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.