Like many of you, I have been reading about the memoir fallout of Herman Rosenblat’s Angel At The Fence, a partially fabricated love story memoir cultivated from Mr. Rosenblat’s imprisonment in a sub-camp of Buchenwald. The cause of all the commotion? Mr. Rosenblat’s unwavering assertion that a young girl (who he later found and married) threw apples over the fence to him every day for seven months. My question is why are people so upset? Why do they feel it was a personal affront to them that the author added a few fictional aspects?
Herman Rosenblat truly was a prisoner at the camp with his two brothers. It is said that his brothers fed him in an effort to make him stronger and appear older so he would be able to work, rather than be shot like many of the young and infirm. This is a very important aspect of the story and it is by all accounts true. The fact that the story was embellished to include a young girl throwing apples over the fence provides a ray a hope when everything else is so dark.
In Rosenblat’s case, I don’t think it takes a genius to figure out the girl and apple part of the story might have been embellished. If we consider everything we’ve heard, seen or read regarding these camps, we know that the fences were very well guarded. If this love story were true, it would have been a short one. Do you think it would have taken the guards seven months to notice a girl, not only approaching the fence, but throwing food to the prisoners? What do you think would have happened next? Is that what the public wants to read? How a young girl threw an apple to a prisoner and was shot dead where she stood? Is that preferable to them finding each other again, marrying and living happily ever after? That is, after all, the American way.
Not since the infamous A Million Little Pieces episode has the proverbial shit hit the fan. Like Herman Rosenblat’s story, James Frey book was embraced and touted by Oprah Winfrey. Although Oprah has yet to make any statement regarding Mr. Rosenblat’s faux pas, Frey was called on the carpet by Ms. Winfrey, returning to the show to take his punishment. During Oprah’s angry diatribe she told Frey he had “betrayed millions of readers.” What? Betrayed how? What reader suffered an actual loss or had their life affected in any way by how long James Frey may or may not have been in jail or anything else he may have written, true or not.
Yes, James Frey lied about a lot of things. However, his manuscript was turned down 17 times when he tried to pass it off as fiction. I don’t condone lying, but I do understand that he knew he had talent and wanted to be published. There are people out there doing worse things than saying their story is true in an effort to get their agenda met. There are bankers who raped and pillaged the general public, causing millions to lose their homes; we have Bernard Madoff telling his investors how great they’re doing while he is about to financially devastate them and ruin their lives; all the way down to parents willing go to any length to get their little angels into the best schools. All of these people told lies, but other people were literally hurt by them, whether they lost a home, their life savings or a deserving child lost their place in school -- put into perspective, it makes lying about a love story’s authenticity seem a bit trivial.
On reading Frey’s book Oprah couldn’t say enough good things. Among them, she and her staff enjoyed the book so much that they stayed up late into the night, couldn’t put the book down, asked each other every morning what page they were on; Oprah even became teary-eyed on the air due to the book’s powerful writing. Why does the fact that it wasn’t totally true negate the incredible experience she had while reading it?
Now we’ve finally turned our attention from Frey and readers are biting at the heels of Herman Rosenblat. One Oprah faithful wrote on Oprah’s website “We run out and buy these books and then we get kicked in the teeth”. Kicked in the teeth? Did you somehow put all your life savings and mortgage your house on the idea that Herman Rosenblat met his wife during his internment in a camp? Were you planning to make him the guardian of your only child, only to find out now that you can’t trust him?
One of the “New York Times” articles included a section on Andrea Hurst, the literary agent who negotiated the book deal, who (and I'm paraphrasing now) said she trusted Mr. Rosenblat in part because he had basically received the Oprah Winfrey stamp of approval. There’s an easy way out; blame Oprah. If the almighty Oprah believed him, why look any further? I’m not bashing Oprah here by any means. I am talking about these non-thinking, robotic moonies who can’t think for themselves and look to Oprah to tell them what to read, what to wear and how to feel. Maybe people should start parenting their children according to Oprah. Just because she doesn’t have any children of her own shouldn’t matter. You can tell your kids they can’t have something and when they ask why, tell them “Because, Oprah said so”.
It was also noted that Mr. Rosenblat retold his story repeatedly to multiple publications and reporters; not to mention a writer for Chicken Soup for the Couple’s Soul. Well, that settles it, why should we do our own background check and research when we have a thumbs-up from Oprah. The old saying that “if you say it enough times, it makes it true”; but then, wait… Oh my god, the story was told to Chicken Soup For the Couple’s Soul? Now he really crossed the line, the bastard.
When we read a novel, whether it be a love story, mystery or biography it allows us to escape our lives for a moment and experience something new. We can get lost in a different world, travel to different countries, different time periods, meet new people and experience their happiness of new-found love or share their grief of loss – even if it’s just on our lunch hour. However, the tendency of some people to actually become invested in, and live vicariously, through the characters they read about is unhealthy and a little sad. They’re taking their own uneventful life and transfer their emotions onto someone they don’t even know. In the case of Rosenblat, really, what harm did he cause? Yes, it was wrong for him to pass off the book as true, when the book would have been fine as fiction. Rosenblat won a love story contest based on the story, not on the fact that it was true. He was on Oprah based on the fact that he won the contest for writing a beautiful story of hope in the midst of sadness, violence and tragedy. It doesn’t have to be true to be good. For everybody to go off the handle talking about suffering some great loss due to this lie is just crazy talk. Did you invest with Bernard Madoff? Then yes, you suffered a great loss after trusting someone. In this case we suffer a loss, not because of a lie but because a beautiful story is not going to be published.
A “Publishers Weekly” article reported that the children’s book Angel Girl by Laurie Friedman, would not proceed with any reprints and would offer refunds for returned copies. Friedman had read an article about the Rosenblats and wrote a book based on that story. What book isn’t inspired by something that someone read, heard or experienced? Why would you not reprint this book if it’s still selling? What point are you making by pulling it off the shelf? Will children be irreversibly harmed if they read it? If we publish it, do the terrorists win?
Further in the “New York Times” article, Harris Salomon, who was planning to produce a movie based on Angel At The Fence, feels that whether it was true that the Rosenblats met at the concentration camp “was almost irrelevant”, he continued “If we were talking about the horrors of the Holocaust and life in the concentration camp being incorrect, that would be something entirely different,” Mr. Salomon said. “But we are debating an apple being thrown over the fence.” Right on, Mr. Solomon, you hit the nail on the head. Mr. Rosenblat did not lie about being a prisoner in or desecrate the memory of the holocaust. He did not romanticize or trivialize a major historical event. He simply added a young girl and an apple to what has to be the biggest nightmare of his lifetime. The whole situation is unfortunate, but people have to be a bit more forgiving. The worst part is, all of this could have been avoided with four little words: Based on actual events.