The story that Oprah Winfrey once described as the greatest love story she has ever heard — now is turning into another example of the Holocaust’s enduring power to wound its victims repeatedly even though more than half a century has passed since the liberation of the camps.
This autumn, ReadTheSpirit was among the leading Web sites reviewing and recommending the children’s book, “Angel Girl,” based on this too-amazing-to-be-true Holocaust story that had been circulating since the 1990s. Herman and Roma Rosenblat twice told this story in appearances years apart on Oprah’s talk show without a single objection.
The new children’s book was a moving version of their story for young readers. Their story soon was to be expanded in 2009 into a full-length biography of Herman and Roma Rosenblat, followed by a feature film about their experiences.
To summarize what we have learned in the last two weeks: Both Herman and Roma really are Holocaust survivors. Herman survived the Nazi camps. Roma was a “hidden child” during this period with help from brave Catholics. What Herman added to this true story were two amazing claims: First, he said Roma managed to approach the outer fence of his camp and toss him life-saving bits of food over the barbed wire. Second, he claimed that he never knew Roma’s identity — but miraculously rediscovered her and her true identity as his “Angel Girl” when the two of them wound up on a blind date years later in the U.S. Overwhelmed, they fell in love and were married.
Recently, the New Republic journalist Gabriel Sherman debunked this
story in a major two-part expose on Christmas Day and the day after
and in interviews elsewhere, including a long appearance by Sherman on
National Public Radio. (If you care to read further, here is one of Gabriel’s key pieces in the New Republic series.)
We now know even more about this sad story. It’s a complex situation involving friends and relatives as well as Herman and Roma. For example, Herman and his family also were the victims of violent incidents after the war. These are wounded people who suffered and survived a lot.
Nevertheless, a whole circle of people were betrayed by the “Angel Girl” fabrication. During the Holocaust, Herman’s brothers also were imprisoned in the camps and there is a harrowing true story emerging of these brothers trying to protect each other — but that heroic story is tarnished by “Angel Girl.” Roma’s own story of being hidden by heroic Catholics now is tarnished, as well.
There is some indication that Herman fabricated the love story simply as a way to inspire other people. At one point, his story was pushed along by the publishers of the “Chicken Soup” book series, which eagerly publishes such stories. Herman’s decision was a painfully bad idea all along the way — but lots of people over many years encouraged his storytelling without looking too closely at the details.
(NOTE ON GABRIEL SHERMAN and origins of this investigation into the Rosenblats: A number of people were involved in this investigation. The journalist Danny Bloom was the catalyst in contacting other journalists about the story. Sherman became interested. The New Republic assigned Sherman to investigate. Another key was a Michigan State University professor. An excellent overview of the investigation was written by Neal Rubin of the Detroit Free Press.)
Adding to this complex situation is the virtual swamp of World War II-and-Holocaust films besieging all of us at the moment — most of them playing fast and loose with this thing called truth. Over the past two weeks, Americans have shelled out more than $63 million to go see Tom Cruise’s latest romp through the ravages of World War II: “Valkyrie,” which is presented as a factual reconstruction of history.
I sat very uncomfortably in a packed movie theater a few days ago watching Cruise play a Nazi officer trying to kill Hitler in the final months of World War II. It made my skin crawl to spend two hours with famous Hollywood stars inviting me to cheer for opportunistic Nazi officers as “heroes” for trying to save their skins and kill Hitler as the war was turning sour for all of them. The lavish privileges all of them were trying to preserve were piled up largely from years of looting Jews and other defeated Europeans.
Even Cruise’s final scream at the close of the film, “Long live sacred Germany!” is soul-chilling to contemplate — not the “heroic” cry that Cruise apparently wanted moviegoers to walk out of the theater remembering.
Clearly, Cruise and crew want us to discover a stirring sense of nobility in these swaggering figures within the Nazi high command. There are lines in the closing scenes of the film in which these top Nazi officers claim that they want “the world to understand” that they are “not like Hitler” — a little late in the game to be making that claim as the Reich was collapsing (and, then, in a 2008 Hollywood blockbuster as global memories of Nazi culpability are fading).
There’s even a reference thrown into the script about these Nazi officers wanting to close down “the camps,” if they succeed in killing Hitler. I find it far fetched to claim that these officers suddenly had discovered compassion for their regime’s Jewish victims. The movie’s closing credits further try to honor these Nazi
opportunists by ranking them among the legitimately brave “resistance”
fighters during the war. In reality, they were trying to save their skins, their mansions and their roles at the helm of imperial Germany.
The whole idea of the film is repulsive.
So, talk about a tragic falsification of history? Nazi perpetrators as Hollywood heroes?
That’s why the “Angel Girl” story breaks my heart. The Rosenblats are survivors with all the deep trauma that comes with life as a victim of the Holocaust. Somehow, watching their tragedy deepen feels strangely unsettling, when Tom Cruise is rolling to the bank with millions for fabricating a vision of the Nazi high command.
If you really want to find inspiration in heroic true stories — visit our celebration of the 2nd Annual Interfaith Heroes Month, which also includes some stories of Holocaust rescuers this year.
And we want to hear from you as well!
In our Monday-morning ReadTheSpirit Planner, a free e-newsletter that we distribute each Monday, I raised this whole issue of “Angel Girl” with Planner readers and asked for responses.
None of the readers who responded called for punishment of the Rosenblats.
“This is definitely a tragedy on more than one level,” wrote Jean White, a teacher in California. “I don’t know where to begin, but I think people who were part of this have suffered enough now … that it has all come out in the open.”
Herman “never should have started down this road, years ago, and someone should have stopped him before now, but my heart aches for everyone concerned,” wrote Bill, a pastor in New England.
“I think the woman who wrote the children’s book is being treated unfairly,” wrote Patrick from Chicago.
Jean’s, Bill’s and Patrick’s notes were typical of what readers are writing about this issue.
The one complete Email I’ll share with you today is from the Jewish scholar and writer Joe Lewis. Among Joe’s personal and professional passions are education and also efforts to build cross-cultural communities. We featured some of Joe’s wise words most recently on the movie, “Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” also a controversial Holocaust film (although one presented from the start as fiction).
THE FOLLOWING IS JOE’S REFLECTION:
It’s painful to hear of another Holocaust hoax, as it plays into the hands of Holocaust deniers. The Holocaust is big business — some people may not be able to resist the temptation to capitalize on this event.
Yet Primo Levi pointed out that memory is an uncertain instrument. I recently read Miriam Anissimov’s biography of Primo Levi, and his own recollection is not always borne out by others who shared some of his experiences.
Perhaps suspected fabrications like Benjamin Wilkomirski’s “Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood” or Misha Defonseca’s “Surviving with Wolves: The Most Extraordinary Story of WWII” hold valuable lessons for the nature of humanity and the challenge of historiography. We may wish to criticize those authors, but we may also learn from what they have done.
As time goes by, the “truth” of the Holocaust or of any part of human history is conveyed through literary or artistic fabrications. A museum collection is not raw truth, but is constrained by the artifacts available — or copies — and reflects the judgment of whoever assembled and displayed the collection.
We do not want to lose our grasp on the facts and consequences of the Holocaust, but just as this event should strengthen our resolve to prevent a recurrence, perhaps it can teach us another important lesson: that truth is elusive.
As the poet John Donne wrote:
On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.
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(Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)