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Hoax Buster

MET genealogist was whistleblower on recent Holocaust memoirs

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SharonSergeant.JPG

Genealogist Sharon Sergeant (MET’83) helped expose the recent Holocaust memoir "Angel at the Fence: A True Story of a Love That Survived" as a fraud. Photo courtesy of Sharon Sergeant

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 cdanilof@bu.edu.

15 Comments

15 Comments on Hoax Buster

  • Danny Bloom on 02.19.2009 at 1:15 am

    Great interview, great legwork!

    Very nice interview, Caleb. Sharon and Colleen, and Ken and Deb did great work on this, and several other people, too. I worked with Sharon on this Herman case, and enjoyed chatting with her once on the phone long disttance and in dozens of emails. Funny, she doesn’t remember me now. SMILE

    To read another version of how the Herman book was really cancelled, read this here:

    titled BRINGING DOWN THE HOAX

    http://globalwishingwell.blogspot.com

    But really, yes, Sharon did very important work on this case and deserves credit. She is one very determined and savvy reseacher and I recommend her highly. And we’re both Massachusettians, too!

  • Bill on 02.19.2009 at 1:39 am

    This woman has way too much time on time on her hands. Why not investigate something more important than a harmless fairy tale? It’s true he survived the holocaust. Who cares if they tossed apples?

  • Anonymous on 02.19.2009 at 8:02 am

    One of the more fascinating stories BU Today has published recently!

  • Anonymous on 02.19.2009 at 9:45 am

    herman rosenblat had a listed phone number in miami. why didnt sargent just call him and as him to answer her questions? he would speak to anyone.

    sargent needed this media circus to promote herself. what its all about. instead of being a hero she is a shameless self promoter.

  • Anonymous on 02.19.2009 at 9:59 am

    Whoa, Anjelica Huston works for BU?

  • Anonymous on 02.19.2009 at 10:14 am

    Herman, do you know she didn’t? Why defend an obvious lie?

    This woman? It’s her friggin job and lies about the holocaust only give ammunition to deniers. The liers are a denier’s best friend.

    I applaud Ms. Sergeant’s work, nice interview and I look forward to reading more of her findings. This is important work for those of us who want to know the truth and can’t be bothered with fairy tales.

  • Anonymous on 02.19.2009 at 10:51 am

    Great article!

    Awesome article, really interesting and it makes me want to read her new book on the European non-profit. Nice work Caleb!

  • Anonymous on 02.19.2009 at 11:25 am

    Congradulations

    The research Ms. Sergeant did on the Rosenblats’ story is crucial for the very thing she was accused of being, that is a “Holocaust denier.” Information that is presented as being factual should be just that as there is a genre in literary writing of historical-based fiction stories. The Rosenblats would have better served the survivors and victims of the Holocaust if they presented their story in such a vein. As a consequence, their account only adds fuel to the insidious motives of groups and individuals who, through either total bigotry or close-mindedness, refuse to accept the fact that the horrors of the Holocaust did occur. Ms. Sergeant is to be commended for her excellent work and BU Today for enlightening us with their article.

  • Anonymous on 02.19.2009 at 12:11 pm

    This woman has way to much...

    The comment about this “harmless fairy tale” and “who cares if they tossed apples” makes my blood boil. Holocaust survivors, such as myself, do care very much and are vigilant about spreading lies about it. We are a dying breed — in a couple of decades we will be extinct — and it is most important to us that the testimony we leave behind is scrupulously truthful.

    We all recognize what important work Sharon Sergeant and her fellow researcher have rendered to us. If this is of no interest to the person who wrote the above comment, that is her privilege. So, why doesn’t she just stick to watching “Oprah” and keep her mouth firmly shut?

  • Ken Waltzer on 02.19.2009 at 12:35 pm

    Terrific Colleague

    I worked with Sharon Sergeant and Colleen Fitzpatrick in researching the veracity of the Angel at the Fence memoir, and I want to say what a great and terrific colleague she is — our group wed the methods of forensic genealogy and social history together, discovered based on both testimonies and documentary records, that the memoir was fraudulent, and were opposed sharply in the process by the writer above who is Harris Salomon who falsely claims Sharon is self-advertising and who threatened legal action and more to stop my/our research. Boston University is lucky to have Sharon teaching about how the methods of genealogy can assist in serious research, forensic, historical, or other. The opening of the Red Cross International Tracing Service archive to scholars permits more of this work pertaining to the Holocaust.

  • Peter Kubicek on 02.19.2009 at 1:02 pm

    This woman has way too much time...

    This comment made my blood boil. “A harmless fairy tale?” “Who cares if they tossed apples?”

    Holocaust survivors, such as myself do care very much. Sharon Sergeant, together with her colleagues, has performed a great service to us by exposing the Rosenblat hoax. We are a dying breed — in a couple of decades we will all be extinct — and it matters to us very much that the testimony we leave behind is accurate and meticulously truthful.

    If the above writer does not give a damn about this, that is her privilege; so she should stick to watching Oprah and keep her mouth firmly shut.

  • Anonymous on 02.19.2009 at 2:10 pm

    Excellent research

    It is VERY important to investigate these and similar frauds. The Holocaust was a serious and significant chapter in world history, and there are many excellent memoirs and diaries which teach us what really happened during that time.
    If someone wants to write an imaginary, fictional account based on the time period, that’s no problem. But it should not be promoted as a true story, which then marginalizes the ones that are true. One does not “educate” the world and promote tolerance by publishing an imaginary account of an event.

  • Anonymous on 02.19.2009 at 2:17 pm

    BU Genealogy Faculty

    Boston University is indeed lucky to have Sharon Sergeant among the stellar faculty that teach in this new program in Genealogical Research. The other faculty include two Fellows of the American Genealogical Society, Melinde Lutz Sanborn and Thomas W. Jones, and certified genealogists Elissa Powell and Richard Andrew Pierce.

  • Danny Bloom on 02.19.2009 at 10:06 pm

    Publishers Weekly also covered this

    Publishers Weekly did a good interview with Ms Sargeant too, last month, by Judith Rosen, a Boston writer. Both Sharon and Colleen, and the entire crew they worked with, from Peter Kubicek in NYC to freelancers in Europe and Asia, did a great job on this detective work. A lone blogger who was unconnected with any of the experts or academics chanced upon a news story about the Rosenblat’s blind date, and he immediately suspected the blind date bit in the AP story was fake. Nobody believed him. People still think the blind date happened. It never happened at all. There was no blind date. Read about the blind date here, funny if it wasn’t such a tragic story: http://globalwishingwell.blogspot.com/2009/01/how-citizen-journalism-blog-in-taiwan.html

  • herman rosenblat on 03.01.2009 at 7:40 pm

    herman rosenblat refutes sargaent

    http://www.youtube.com/user/HermanRosenblat

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