Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Too Many Happy Endings

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?


David said...

Good point. Making up stories about people's holiness or miracles is a bad idea, and the idolatrous treatment of rabbis is worse.

A few years ago, I was at a local rabbi's (I'll call him Rabbi Y)house for lunch. I was much more serious about my frumkheit then, and much more inclined to hold rabbis in high regard.

Rabbi Y told how he'd met with some not-so-religious Jews and told them a touching story about an old rabbi who cried when he heard about young Jews were not adhering to the mitzvot. Rabbi Y then told me that he'd made the story up, but that he figured that was OK, because it would have a good effect.

I remember feeling somewhat let down at the time-- I knew that I would never have done something like that, and was disappointed that a man who spent his day absorbed in questions of Jewish law would. So much for our superior ethics.

The Leader, Garnel Ironheart said...

The superior ethics are still there. It's just that some people don't hold by them.

Listen, one should hold rabbonim in high regard because of their education. But that high regard shouldn't extend to worship and blind obedience. I also respect rabbonim but on the other hand, when they do things like what you said it

a) diminishes your faith in the system

b) ruins it for the people who tell stories like that which are true.

dan said...


good post, one of the best i have seen online on this. here is the inside skinny on how the book take down really happened. a tale told out of school. email me for more info if u wish at danbloom GMAIL

Here is the bACkstory: straight from the horse's mouth:

QUOTE: “Over at The New Republic blog The Plank, the magazine’s editors offer a helpful recap of *how* their reporter successfully exposed a Holocaust memoir as a hoax.”

It’s true, Gabe Sherman did a terrific reporting job exposing how that hoax memoir came to be. He deserves a Pulitzer award for that kind reportage, really, because he took material supplied to him by several sources and went even deeper and found amazing quotes from people directly involved in the backstory, inforamtion that nobody—nobody—ever knew for certain before—and certainly never said in public before.

But there is one thing you should know, Sara, and I am sure Gabe won’t mind me telling tales out of school. Gabe never heard of Herman or his cockamamie backstory before a reporter who had been investigating the matter for 2 months, based in Taiwan, go figure, called Gabe up at midnight and badgered, pestered and cajoled him for three days and nights into agreeing to take on this “assignment”.

What the TNR does not mention, not anywhere, I guess it is natural and for promotioanl reasons of their own, is that their TNR reporter had no idea about this “story” before he was contacted by me. And at first, for the first two days of my barrage of emails and phone calls, Gabe resisted, said he was busy with other things, and besides, how did i know all these things—I knew, Sara, I knew, but according to my promises to my sources deep with the investigation, I could not go public with what I knew, and that’s okay, from here in Taiwan, I did not have a platform to publish what I knew anwyays.

So I spent 8 weeks trying to find a reporter in the USA who would listen to me, and believe me, and act. Gabe, who didn’t know me from Adam, at first was skeptical of this unknown blogger in far away Taiwan calling him at all times of the day, and badgering his email box with over 5o emails of names, tips, addresses, phone numbers, the whole megillah, and at one point, Gabe—and I love the guy, he is salt of the Earth and an ace reporter and he did the perfect job, nobody else in US journalism could do what he did on this story, and I deeply respect and admire him—Gabe at one point in our phone chats told me to stop bugging him, stop calling him, stiop emailing him, and to go away.

Go away? No way. Not when I had the goods on Herman, and took it on as my self appointed mission to try to stop that book from coming out before it was published. Against the advice of those who were advising me in the ongoing investigation group.

They told me to “chill” and “give it a rest, Danny” and “we aren’t ready yet to go to the media, our reserach wont’ be ready until the end of January”—and i understood their concerns, but i knew instinctively, Ben that if the book was published, once it was out of the warehouse and into the bookstores, the damage would be done, the book would be very hard to stop, what with all the coming Oprah PR and the book tours and all the AP and Reuters stories about this lovely couple, so I acted alone, on my own heartfelt instinct, that the time to act was ASAP.

I didn’t know Gabe from Adam either. Never heard of him before. Of course, I have been out of the USA for 20 years or so, so I am not familiar with the new names in NYC and DC journalism, so I didn’t know him.

How did I find him? Good story, Sara, and glad you asked. ...[SMILE]

I was carrying out my investigation here in Taiwan of the Herman hoax case using the internet and the blogosphere as my tools, plus my hunch from the get go that the BLIND DATE part of the book was impossible, not in this Universe, but a sweet touch, but completley off the wall, so i was googling every search window I could find about earlier hoaxes.

And i found one item about a book by a child soldier nbamed Ishamel Beah, and there was a big to do about this in Slate magaizne, writteny by, are you ready?—drum roll—Gabriel Sherman!

I think YOU were quoted in that story, too, Sara. Small world, getting smaller every day.

So i emailed him in a jiffy, found his website and emailed him, and he wrote back in Internet time, “Danny, sounds interesting, Call me or I will call you.”

Well, of course, he didn’t call me. Nobody ever calls me back. Story of my life. So I called him.... the very next day, and dished. I told him everything I knew in a one hour phoen call,—My dime my time. He said “all this is very interesting, Danny, but how do you know? It’s some people’s word against Herman’s word, and who are you? Why are you so obessed with this story?”

So we said goodbye on the phone, I told him I would email him more damning news tip I had in my files, from top historians involved in the case, and he said, Okay, keep me informed.

I thought I had landed my fish, my big fish. The fish i needed to land the final punch somewhere in thte USa media landscape.

The top reporters at the NY Times and your own PW would not answer my emails at all at first and then eventaully the Times reporters just said , Yeah, we know about this issue, but we are mulling it over. “Mulling it over”? It will take too long to mull it over. We need to act now. Before the book is out. stop it in its tracks. PW never answered at all. Shame on PW! Fire them all! Kidding.

So I kept up my badgering campagn with dear ol’ Gabe, who must be all of 30, and here I am , all of 60, oi, and I never gave up. I knew he was the guy to do this story, to pull the rabbit out of the hat, so to speak, to lift the lid on this Pandora’s Box of fabircations by a sweet old man. I like Herman. I never had any animostiy against him. I just wanted to epose the blind date thing.

That was my sticking point. that is was got me invovled in this, when i read a newspaper acocunt from the AP on October 12 about Herman and the applkes and Roma and the blind date. Impossible, i said. I called the AP reporter in Miami who wrote the AP story and said Matt, this could not be true.

He said,”Danny, it’s what they told me. Who are we to question their story? Until a smoking gun can be found, the media cannot report what you are saying, Danny. Sorry.”

So i started looking for the smoking gun. I found many. Not on my own. I am no historian, no forensic expert, i am a nobody. Just a lone blogger with a mission. So ....I alerted the media in the USa all of October and November and early December. The entire USa media force, including PW, ignored my emails and phone calls. The Miami Herald, too. I spoke the features editor there, he said, "thanks for calling, interesting news tips: but he never acted.. Just sat on this story..

anyways, back to gushing narrative of this story: I knew by Dec, 19 , i had to find a reporter , soon, do or die moment, so i kept bugging Gabe until he finally said, “Look, Danny, you sound like a nice and sane man, but please, enough of this calling me and emailing me already...go away. leave me alone. I will make some calls, like you suggested, using your leads and contacts, and let’s see if there is a story here.”

The rest is history, cultural history of our times, sad tragic Holocaust history, too, and GAbe made it happen. The man!

So that’s the backstory of the backstory, and if you don’t beleive a word I typed, because most people never believe a word I say — I don’t know why, I am always right —.kidding -- in fact, i am often wrong -- ....ask Gabe!.

He’s on CNN and NPR and Canada TV now and it;s great. More power to him. He helped expose a very sad and tragic episode in Jewish life. And in American life and Oprah life. And in the publishing world. And in Holocaust history.

I salute his groundbreaking reportage, and consider him my brother for life! OKAY, enough of this tale told out of school.—Danny, checking in from a small village in southern Taiwan where nobody ever heard of Rosenblat and has no idea what I am doing in the Internet cafe every day, moving on to other things now......

How’s that for an interesting story, Garnel, typed in a ligtning speed,, typos and all, mis-spellings and all?

Danny said...

So sad that the Rosenblats lied about their story. Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which was a great book and now movie, never pretended to be true. The Rosenblats, like Madoff, harming other Jews and it's terrible.

I read a New York Times article about Stan Lee and Neal Adams the comic book artists supporting another TRUE Holocaust love story. There was a beautiful young artist, Dina Gottliebova Babbitt, who painted Snow White and the Seven Dwarves on the children's barracks at Auschwitz to cheer them up. Dina's art became the reason she and her Mother survived Auschwitz.

Painting the mural for the children caused Dina to be taken in front of Dr. Mengele, the Angel of Death. She thought she was going to be gassed, but bravely she stood up to Mengele and he decided to make her his portrait painter, saving herself and her mother from the gas chamber as long as she was doing painting for him.

Dina's story is true because some of the paintings she did for Mengele in Auschwitz survived the war and are at the Auschwitz Birkenau Museum. Also, the story of her painting the mural of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on the children's barrack has been corroborated by many other Auschwitz prisoners, and of course her love and marriage to the animator of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs the Disney movie after the war in Paris is also a fact.

I wish Oprah would do a story about Dina and her art not about the Rosenblats who were pulling the wool over all our eyes.

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

When "My Uncle the Ntziv" was published, the book was banned by parts of the yeshiva community for its presentation that there were some secular studies in the famous yeshiva of Volozhin, contrary to the yeshiva dogma that the Ntziv chose to close Volozhin rather than introduce any secular studies. The issue soon became: what was the truth. Rabbi Dr. J.J Schacter wrote an extensive article clearly proving that the presentation in the book was the correct one -- which was not surprising in that the original Hebrew version of the book was written by the Torah Temima. The issue then became: so why the lie? In a strange way, statements were found that seemed to indicate that the prupose of history, from a Torah perspective, is not the truth -- in fact the truth may yield problems with loshon harah --but rather inspiration. The argument was thus presented, to explain the yeshiva world's insistance on its, obviously incorrect, version of the story, that it was based on a world view that maintained that a "little white lie" is acceptable, and even to be promoted, if it can accomplish more in regard to inspiring people. Yet is inspiration in the only value? Is there not a value to truth? My further question, though, is: if the inspiration was based on a lie, who is to say that this is the right form of inspirtation, that the product one wishes to inspire is actually the product that we should wish? Whether we like the truth or not, it is the only way to get the lesson of history correct.

Now, one may ask, what does this have to do with the lie perpetrated in this story? Garnel's argument is that the story actually has a negative effect of not inspiring for by presenting this cute story, the actual horror of the Holocaust is undermined. Yet, the reason that the story took off is because, if it did not inspire, it touched an emotional chord, a positive emotional chord. People bought the story because they wanted to. Yet if people would have looked further into the original story, into all the ramifications of the original story, and challenged their sought-after emotional high, they would have seen problems that would have brought the story down to earth. Not to in any way judge people for there is only One Judge, the story maintained that this man went out with a non-Jewish woman because they were both seen as Polish. Did we wonder about that and what was the message about Jewishness that came from this story? That fact in the story should have led us to be wary of this story because of its message about Jewishness -- but, no, the good feelings were so desired that we put the story on a pedestle and even celebrated a bar mitzvah for this man. We wanted the good feeling. We wanted the lie.

Rabbi Ben Hecht