MET genealogist was whistleblower on recent Holocaust memoirs
It was an amazing tale of a love born in the darkness of the Holocaust, of apples tossed with affection over a concentration camp fence, of a chance reunion years later, followed by a 50-year marriage. Then came a children’s book inspired by the couple’s fateful bond, a memoir deal, and film production. Oprah twice put them in front of her audience to share a story that was incredibly moving, and in the opinion of forensic genealogist and BU faculty member Sharon Sergeant (MET’83), literally incredible.
According to Herman Rosenblat’s memoir Angel at the Fence: The True Story of a Love That Survived, a Jewish girl named Roma, hiding out with her family, threw apples and bread to him over the fence of the Schlieben concentration camp. Many years later, on a blind date in the United States, the two met, and have been married ever since.
But using Nazi transport lists, Holocaust testimonials, camp maps, and city records in the United States and Europe, Sergeant, along with several colleagues, determined that while Rosenblat did spend time in Nazi labor camps, he and Roma Radzicky were never both in the same area when the events were supposed to have taken place. The publication of Angel at the Fence has since been canceled, and Rosenblat has admitted that much of his story is false. Work on the film version, however, continues.
Rosenblat defended his intentions — to educate the world on the Holocaust and to promote tolerance — on ABC’s Good Morning America on Wednesday, his first interview since the fraud was uncovered. “It wasn’t a lie,” he said. “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.”
Angel at the Fence isn’t the first bogus Holocaust memoir that Sergeant has exposed. In fall 2008, she and fellow genealogist Colleen Fitzpatrick made headlines by discrediting Misha Defonseca’s best-selling 1997 autobiography Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years, which recounted a childhood on the run from Nazi soldiers and a trek across Europe protected by wolves. And last spring, Sergeant quietly debunked another Holocaust autobiography that was being considered for publication. “I frankly have more experience with this than I thought I would,” Sergeant says. “I really don’t want to be a hoax expert. In a lot of ways, it’s quite unpleasant. I’d rather do the positive stuff.”
To that end, Sergeant, who is an instructor in the new genealogical research program at Metropolitan College’s Center for Professional Education, teaches students to tackle such conundrums as missing heirs, forged identities, disputed estates, and the whereabouts of adopted children.
BU Today asked Sergeant what first gave Rosenblat away and what legitimate memoirists and nonfiction writers need to watch out for.
BU Today: How did you get involved with the Rosenblat case?
Sergeant: I volunteered. A number of people were beginning to question the story, and in November, I was contacted through the original publisher for the Defonseca memoir. So I said OK, I’ll take a look and see if there’s anything obvious. Originally, I thought it was more misremembering or embellishment as opposed to an outright fraud like Misha Defonseca.
What was the first thing you looked at?
I started with the U.S. records and began reconstituting the Rosenblat family and working backwards. At that point, the story had been repeated in many places — in Reader’s Digest and in several spiritual publications, and it had been on Oprah. But it was really very skimpy in terms of details. So the first thing I determined was that Herman Rosenblat and his three brothers, as he stated, did come to the United States about the same time period that he was talking about and that the names he gave for his brothers were correct.
When did you first get an inkling that something was off?
The Rosenblat marriage date wasn’t what they said it was. There was a big hoopla in 2008 around their 50th wedding anniversary, and they were on Oprah for the second time. Over several decades, they had lived both in New York state and in Florida, so I was checking public records there. In 1988, when they were selling a property in Florida, they signed an affidavit that there were no liens and that they were lawfully married. Their marriage date was 1959, so they were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary a year early.
And this was the tip of the iceberg?
You start to see other little things. I call them zigzags. Things are diverging from the record, and there’s a vagueness about things that you would think they would be specific about. And then they’ll be very specific about something that you’d think, well, why do they feel they have to explain that? Those patterns are red flags. You also find a lot of truth in the story. In order to make something up, people usually take a lot of facts that they can remember. Because it’s really difficult to make everything up and remember it.
Herman claimed very vaguely and generally that Roma was tossing the apples over the fence at Schlieben for seven months. Sometimes it would be five months, but basically a long period of time. But we knew from the Nazi transport list and the testimonies of the survivors, many of whom were with Herman all the way from the Piotrkow ghetto and labor camps through Buchenwald to Schlieben to the work camp in Czechoslovakia where they were liberated, that Herman wasn’t at Schlieben that long. Herman was also only in Buchenwald a few days in the transport process — from December 2 to 8, 1944 — not years, as he implied.
So the whole bit about Roma and the apples is made up completely?
Yes. We found that Roma and her family were in hiding in Eastern Poland, 200 miles away, at that time.
Why do Holocaust memoirs seem prone to falsification?
These frauds are popular. Lots of reporters have said, ‘So what if they embellished the story? It’s a nice story, they’re an elderly couple.’ But, of course, the problem from a Holocaust standpoint, and from the standpoint of survivors who tell their real stories, is that it’s really not fair game to lay a fairy tale on the Holocaust stage.
How do supporters of these stories react to your inquiries?
It’s hard to convince people when they like the story. The Rosenblats’ story is very well liked. It has a fairy tale element to it. Some of these stories have been around for a while, and there’s lot of support for them. If you’re looking for information, you have to be very careful, because people might think you’re doing some kind of Holocaust denier thing or are on a witch hunt. In the case of the one in the spring that we handled quietly, the publisher saw me as some kind of Nazi fascist, a witch-hunter, a hoax hunter. There was a lot of name-calling. That’s one of the side effects.
Are you looking at any other possible literary frauds?
No Holocaust frauds. The case we’re working on now, which I can’t give a lot of details on, is an international one based in Europe. The book had much bigger book sales internationally than Defonseca, and has been translated into 34 languages. The thing that makes this one so serious is that it’s a money machine for a nonprofit organization. We haven’t completed the investigation, but it looks like an ends-justifies-the-means kind of thing. The story, and the book that funds the organization, is not something we believe is true. We’re in the process of gathering the documentation.
In this age of memoir fraud, publishers must be eager to pick your brain.
Yes. In fact, we’re working with Publishers Weekly to talk more about this. They interviewed us after the Rosenblat case broke. We’re really trying to pitch the positive side of doing research and due diligence and preventing problems, even inadvertent problems.
What advice do you have for memoirists and nonfiction writers?
If you do the research and anchor the stories in fact, you won’t misremember. You can still tell your personal truths, your perceptions, but you will be anchored in the structure of the documentation.
Caleb Daniloff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments