J.R. Dunn: Candy-coating the Holocaust

Roundup: Talking About History

The "Angel at the Fence" story has been proven to be a hoax, and that's a good thing.

It's not a good thing because two aged and troubled people have suffered the humiliation of being exposed as liars. It's not a good thing because the publishers, agents, and producers, not to mention Oprah, have been exposed as foolish and credulous -- though that's not necessarily a bad thing.

It's a good thing because "Angel at the Fence", if it had been published, would have been yet another step in the candy-coating of the Holocaust.

By now the "Angel" story has spread almost universally. As a young man in Europe, Herman Rosenblat was barely hanging on at a subcamp of Buchenwald when a girl who lived nearby began tossing him apples though the fence. For seven months she threw him an apple a day until, in the last weeks of the war, he was transferred to another camp.

After the war, he moved to the U.S. and settled in New York. Twelve years later he went on a date with a younger woman. While speaking of their war experiences, she recalled that while hiding out in Germany with a Polish family, she tossed apples to a young man in the local concentration camp. And lo -- a legend was born.

The falsity of this story should have been obvious to anyone hearing it. Apples, along with everything else edible, were almost unknown in Germany by the war's end. Polish families were not living peacefully in Germany in those days. Even the timing is off -- "seven months" beginning in the winter of 1945 puts the war in Europe's end sometime in July, nearly three months late. A number of scholars, in particular Ken Waltzer and Deborah Lipstadt, were quick to point out the inconsistencies. Neither Rosenblatt's agent, his publisher, or the movie producer who bought the rights were interested in hearing any of it until at last irrefutable evidence (including the fact that the only place where the two could have met was right beside the camp's SS barracks) was presented in The New Republic. Last week Rosenblat at last admitted the hoax to his agent. Only a day later, Berkley Books announced that it was canceling publication.

There is no point in blaming the Rosenblats. An ordeal such as that which they survived leaves scars on the personality impossible for luckier individuals to grasp. They should be allowed to fade out of the public spotlight with no further suffering.

But it remains a good thing that the book was exposed before it was published. The problem here is that the story is exactly what Oprah said it is -- heartwarming. And if the Holocaust is anything at all, it is not heartwarming. There are actual events quite similar to what occurred to the Rosenblatts. Simon Wiesenthal emerged from the camp at Maidenek convinced that his wife was dead. And she, on her way back to their hometown, by then annexed by the USSR, thought the same was true of him. Through an incredible series of coincidences, she learned that he was alive only moments before boarding the train that would have taken her behind the Iron Curtain.

But that story, pleasant as it may be, is not the Holocaust. Wiesenthal lost 89 members of his family to the extermination program. That is the Holocaust.

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Randll Reese Besch - 1/15/2009

Including the movie producers. They could have still done all of this but called it fiction 'loosely' based on facts. Just look at how loose some of these adaptions of 'facts' are. I see the possibilities.