyne had to be reminded of so much to do this work. It was very difficult for her to stand on the steps of the Schaerbeek town hall — where her own mother had been rounded up for Auschwitz — and to be there to investigate a woman who had committed such a devious fraud.”

At the same time, Serge Aroles, a French expert on wolf child stories, was questioning Defonseca’s story on blogs and in a Jewish magazine. Sergeant posted the baptismal certificate and school register on Bestseller and sent a link to Aroles. Within two days, Belgian media picked up the story and Le Soir, Belgium’s newspaper of record, tracked down relatives and published several stories. Sergeant also produced a photo that contradicted Defonseca’s claim of deformed legs and feet. Less than two weeks after Sergeant’s posting on Daniel’s blog, Defonseca confessed to Le Soir through her lawyer.

Daniel, meanwhile, is still battling the judgment against her and her small publishing company and has turned her blog into a book, also called Bestseller (Laughing Gull Press, 2008). A $425,000 inheritance, held by her father, has been written over to Defonseca, and Daniel has had to sign over her house, as well.

The Birth of a Hoax Buster

Sergeant’s path to her profession has been long and winding. After studying math and physics for two years at Northeastern University, she dropped out, had two children, and took work in computer software development. In the early days of minicomputer engineering, Digital Equipment Corporation, where Sergeant’s husband at the time worked, had partnered with Metropolitan College to host academic programs for adult students. Sergeant enrolled.

“I was in a classroom environment where the students were relatively homogeneous in that computer industry boom,” she recalls. “We were all juggling work and family. We were focused, serious, and practical.”

Later, divorced and raising her kids alone, Sergeant chipped away at her university credits. It was a time, she says, when “the only stability and validation was my academic life through MET.”

In 1985, inspired by a genealogist cousin, Sergeant began exploring her home’s property records and dabbling in family history. “I realized, in the mid-1990s, that my father’s generation was beginning to die,” she says. “I knew I had better start gathering oral history to see what this generation knew about our ancestry.”

Sergeant listened to her father, wrote things down, studied her writings, and found herself smitten. After years in computer engineering and later marketing and consulting, she had finally stumbled upon a pursuit she found so compelling that it seems at times to pursue her, sometimes in unpleasant ways.

Detractors have called Sergeant a witch-hunter, a Holocaust denier, and even a Nazi. Worse, as longtime friend Marika Barnett, a Hungarian survivor and a founder of the Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust, points out, deniers love it when Holocaust stories turn out to be made up. A single fraudulent story, she says, puts the enormous, horrific truth in doubt.

“My own story tells how I was saved by the German SS,” says Barnett. “I expect a lot of people to say this is a lie. Why would the German SS save Jews? For money, of course, but I bet there will be people who don’t believe it. Do you? Just because I said so?”

Angel at the Fence

In 1995, a now-retired television repairman named Herman Rosenblat entered a New York Post essay contest with a short story about his internment in a German concentration camp, where a young Jewish girl who was hiding nearby used to toss apples and bread over the fence to him. Years later, the story claimed, the pair met on a blind date in the United States and had been married ever since. The irresistibly moving tale won the contest, was included in Chicken Soup for the Couple’s Soul and led to an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1996. In 2007, Rosenblat and his wife, Roma, returned to Oprah, where they publicly celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary. The talk show host called it “the single greatest love story . . . we’ve ever told on air,” and it inspired a children’s book called Angel Girl. In 2008, Rosenblat published a memoir (Riverhead). A $25 million film adaptation was being readied for production.

Elsewhere, however, critical readers of Rosenblat’s book were asking probing questions and posting skeptical comments on blogs. Sergeant, who learned about the increasing online chatter from a friend, was intrigued. In November 2008, seizing another opportunity to highlight the power of forensic genealogy, she began delving into Rosenblat’s past, working backwards in time.

First, by checking immigration records she established the date Rosenblat arrived in the United States. It wasn’t long, she says, before red flags, or zigzags as Sergeant calls them, began appearing. Affidavits required for real estate transactions in Florida showed that the golden wedding anniversary Oprah was heralding on television had yet to occur. The couple was celebrating a full year early.

Sergeant also found that, starting in the 1970s, Rosenblat had been putting his holdings into Roma’s name, a move that could render him judgment-proof. She also uncovered naturalization documents that showed Roma Radzicky had come to the United States with her father, mother, young sister, and brother, who was born after the war.

“That’s important,” she says, “because usually it’s just a fraction of a family that survives. Roma’s mother and father were at an age the Nazis found useful as laborers, but the children often didn’t survive because they weren’t useful. The men would be split off from the women. That’s what happened in Herman’s family. He and his brothers were useful as laborers. But in Roma’s case, it was really strange that that large a group in a little village would survive.”

Meanwhile, Sergeant had been talking with Kenneth Waltzer, director of the Jewish Studies Program at Michigan State University and an expert on child inmates at Buchenwald and its subcamps, including Schlieben, where the apple-tossing purportedly took place. Waltzer knew from camp schematics that it would have been impossible to approach the fence without being spotted by a Nazi guard. Transport lists and survivor testimonies cast even more doubt. One notable survivor, Ben Helfgott (who later competed in the Olympics for England), was with Rosenblat through transports, labor camps, and liberation. “He told us the story was, without a doubt, a figment of Herman’s imagination,” Waltzer says. “He’d known Herman for fifty or sixty years and never heard the story until the mid-1990s.”

For Sergeant and Waltzer, Helfgott’s word went a long way toward undermining Rosenblat’s story. But not all the way.

“The worst thing you can do is make an accusation without having the proof,” Sergeant says. “We knew where Herman was, but where was Roma?”

Sergeant reconstructed the Radzicky family on both the maternal and paternal sides and traced their migration after the war. Through documents from Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and archive, and U.S. records, she tracked down Roma’s sister and then her sister’s son, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Princeton. As a fellow scholar, Waltzer got in touch with Roma’s nephew, who revealed that the family had been hiding hundreds of miles away from Schlieben during the war — and he said he could prove it. He had helped his mother apply for aid through the Conference on Material Claims Against Germany, which required a signed deposition of her story. For Sergeant, that was the smoking gun.

“Sharon’s a crackerjack,” Waltzer says. “She knows how to find pieces of evidence and how to put them together in a pattern and to develop a narrative from them. She’s active, aggressive, and smart. I learned a lot from her.”

While Sergeant was digging through records, Deborah Lipstadt, a respected confronter of Holocaust deniers, had been posting her doubts about Rosenblat’s story on her well-read blog, called simply Deborah Lipstadt’s Blog. Sergeant began using the blog to post her evidence, such as Nazi transport lists that contradicted Rosenblat’s timeline and his length of internment at Buchenwald.

In late December 2008, writer Gabe Sherman got wind of the investigation and broke the story online at The New Republic.

In the face of the evidence posted by Sherman, Rosenblat’s publisher canceled the book two months before its planned release, and his agent issued an apology. Rosenblat has apologized too, but he insists that his intent was to educate the world on the Holocaust and to promote tolerance. As with other memoir frauds, including Defonseca’s, he has tried to carve out wiggle room by claiming the story was a survival tactic, a series of events that were true in his mind at the time he wrote them.

“It wasn’t a lie,” he told ABC’s Good Morning America in February. “It was my imagination. And in my imagination, in my mind, I believed it. Even now, I believe it, that she was there and she threw the apples to me.”

Sergeant had already moved on. Last year, at the prompting of a European publisher, she quietly debunked another Holocaust memoir that was about to be published. The “autobiographical novel,” titled Rachel Sirai’s Vineyard and written by Dutch-born writer Deborah Rey, told the story of Rey’s birth mother, a Jewish violinist, who had allegedly been sent to Auschwitz by her stepmother.

“It’s a really ugly, bitter story,” Sergeant says. “A Mommie Dearest type of thing.” Sergeant tracked down Rey’s brother in Canada, who told her that he and his sister had the same non-Jewish mother, and he offered to take a DNA test. The book was withdrawn, reluctantly, and not without a few “witch-hunters” and “Fascists” thrown Sergeant’s way, the genealogist says.

The Positive Stuff

“Frankly,” Sergeant says, “I have more experience with this than I thought I would. I really don’t want to be a hoax expert. I’d rather do the positive stuff.”

The positive stuff, for Sergeant, involves applying her skills to such conundrums as missing heirs, disputed artifact collections, and the whereabouts of adopted children, and helping others to do the same.

To that end, Sergeant signed on as an instructor in the new Certificate in Genealogical Research program at MET’s Center for Professional Education, which will also be offered online. The program, whose faculty includes fellows of the respected American Society of Genealogists (ASG), caters to serious hobbyists as well as genealogical professionals, aspiring and working. There was record demand in this spring’s debut semester, and administrators increased the class size to accommodate all the students, who represent a range of professions: library science, law, medical research, journalism, and social work.

Students in the program learn how to identify random old photos by analyzing details — shadows, the type of camera used, even the significance of body parts captured on film — that might identify place and approximate date. Other exercises include tackling real open cases, such as locating an heir to $60,000 and identifying an unclaimed dead body, the victim, perhaps, of foul play, which has stumped New Hampshire police for decades.

At the core of the program, says director Melinde Sanborn, who is a vice president of ASG, is the Genealogical Proof Standard, a set of criteria for evaluating evidence and validating proof, which Sergeant used in the Rosenblat and Defonseca cases. “It’s very laudable for BU to have embraced genealogy,” Sanborn says. “It’s the first major university to put out a program like this that is based on a standards manual, so that people understand that there’s a process and that it can have fabulous results.”

Next year, drawing on techniques honed in her fraud cases, Sergeant will teach a course on researching Jewish ancestry, through the Holocaust and beyond.

“Holocaust frauds are popular,” says Sergeant. “Lots of reporters have said, ‘So what if the Rosenblats embellished the story? It’s a nice story; they’re an elderly couple.’ But the problem, from a Holocaust standpoint and from the standpoint of survivors who tell their real stories, is that it’s really not fair. It’s not fair game to lay a fairy tale on the Holocaust stage.” ■

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On 5 February 2014 at 11:14 AM, Bookwormsh wrote:

Today i started and completed reading the extra ordinary story surviving with the wolves. I was stunned by the experiences of the survivor Mishke. This interested me to google for more information about this story. What came out hit me like a whip. The story is a hoax as admitted by author. It is only a criminal mind which will try to commercialise subject of Holocaust and try to make money out of untold sufferings of the mankind.

On 24 November 2012 at 2:59 AM, Anonymous (SED’80) wrote:

The truth! I'm an old hand at separating fact from fiction when it is presented to me in oral testimony. Sadly my research has touched many a raw nerve which has had the opposite effect of what they intended and now i find myself more determined than ever to expose/draw attention to the many Holocaust liars who present themselves 60+ years later with new names and horror stories that would give children nightmares for years.

One thing that started ringing alarm bells was not only the fact that they had changed their names but in nearly every case they claim they never spoke about their wartime past until recently. We are in effect being drip fed Holocaust survivors with a sinister twist as it appears that each year a new story is told is another story that feeds the Holocaust industry and more guilt is leveled at Christians in general.

There is a Movie by Steven Spielberg called The Last Days.If you have not seen it i suggest you do, as i believe you will understand my concerns once you have seen it. Irene Zisblatt should be investigated That's all I'm saying on the matter.

On 11 March 2011 at 1:28 PM, Joe Michaels wrote:

Mazal tov, Ms. Sergeant! Outstanding work. (And exceptional article!)

On 26 December 2009 at 7:29 AM, rita innis wrote:

YouTube video of Herman Rosenblat and his publicist:

On 13 August 2009 at 3:17 PM, James Tully (MET'91) wrote:

As a MET student I did a term paper in Sociology about the Holocaust, and got to the point where I could only work on the paper about fifteen minutes at a time without breaking down in tears at the horrible human suffering wrought by the 3rd Reich. That experience sensitized me to the incredible courage of actual Holocaust survivors. To exploit their suffering for financial gain is unconscionable.

Ideally Ms. Sargeant's work will induce publishers to verify the veracity of autobiographical memoirs before committing to publication. That's where the vetting should take place, before a massive marketing campaign, movie deals, and Oprah shows. Such vetting could also give pause to other potential charlatans hoping to profit from human tragedy.

On 13 August 2009 at 2:34 PM, lrao (SPH'04) wrote:

Great story. Enjoyed reading it. Kudos to her for her diligent efforts -- no one is denying the holocaust if all they are doing is denying fame and glory (and fortune) to frauds milking the holocaust for personal gain! Those who can't see this difference between fraud and history - they are the ones with the problems!

On 12 August 2009 at 7:26 PM, John Burtis (CAS'78) wrote:

Sadly, like those who offer up fake citations and medals supposedly garnered in Vietnam and are chronicled in Stolen Valor by B.G. Burkett, it appears that the Holocaust, for whatever reason, is also rife for exploitation by a certain class and cross section of charlatans and mountebanks As a Boston University trained European historian, who was taught by his professors to always examine the sources, be they books, reminiscinces, or otherwise, I am heartened that Ms. Sharon Sergeant is devoting so much time to insuring the veracity of those who claim to be survivors of that once and forever hellish process. Survivors carry great weight by the very fact that they did survive, are therefore looked upon with reverence, and membership must, in every case possible, be vetted by someone unafraid. And as the Wiesenthals and the Klarsfelds pass away, their torches must be picked up by people like Ms. Sharon Sergeant. Ms. Sergeant has my praise in doing so.

On 12 August 2009 at 4:25 PM, Sarah Cortell (CAS'09) wrote:

Great story! We must preserve the integrity of those that went through the Holocaust.

On 12 August 2009 at 12:39 PM, Jennifer (CAS'08) wrote:

I think that people are overreacting by calling Ms. Sergeant a Holocaust denier. She isn't denying anything except the abuse of the tragedy to make money. I'm glad she is doing her research and I hope she continues. Also, she never denied Rosenblat's presence in a concentration camp, just the story of him and his wife. I hope people continue to praise Ms. Sergeant's work, and I hope she keeps up the good work.

On 12 August 2009 at 9:04 AM, Anonymous (SPC'72) wrote:

I wonder if Ms. Sergeant busts other hoaxes or only spends her time fueling the fires of Holocaust deniers by finding the few false Holocaust stories and bringing great attention to them. Frankly, I question her motives.

On 8 July 2009 at 12:04 AM, Danny Bloom (CAS'71) wrote:

A very compelling story, yes. Ms Sargeant deserves huge credit for what she has accomplished. Hopefully, her skills in this kind of work will be passed on to others in the younger generations who can keep an eye on all future hoaxes. Very good report!

On 6 July 2009 at 12:20 PM, Anonymous wrote:

Unfortunately these people are extremely dogged. Rey, for example, is still screaming 'fascist', 'Nazi', witch hunt' etc, and has now resorted to posting her entire book online, proclaiming it now a 'novel' whilst still strongly hinting, in public and private, that it is autobiographical.

She declares, too, that the book was withdrawn by herself and the publisher - in fact it was withdrawn by the publisher alone, when they were confronted by more-or-less indisputable evidence that her claims were untrue, not least being the fact that, like Defonseca, she is not even Jewish..

The book contains many, many inaccuracies (dates, places etc), which are obvious to anyone with any knowledge of WW11, military history, and especially the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, but still she seems to have gathered together yet another steadily growing fanclub.

As Sergeant says, manna from heaven for Holocaust deniers.

On 3 July 2009 at 4:54 AM, Anonymous wrote:

The shame and the blames should most of all go to the publishers who are certainly not stupid enough not to know that it is all a big lie !! If they are such idiots, they should be careful about their judgements and verify those stories. But they are so greedy that they do not care a bit . If they were good human beings they would refuse to publish,without certainty (most deportees would have told them this was impossible during World War II) and explain to the writers, that they will create a lot of damages and give opportunities to "negationists" at work

On 2 July 2009 at 3:06 PM, Bernard Couming wrote:

The study and practice of Genealogy is rarely thought of as "forensic science", but Ms Sergeant's efforts have exposed the value of Public Records. The current political climate would have access denied, and thereby protect the fraud merchants. Bravo.

On 1 July 2009 at 3:18 PM, Peter Kubicek wrote:

Sharon Sergeant's work is always right on the money. I got to know her impressive qualities when I contributed to her, and to other researchers' work on the Herman and Roma Rosenblat hoax, called "Apples Over The Fence." I approached that story not from a scholar's point of view, but from the other side of the fence, so to speak, from the vantage point of one who was there, as a survivor of six German concentration camps. When I came upon that heart-warming tale about 13 months ago, it immediately did not pass my smell test. I found most of its elements totally implausible and some of the Rosenblat assertions simply contrary to verifiable historical facts. As the tale proceeded, Herman, flushed with his fame, kept adding more and more preposterous details which only drove further nails into his fabulations. My own view was driven strictly by the desire to keep the testimony of us survivors truthful and without embellishment. In the process, all of us working on this case w! ere attacked by a throng of gullible souls who preferred sweet stories to brutal truth. Unfortunately, there simply are no sweet stories of the Holocaust.

On 1 July 2009 at 2:59 PM, Anonymous wrote:

Very compelling story. Video is beautifully done!

On 1 July 2009 at 12:47 PM, Greg (COM'06) wrote:

Excellent stuff! I'd love to see longer form content.

On 1 July 2009 at 10:56 AM, Melinde Lutz Sanborn (MET'09) wrote:

Sharon Sergeant is devoted to the truth, even when it is controversial. No one is more dogged in this pursuit, and no one shines more brightly when motivations are revealed. Genealogists routinely solve issues like this, where others fail to recognize either a clue to a solution or the steps to the proof. Bravo on a quality highlight on this BU alumna.

On 1 July 2009 at 11:39 AM, Donald Byrne - GRS, Adjunct Faculty wrote:

I know a bit about genealogy but never grasped the full extent to which these techniques could be use.

Congratulations to Ms Sergeant. If people are allowed to tell lies about the Holocaust - then others will begin to doubt its reality. Holding to the truth and confronting those that would benefit from this tragedy is nothing short of wonderful.

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