Remembering Another False “Memory”: The Rosenblats, Oprah, and the Holocaust Love Story

Herman and Roma

Herman and Roma

Somehow I missed this story, because if I had noticed it, I know I would have written about it. Maybe you missed it too.

Herman Rosenblat died on Feb. 5, and his death was noted in several publications, not for his life, which included surviving the Holocaust, but because of a charming story he told that turned out to false. He had written in a memoir about a mysterious young girl on the other side of the barbed wire fence who help kept him alive as a starving teenage inmate at Buchenwald. As recounted in another book:

“He saw her pull something from her pocket. An apple? She squinted, gauging the distance between them, swung her arm in a few practice throws, then hurled the apple with a force that surprised him. The fruit flew across most of the distance between them before it dropped to the ground, rolled under the fence and landed just inches beyond the wire on Herman’s side.”

Day after day, the same mysterious “angel,” as he thought of her, risked her life by throwing apples to him over the fence.

Twelve years after the war, he had a blind date in Coney Island. His date told him about her experiences in Europe during the war, and how she wondered what had become of a young boy she remembered throwing apples to in a German death camp.  Stunned, Herman said that he asked, “Did he wear rags on his feet instead of shoes?”  When she answered that he did, Herman exclaimed, ‘That boy was me!” They were married, and it was a loving union that lasted 56 years.

Herman told the story to friends and acquaintances for decades. Eventually it ended up in a local paper, and Oprah Winfrey got wind the kind of genuine tear-jerker her loyal audience loved. She had him tell the story on “Oprah” in 2007, as he presented the girl, now Roma Radzicki Rosenblat, with a ring from J. C. Penney to mark their 50th wedding anniversary on the show. Not a dry eye in the house.

Herman and Rosa were officially famous.There was a book contract and a movie deal. Their amazing love story was retold in the “Chicken Soup for the Soul”  series. Then skeptics came and spoiled it all. Holocaust expert Deborah Lipstadt, a professor at Emory University, examined the tale and wrote that it had “so many shortcomings that one hardly knows where to begin.” Other inmates of the camps pointed out that approaching the fence, as Rosenblat said he did to receive his apples, would have meant death.  “Nobody ever went to the barbed wire,” one of them, Ben Helfgott, told the New Republic magazine during its investigation. “I never ever approached the fence. And I can tell you I was much more enterprising than he was.” It turned out that the only external fence was near the SS barracks, and civilian access was restricted. Roma was hiding from the Nazis more than 200 miles away from the camp, and that’s a long way to throw an apple,

Finally, Herman confessed that the mysterious girl was not his wife; in fact, she had never existed at all. He had a great rationalization though, a couple of them, in fact. He said in a 2008 statement explaining his conduct:

“I brought good feelings to a lot of people and I brought hope to many. My motivation was to make good in this world. In my dreams, Roma will always throw me an apple, but I now know it is only a dream.”

Having learned a hard lesson from the James Frey fiasco, Oprah did not, this time, excuse the lie and say, “At this point, what difference does it make?” She announced that she was “very disappointed” in the hoax. Berkeley Books canceled its scheduled release of his memoir, titled “Angel at the Fence: The True Story of a Love that Survived,” since it was no longer a “true story,”

Rosenblatt stubbornly stuck to the dream explanation, and insisted that he hadn’t lied. “In my imagination, in my mind, I believed it,” he told “Good Morning America.  “Even now, I believe it, that she was there and she threw the apple to me.”  Sure. And all those years, loving Rosa never once said to him, “You know I was never near that prison, right?”

Maybe she had the same dream.

Or maybe they were dreaming of something else.

It’s too much to swallow. Whatever the motivation was for the miraculous Holocaust love story that wasn’t, Mrs. Rosenblatt was an accomplice.


32 thoughts on “Remembering Another False “Memory”: The Rosenblats, Oprah, and the Holocaust Love Story

  1. It’s increasingly about “teaching to the story” to make a point rather than telling the truth, like the nameless, locationless story making its way about the internet right now where a righteous ER nurse is summoned direct from stitching up a victim of child abuse to the school where her daughter has just given a male classmate a bloody nose for pinging her bra after the teacher told her to ignore the teasing. There she proceeds to tell off the classmate, the classmate’s parents, the teacher and the principal in one long rant without any of them getting a word in edgewise. If you’d rather a more historical equivalent there’s always the story of how Gen. Pershing broke the Filipino Muslim rebels by capturing several, then shooting all but one with bullets dipped in freshly slaughtered pig blood and fat, after which they never challenged the Americans again. Pershing didn’t actually do this, but the story regularly makes its way onto conservative and Tea Party pages as an example of how the US should be handling Muslims now.

    • I prefer the true Pershing story about how insisted that his grave at Arlington, when the time came, be the standard, small, soldier’s marker of the time, no larger or more impressive than the least of his men. When I go to see my dad and mom, his is one grave I always visit. The others: Audie Murphy and the Unknown Soldier.

    • The Pershing version is an outgrowth of a story … the original being a good deal more serious as it is one of the direct causes of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 (aka The First War for Freeing From the British Occupation) which began with the Sepoy Rebellion, the first overt act of the Mutiny.

      All due to a new gun [full disclosure for classic weapons fans: yay for google] — the Pattern 1853 Enfield rifled musket replaced their old smoothbore Brown Bess. The gun was new; the loading process stayed the same. Stick the cartridge in your mouth, bite it open, pour the gunpowder into the rifle’s muzzle, stuff the cartridge case (this was the culprit: waterproofing grease on the paper-coated case) into the musket as wadding, and load the ball. [fyi: “The rifle’s cartridges contained 68 grains of FF blackpowder, and the ball was typically a 530-grain Pritchett or a Burton-Minié ball.”

      Rumor was already out through the Indian troops that the standard issue cartridges for this rifle were greased with lard (pig fat) AND tallow (beef fat), thus breaking sacred codes and caste for both Muslim and Hindu soldiers, tantamount to, say, … whatever you think would be a ‘death-before-dishonor’ situation. Of course, British officers dismissed the claims offhand in their inimitable offhand fashion, and instead of insisting the cartridges were okay (which could have bought time until they had at least checked the manufacture and ordered a new batch), they backpedalled and told the sepoys to make their own fresh cartridges, greased with beeswax or ghee (clarified butter from camels milk (in the North) or water buffalo (South)) or whatever they preferred. This was taken by the Indian soldiers to be proof that there was something wrong. The reinforced rumor became conviction and the Mutiny spread through the population, beginning a revolt that would shed a river of blood (Gandhi notwithstanding) for the next 90 years.

      The persistence of this story, through attributing pig-fat terrorism to dashing “Black Jack” Pershing (who actually dealt in a remarkably civilized and effective manner with the Moros), up to today’s commercial scam — “Silver Bullet Gun Oil has begun selling a line of products for automatic weapons that allegedly contains 13% liquefied pig fat for the expressed purpose of killing Muslims and denying them “a place in paradise” — may be due to the fact that the original, unlike the Rosenblatts’ dream, had its roots in truth. Turns out that the Enfield’s cartridges — at least those batches that had been delivered with the new rifles — were sourced differently, accidentally creating the double-whammy: those manufactured in Great Britain were greased with lard made from pig fat; those manufactured at an arsenal in India used tallow from cows. The reason in both cases was negligence and economics: nobody told the makers what ingredients to use, and both pig and cow were cheaper than the goat or mutton that they were thought to be using all along.

      As far as defending a story by its good intentions, like the Rosenblat lie (means-justifying-ends), the British coverup (also a lie since the truth was unknown at the time) shoots itself in the foot. As it turned out, interestingly enough, once the fighting got going the mutineers, Hindu and Muslim alike, no longer appeared in the least concerned about using the suspect cartridges.

        • His service with the Buffalo Soldiers.

          Confirming that, as I unfortunately have to, now that tons of oral knowledge turns out to be incorrect, I learned it wasn’t from service in the Spanish American War, but from his time with the Buffalo soldiers before that, and given to him by cadets as a West Point instructor as an insult, because he was strict. It started out as “Nigger Jack” before being softened.

      • Damn! I fell for this one too! Poor Pershing must be spinning in his grave. When I was a kid, I had an Italian replica flintlock shotgun, 12 gauge-ish. I used to put about 120 grains of double or triple F Goex under a 16 gauge rifled slug seated in a wad. That was a decisive deer-killer, out to about 40 yards or so.

      • That’s good research, Penn. The Great Mutiny had a number of underlying causes… too numerous to mention without a lengthy dissertation. But every explosion has a spark and the cartridge fiasco was likely it. As I recall offhand, it was the Sikh troops (neither Hindu nor Moslem) who remained most loyal. Internal rivalries among the rebelling states and competing religions- the very thing that the British had smoothed over during their rule, ironically enough- allowed Roberts and Nicholson to roll over them with ridiculously small forces. The British forces were likewise motivated by the terrible sight in the well of Cawnpore, which drove them to merciless reprisals against the revolting sepoys. It was also the end of the East India Company’s rule of India, supplanted afterward by the Raj.

  2. I hate that I can never believe any tender or heroic story without vetting it anymore. What a cynical world to raise children in. Damn it anyway. Every story like this makes the world a crappier place.

    • Not to mention too easy to spread them. A day doesn’t go by when some faux “love is love” or “triumph of the human spirit” or other story that would previously have just been sneered at as an urban legend doesn’t hit my page, spread by a well-meaning friend with an agenda.

  3. And speaking of the current administration doggedly not calling things what they are, does anyone else have a problem with the term “Holocaust?” It should be called “The Time a Bunch of Germans Decided to Murder Ten Million Grandmothers, Women, Children and Guys Because Many of Them Were Considered to be too Cultured and too Good with Money and Running too much of the Economy and the Art World and the Entertainment Industry and the Banks and Intellectual Life which Pissed off the Bunch of Germans and Made them Jealous.” Or something along those lines. “Holocaust” gives its perpetrators and enablers an eternal pass. Sounds too much like a lightning cause wild fire in LA. A fancy Greek term just sanitizes what happened.

    • It might have something to do with brevity. I agree, though; it almost gives it a spiritual spin that the Nazis don’t deserve, like they played a role in something preordained by God.

  4. Has Oprah ever promoted anything or anyone that wasn’t fraudulent? If so I’d
    sure like to hear about it. I would nominate James Arthur Ray the “spiritual ”
    guru and author who somehow induced people to pay $10,000. each to enjoy his sweat lodge where three people died and others were hospitalized,as the most egregious.

      • I am going to settle on blaming tube technology for causing the pandemic of ends-justifies-the-means behavior among Baby Boomers and their successor [chuckling sardonically at that] generations. I saw Dad do it (bang on the TV, that is), and those problems with the vertical hold and horizontal hold disappeared; I banged on my first big bedside radio, and it worked. Those, plus watching the Tin Man and hearing him say to Dorothy, “Go ahead, bang on it!” were enough to turn me into the incurably heartless, murder-for-Green-Stamps kind of guy I became. Yesterday, some guy I drove by on a residential street flipped me off, for no apparent reason, and it was all I could do not to turn around and drive back and run him over. It had to have been the tubes. The tubes made me who I am. I feel like desecrating Rosenblat’s grave, the damned liar. Should I also boycott applesauce?

        • Tubes are awesome again. I’ve got a single-ended triode headphone amp that uses an old Raytheon and a pair of Amperex Bugle-Boys.

  5. This sucks immensely, but here’s a true story that, while nowhere near as improbable, and impossible to verify, I can swear to its truth on my eternal soul. Maybe it will cheer you up. While I was in prison, I had a dream that one of the guards who I was friendly with, “Pepe” LeFleur, used to let me out of the prison at night. Once out, I would get on a moped hidden in the bushes and ride due west for a couple of miles or so, into a shantytown. Once there, I would spend the night with a beautiful blonde woman. We had kids, and we were very happy together. Before daybreak, I had to return before count. Keep in mind, I knew nothing about the geography of Enfield, CT; the town where the prison was located. This dream made me very happy, and for some reason, I believed that something like it would come to pass. I met my wife just after I left prison. She is beautiful, wonderful in every way, and has blonde hair. When we moved in together, we initially lived in Glastonbury, a high-rent place. As I planned to return to school and cut back on work hours, we would need a cheaper place. I was an over-the-road truck driver at the time, so I left this completely up to her. As it turns out, it was difficult to find a reasonable place that wasn’t a long commute to where she works, so she got us a place in Enfield, in a sort of low-rent (but not ghetto, by any means) area. Not long after I returned from a trip, I was driving around, and discovered that the prison was about 2 miles, in a straight shot, due East from our place. We had our first child there, and we were very happy. This is true, so help me God.

    • Another prison story that actually has an oblique reference to the holocaust. I’d nearly forgotten it. I had just arrived at the Whalley Avenue jail at the beginning of the whole prison ordeal, having never been in jail before, never being in any kind of real trouble, and now looking at serious time. During the first couple of months, I was looking at a federal indictment, and the possibility of life. Everything I’d done up until that point, a new family, and a lot of school, was likely in the toilet. I was also facing a physical ordeal that I knew would be upon me soon that I won’t get into, but was going to make things much, much worse. Needless to say, I was feeling pretty bad. As it happened, the only book available to read was a book called Poland, by James Michener. It’s the story about three families in Poland spanning from the Tatar invasions up to present day. Near the end, there was a chapter called The Terror. This was about the Nazi invasion, and the subsequent events that led to the ghettos, Treblinka, and primarily Majdanek. Believe it or not this was a great comfort. I realized that I wasn’t in a death camp, and that, unlike the people that suffered such unspeakable cruelty and brutality in these places,that there was at least the possibility I would see the light of day, maybe in the not too distant future, and that I’d at least been guilty of what I was charged with. I felt gratitude for that. That was the first of many lessons I would learn there.

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