Sentences, Six Questions — December 31, 2008, 8:37 am

A False Story: Six Questions for Ken Waltzer

In my previous post, I discussed Herman Rosenblat’s memoir An Angel at the Fence, which was revealed over the weekend as a deception. The discovery and exposure of that deceit comes thanks to the work of Ken Waltzer, a professor and director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University. Today, a conversation with Waltzer about Rosenblat’s memoir, memoir in general, and Waltzer’s book-in-progress about the children of Buchenwald.

1. How did Herman Rosenblat’s book reach your radar?

In researching a book on children and youths at Buchenwald and its sub-camps, including the Schlieben camp, I interviewed many survivors who were youths at Buchenwald, including many from the Piotrkow ghetto, southeast of Lodz, which is where Herman Rosenblatt and his brothers were. These informants told me two or more years ago they thought the Rosenblat story was a false story, but they didn’t say how they knew.

Herman was among my sample of boys 16 and under at Buchenwald and its sub-camps. He arrived December 2, 1944 on a transport from Piotrkow with 21 boys 16 and under among 354 prisoners. He was transported almost immediately with his older brothers among 294 prisoners on December 8, 1944 to Schlieben, the Buchenwald sub-camp northeast of Leipzig which made Panzerfaust (anti-tank weapons). I tried to get an interview with Herman, but my letters were not answered. He was not among the 904 boys liberated at Buchenwald but was liberated at Theresienstadt, where he was brought in late April/early May from Schlieben.

More recently, in November, I was contacted by other investigators looking into the veracity of the Angel at the Fence story, which was now slated to appear as a memoir (Penguin Berkley), as a child’s story (Angel Girl), and as a movie (Flower of the Fence). One informant who had spoken earlier with me had shared my name. I joined the effort and, because I had connections with survivors from the camps and also with historians writing about Schlieben, I wound up coordinating the effort. We asked questions, gathered data and information, collected survivor testimony, and asked more questions. Each discovery pointed to the story being a false story. By mid-December we had proved the story was made up. We had also communicated our concerns to the literary agent, publisher, and movie producer, but they ignored us.

2. What about his story struck you, immediately, as improbable?

The idea of a youth in a camp autonomously going to the fence daily, every day, for months in Schlieben, and there meeting an “angel” at the fence who threw him apples was at the radical end of implausibility, given knowledge of the camps and Schlieben in particular. It was prohibited on pain of death to go to the fence in the Nazi camps; it was also prohibited for civilians external to the camp to approach the fence. When we got hold of maps of Schlieben, we discovered the only fence in the mannlager opening to the outside of the camp was right by the SS barracks. The civilian road on the other side was closed to civilians in 1943 and after. We also learned Schlieben was a difficult place. The Hasag factory making Panzerfaust was sabotaged in mid October 1944. More prisoners were brought to build a new factory quickly and restore production. A new SS unit arrived, which brutalized the prisoners. This is when Herman and his brothers arrived, in early December, a period of heightened terror and surveillance. We also learned the fence was guarded and electrified. All these things made us question the central premise of the story.

We then went back to survivors with whom I had earlier talked and established relationships, including some who were with Herman all the way from Piotrkow, to Buchenwald, to Schlieben, to Theresienstadt, even in England afterward. Ben Helfgott, who was with Herman every step of the way, phoned in London at his invitation after an email exchange, told me agitatedly that the story was “a figment of his imagination,” and totally made up. Helfgott also told us his older brother Sam with whom Helfgott was close was “ashamed” of the story and was estranged from Herman as a consequence. When Helfgott went public (as he was the natural leader of the Boys who went to England after the war, and was also later a prominent British Olympian), this then empowered others to come forward. Sid Finkel, another boy from Piotrkow, then told me that he was with Herman and Roma the night before the Oprah show in 1996, and that he asked Herman’s wife where she was during the war. Roma said she was hiding with her parents elsewhere in Germany (not in Schlieben).

Finally, we started looking to discover Roma’s real story, and we discovered that the family was indeed in hiding under false identity in Germany, but in Brieg, near Breslau, in Lower Silesia–not in Schlieben, in south Brandenburg, about 210 miles away. We looked carefully, first seeking the family in Schlieben. We did discover Poles hiding in Schlieben working on farms, including a family of hidden Jews not far from the camp. But we found no traces of a Radzicki family in Schlieben. We then sought the real story. We found that the family was in 1944-45 near Breslau, in Germany (today Brzeg, near Wroclaw, in Poland) and that the family went to Israel from Poland in 1949, and then came to New York in the 1950s. Herman and Roma met for the first time in New York in the 1950s.

3. Facts aside, what are your feelings about such inventions?

All memoirs are constructed, written with varying degrees of embellishment, selectivity, imposed coherence, and subjective emphasis. Yet memoirs, as memoirs, make truth claims, and have an obligation to authenticity. When a memoir substitutes an invented story for a real one, when it claims false experience as real experience, it crosses a line. This memoir leaped across the line. Herman erased his own compelling story. His three older brothers took an oath never to part from him. They fed him in the camp and they lied about his age to protect him. Herman wrote his brothers out and substituted a fantasy tale about meeting a young girl at the fence. Roma, the compliant wife, erased her own compelling story. She was part of a family group from Krosniewice that survived–and few survived from that town–by dint of special cunning, forged documents, and luck. She also reconstructed her family as a family of four when there were five. The third sister, too young, too dark, to pass in hiding as a Polish Catholic, was, sadly, left behind.

Thus, in weaving their joint account, Herman and Roma invented meeting by the fence in Schlieben, invented a family hiding in Schlieben, invented re-meeting years later on a blind date in New York, and invented what the booksellers and movie promoters called “the first Holocaust love story.” Evidence we gathered suggests this caused huge rifts in the Rosenblatt and Radzicki families and numerous confrontations with Herman and Roma about “truth.” But Herman and Roma would not abandon their false story until the very end.

4. Do you distinguish between the prevarications of personal history (such as those of James Frey) and those of personal history that pose as national history (those of Herman Rosenblat)? Are all inventions, in memoirs, equally galling?

I think inventions that subvert the authenticity of personal memoirs are galling, period, but those that operate to invert Holocaust experience are especially dangerous. We have great challenges in American culture confronting the difficult knowledge of the Holocaust, especially facing the everyday experience victims had in the ghettos and death camps and prisoners had in the concentration camps. This remains so despite decades of books, memoirs, museums, and movies. Inventions that serve to hide those realities from us and even deny them actually invert reality and damage our sense of the past. They besmirch it. Their doings also call into question memoirs of experience by other Holocaust survivors who confront their difficult pasts with integrity, despite the burdens.

The Rosenblats had two compelling stories to tell. They didn’t tell these but instead substituted something else to make people feel good. They played to the culture, they didn’t speak to it. They calculated what might sell and made it their story. In doing so, they portrayed the fence of a concentration camp as a connecting point between inside and outside. It was instead a dividing line between two radically different universes. In doing so, they taught that prisoners and people in hiding could freely meet daily in sight of a concentration camp and fling and gather apples. Harris Salomon the moviemaker decided he wanted to bring this movie as Holocaust education to Middle America. He still wants to do so. This is not Holocaust education but miseducation. The concentration camp universe, softened in its actual details, is rewritten as veiled backdrop for a love story.

5. What Holocaust memoirs do you admire?

I teach with memoirs, often selecting and using memoirs where the prisoners tell about human behavior under conditions of extremity. We use the memoirs as primary evidence and interrogate the memoirs in student-run workshops. The authors are often people in the grey zone of the camp, people with special roles, or special positions, who convey some of the difficult stuff of everyday existence in the camps; or they are people with extraordinary powers of observation who take us into the camps; or they are writers who write with special honesty. Primo Levi’s Survival at Auschwitz, Filip Muller’s Eyewitness Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel’s Night, and Fania Fenelon’s Playing for Time are all very fine, very honest, works.

6. You’re writing a book about the children of Buchenwald. What will we learn that the Buchenwald Report and other works don’t offer?

When General Patton’s U.S. Third Army liberated Buchenwald, near Weimar, on April 11, 1945, American soldiers found 904 boys among the 21,000 male survivors. Edward R. Murrow mentioned the children and youths; Margaret Bourke White photographed them as did hundreds of visiting American soldiers. Few people have asked who these boys were, or how they were still alive to be liberated. Who were they? The boys were mostly (not entirely) Jews, who came from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Rumania, and Lithuania, and who by varied paths were brought during 1944-45 to Buchenwald, some with fathers or brothers, many others as orphans. How did they survive? Based on documentary evidence and memoirs and testimonies, there was a rescue operation inside a concentration camp carried out by elements of the German Communist-led international underground, together with Polish-Jewish elements who worked with the underground.

Inside Buchenwald, those committed to protecting and sheltering youths utilized their influence in the internal camp self-administration, which the Communists controlled after 1942, to keep youths from being sent to the outer sub-camps, where work was killing them. They clustered youths in children’s barracks inside Buchenwald under tight discipline and control to keep them from encountering SS guards, and they used their influence to provide access to occasional additional food and warm clothing. The daily roll calls were arranged inside the barracks away from the harsh winter weather. Tough love was in evidence. These activists even created makeshift schools in the barracks to control the boys and lift their minds beyond everyday camp existence. In the final days, when the Nazis sought to march first the Jewish prisoners and then all prisoners onto the roads, underground activists changed the Jewish markings on the prisoners and interceded on their behalf. They were with the boys until liberation. Among the boys was little Lulek, Israel Meir Lau, 8 years old, from Piotrkow, Poland–the same town as Herman Rosenblat–who was sheltered and protected in one of the blocks. He later became chief rabbi of Israel. Among the older boys was Eliezer Wiesel from Sighet, Rumania, who was protected in block 66 with hundreds of others. He later became a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

This story is largely unknown. I hope to tell it honestly, and with attention to detail, drawing on the voices and memories of many of these Buchenwald boys who today are men in their late seventies as well as the documentary evidence now available from the Red Cross International Tracing Service archive and other sources.

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