Once upon a memoir

How did Herman Rosenblat, a 78-year-old Holocaust survivor and seemingly sweet old man, become the pariah of publishing? He spent upward of 15 years telling this story: As a teenager at a German concentration camp in 1945, he encounters a girl on the other side of the camp’s fence who tosses food to him daily. The two never speak, but she gives him the strength to survive. Settled in New York 12 years later, Rosenblat finds himself on a blind date with a Polish woman named Roma Radzicki whose family, she says, lived near the camp during the war. Despite incalculable odds, Radzicki turns out to be the girl from the fence. He proposes to her on the spot, and they remain married today.

The story originated in a newspaper contest that Rosenblat won -- naturally -- in the early 1990s. It appeared in the anthology “Chicken Soup for the Couples’ Soul” and twice landed Rosenblat on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” where Winfrey pronounced it “the single greatest love story, in 22 years of doing this show, we’ve ever told on the air.” It was adapted into a children’s book and sold as a movie. Berkley Books, a Penguin division, signed Rosenblat to write a memoir, “Angel at the Fence,” scheduled for release next month.

But beginning on Dec. 25, the New Republic reported that Holocaust scholars, as well as many of Rosenblat’s family members, either doubted the story or knew it to be downright false. Though Rosenblat had been at Schlieben, a subdivision of the Buchenwald concentration camp, there is no record of Radzicki ever living nearby. Moreover, most scholars agree that the layout of the camp made it impossible to approach a fence from either side without being seen by guards. Within days, Berkley had canceled the memoir, the children’s book had been pulled from shelves and the movie was being relabeled and rewritten as fiction.

Though the best-known case of a fraudulent memoir in recent memory remains James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” in 2006, last year turned out to be a big one for not-quite-nonfiction as well. On Feb. 29, the author of the 1997 book “Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years” admitted that she had made the story up. Less than a week later, Margaret Seltzer (pen name Margaret Jones) was discovered to be not the South Central L.A. drug-runner that her memoir, “Love and Consequences,” depicted but rather a private school graduate from Sherman Oaks. Her publisher recalled the book.


One obvious question (aside from “why won’t book publisher’s hire fact checkers?”) is why don’t these authors simply present their books as fiction? After all, many novels are truer than their authors often admit. So why not play it safe and replace the word “memoir” with “novel” on the title page?

Lee Gutkind, editor and founder of the journal Creative Nonfiction and by some accounts the “godfather” of that genre, believes “creative” and “nonfiction” can fuse without posing ethical difficulties; the idea is to use the narrative techniques of traditional fiction to tell stories that are true. “Professionals know that, and the best do it extremely well,” Gutkind said, “but the bar may be lower for someone who has an amazing story of tragedy and restitution.

“I don’t think [Rosenblat’s story] is a particularly terrific story compared to the fictional worlds created by most fiction writers today,” Gutkind added. “It’s a cute story ... but it doesn’t have the scope and depth required of fiction. But once you say it’s true, it becomes the kind of thing a publisher can take to the bank.”

Avoiding the label “fiction” may also be the result of a more complicated set of cultural factors, namely that society’s taste for finely crafted storytelling seems to be waning. How else to explain TV audiences’ apparent preference for reality and talk shows over scripted sitcoms and dramas? How else to explain Seltzer’s defense, which suggested her story would have no impact unless it was perceived as true. “I just felt there was good I could do, and there was no other way that someone would listen to it,” she told the New York Times.

Of course, reality TV is also cheaper to produce than dramas or sitcoms, just as memoirs by unknown writers often fetch smaller advances than novels by established authors (Rosenblat’s book reportedly sold for less than $50,000). For all the guilt there is to go around in the “Angel at the Fence” debacle -- including the willful myopia of Rosenblat’s champions and editors as well as the man himself -- a deeper blame may lie with an audience that demands so much treacle and sensationalism that apparently even the Holocaust requires narrative embellishment.

The saddest part of all? In all these years of lying, Rosenblat has surely had his own true story to tell. But who will listen now?