One of the problems with any stories or movies about the Holocaust is that they tend to disproportionately focus on survivors. Well, no wonder. The dead aren't in any position to tell their tales, the survivors are never anxious to discuss their lost loved ones because of the pain it brings and no one wants to pay twelve dollars and change to watch a movie in which everyone dies and no one has a happy or triumphant outcome.
As a result, we get many fine movies and TV shoes like Schindler's List, The Piano, Hogan's Heroes, and others, but we also get a very different impression than one we might desire: how bad could the Holocaust have been? Look at the all the people who survived!
What's worse, however, is when people make up stories about miracles and heartwarming events that never happened, as a way of drawing attention to themselves or perhaps simply to ease the bitterness of the memories of their suffering.
Such is the problem with An Angel At The Fence, an almost published Holocaust memoir by a survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp, Herman Rosenblat. According to early releases about the story:
His young angel hid behind a tree with an apple underneath her warm coat.
And that's where the fairy-tale love story of Herman and Roma Rosenblat began more than half a century ago, across a barbed-wire fence of a Nazi concentration camp.
The Holocaust survivors left their North Miami Beach, Fla., home earlier this month to retell their remarkable tale to a New York television audience, not knowing the latest chapter was about to unfold.
A rabbi watching the show realized the retired 76-year-old electrician missed his bar mitzvah because he was a prisoner when he was 13. So. on Thursday, Herman Rosenblat underwent his long-overdue rite of passage into adulthood at a Long Island temple.
And while news cameras captured the moment, it was the Rosenblats' love sojourn that captured everyone's hearts, said Rabbi Anchelle Perl of the Congregation Beth Sholom Chabad in Mineola, N.Y.
"Everyone who was here was touched. You can really see the history of their lives, such unassuming people," Perl said Friday.
Herman Rosenblat, reached by phone on Friday at his daughter's home in Manhasset, N.Y., said he plans to add the bar mitzvah into the book he has been writing for years.
The tale began in Schlieben, a German concentration camp, where the two Polish children were shipped separately after their families were taken prisoner during World War II.
Herman Rosenblat spent his teen years there carrying bodies from gas chambers into a crematorium.
One cold evening in 1942, after completing his macabre work for the day, Rosenblat said he noticed a little girl hiding behind a tree across a barbed-wire fence. He called to her, but she didn't respond. He called out to her again, this time in Polish.
When she responded, he asked if she had anything to eat. From underneath her brown ragged coat, the girl tossed him an apple and a clump of bread. The scene would repeat itself every evening for the next six months, Rosenblat said.
"I never really noticed her much back then. I was only interested in the food," he recalled.
The meetings ended when Rosenblat learned he was being transferred to a different camp. He told the girl, who appeared to be 9 and whose name he never learned, not to return.
"After that, I never thought about her again," he said.
Freed by the Russians, Rosenblat immigrated to New York and joined the U.S. Army in 1951.
After his service, he began taking night classes to learn to be an electrician. A classmate later set him up on a blind date, but Rosenblat was reluctant to go.
"A blind date? Never! You never know who you are going to meet," Rosenblat recalled saying.
But his friend insisted, saying the woman was Polish like him, and Rosenblat eventually agreed. He "had a great time" and as the couple was returning home from dancing, they began to share their experiences.
"She said she used to throw apples and bread to a little boy in a concentration camp," said Rosenblat. "And as she spoke, I thought, 'That's me!' She was the little girl!"
So, he proposed in the car. She thought he was crazy.
They married six months later, almost 15 years after they exchanged goodbyes through the fence.
Rosenblat retired in 1992 after he was shot during a robbery at his television repair shop in New York.
Once settled in South Florida and with nothing much else to do, Rosenblat began writing his book, "The Fence." The couple's story caught the attention of a television news producer in New York. The two traveled to the Big Apple in early February to be interviewed for a Valentine's Day story.
"When I saw the story, I was thinking, this poor man needs a bar mitzvah," Perl said.
Rosenblat said he told the dozens gathered at the ceremony that his horrible childhood led him to lose his faith.
But he regained it years later when he remembered that his mother – who was killed in a concentration camp in 1942 – came to him in a childhood dream and told him she would one day send an angel for him.
"Roma," he said. "My angel is Roma."
A wonderful tale with a wonderful ending. There's only one problem with it: it's not true.
Even in this cursory telling, the story is capable of inducing peals of laughter in anyone half-acquainted with the details of the Holocaust. It aroused the suspicions of a Holocaust scholar, Michigan State University’s Kenneth Waltzer, who double-checked for the obvious and established that there could be no possible means of approaching the wire at Buchenwald safely from either side. (The German government’s reasons for keeping people away from the outside of the fence were, after all, at least as strong as their reasons for keeping prisoners away from the inside.) Moreover, the fabrication not only diminishes the cruelty and effectiveness of the Nazi forced-labour regime, but manages to minimize the wartime suffering of German civilians by implicitly suggesting that apples were lying around in such casual abundance (during an unforgettably brutal winter, no less) that 200 of them would not be missed. The Angel at the Fence fiasco has raised odd, futile questions about the standard of fact-checking applied to non-fiction books. Perhaps the general public doesn’t realize that, by and large, there is no fact-checking of non-fiction books. There has never been any procedural guarantee of their veracity, and counting on the existence of one would be expensive and foolish. Our best defences against fabulators are personal skepticism, the scrutiny of an informed public and the judgment of time.
The more frightening part of this affair is just how close an incredibly implausible fish story could come to being published as fact by one of the most esteemed entities in the book world. One can only be grateful that Waltzer was still able to ring up many other Buchenwald survivors and try Rosenblat’s fable out on them; soon enough, such a strong litmus test will no longer be part of any scholar’s investigative apparatus.
Rosenblat’s lies were caught before they reached bookstore shelves. This suggests that the implied standard of rigour that Holocaust stories face in the marketplace is higher than that faced by other material, not lower. Still, the Holocaust deniers and trivializers will hold this affair up as proof that today’s torrent of Holocaust literature is in the nature of a racket, and unfortunately, they have a tiny kernel of truth on their side. There is so much money to be made in using the Holocaust as a prefabricated backdrop for heart-tugging tragicomic tableaux that the temptation has proven irresistible several times, both to phony memoirists and bandwagon-riding movie makers. Some sort of moratorium, or perhaps even just a rule of taste that forbids turning the wreckage of a continent into cheap kitsch, would seem to be in order.
I would not, chas v'shalom, ever want to minimize Rosenblat's suffering during the War. That he even continued to identify as a Jew, albeit a non-practising one, is a testament to inner strength and courage. But the damage he has done, as Colby Cosh noted above, is incalculable. If he made up stories about his "angel", how can we believe the rest? And even if we can pove the worst crimes, what about all the individual stories of personal salvation? How many of them are now cast into doubt?
This has been a pet peeve of mine for some time now, as those who know me well can vouch. I have always been especially disturbed by Holocaust revisionism when it comes from the frum velt. The Holocaust was a trying time and people who were undoubtedly scrupulous in their observance of mitzvos before and after the war did have to spend several years scraping for survival by whatever means possible. If that meant eating on Yom Kippur, working on Shabbos and having stale bread with their ration of soup during Pesach, what alternative did they have? Survival was the priority. Keeping kosher and Shabbos got you killed.
For some, however, this is too troubling. A tzadik must be a tzadik always, even under the worst conditions. This is typified by the hagiographical treatment of the Klausenberger Rebbe, zt"l, for example:
On March 19, 1944 the Germans invaded Hungary and Gestapo chief Adolf Eichmann immediately organized the round-up, ghettoization, and deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. The Klausenberg ghetto was established on May 1, 1944, and was liquidated via six transports to Auschwitz between late May and early June. Knowing that the Gestapo targeted community leaders first, the Rebbe hid in an open grave in a cemetery for several weeks. He then fled to the town of Banya, where he was conscripted into a forced-labor camp along with 5000 other Hungarian Jews. Though hunger was not a problem here—the barbed-wire enclosure had a back exit through which Jews could buy bread and milk from non-Jews—the Hungarian soldiers constantly badgered and searched inmates for their valuables. The Rebbe was forced to shave his beard, but he did not lose his composure or faith in God. He continued to conduct prayer services and even a Shabbat tisch.
In Auschwitz, Halberstam seemed to live in another world. The bits of food that other prisoners hungered for and fought over were, in the Rebbe's eyes, less important than their use for mitzvot. He decided early on to try to keep every Torah commandment he could, and even the minhagim that he had learned from his forefathers. Thus, he would often choose to use the bit of water he had to wash his hands for prayer, rather than to wash his hands to eat. He never touched non-kosher food and refused to eat food cooked in a non-kosher pot. Often he went hungry. His staunch faith gave spiritual strength to many. He assured his fellow inmates that God was with them in the valley of death, and would not abandon them.
In 1944, a year after the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Halberstam was assigned to a special labor detail to clear out the ruined ghetto. He and 6000 other prisoners searched for valuables and demolished the ruins by hand and with rudimentary tools so that the Nazis could sell the bricks and steel to Polish contractors. As they beheld skeletons piled in the street, and uncovered bunkers in which Jews had died by gas or shooting, the Hungarian prisoners realized for the first time the extent of the annihilation of European Jewry.
This time the Rebbe did not shave his beard, which is considered a mark of holiness for Hasidim. He wrapped his beard and face in a handkerchief, pretending he had a toothache. This charade was accompanied by the fact that he cried all day as he worked, praying and communing with God.
What was that about peals of laughter? I ran many of these details by my father, may he live to 120. My father suffered under Hitler's wrath from the time the Nazis, y"sh, invaded Poland until their defeat at the end of the war. He was in several concentration camps, including Auschwitz. He rolled his eyes in disbelief when I told him the following details.
Never ate non-kosher food? My father remembers people like that. They died within a week of arriving in their first camp from starvation. Perhaps the Rebbe had mehadrin or did he have to make do with just plain glatt? Prayer services? The Germans supervised almost every waking moment. It was impossible. And besides, did the Rebbe have both Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam tefillin? He held tischen? Ah, but the German guards probably attended and sang merrily along with the zemiros.
For me, stories like this are even more damaging that An Angel at the Fence. They create a preternatural holiness that creates disdain for the ordinary Jew who survived so much horror during the Shoah. Your father didn't keep kosher? Well, the Klausenberger Rebbe did. Your father worked on Shabbos? Tsk, not the Rebbe!
The mark of a surviving observant Jew is that, after living through the worst period of hester panim since the destruction of our Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt), he returned to his faith. The real greatness of the Klausenberger Rebbe is that he survived the Holocaust with faith, knowlege and ambition intact and went about rebuilding what was lost with the same fervour that he had been raised with. Stories that simply could not have happened, however, cheapen this triumph.
In the end, maybe we should start reminding people not of the survivors but of the dead. True, theirs are not happy stories and their final days and months are not uplifting and inspiring. But when the Holocaust become a source of chizuk like that?