A trip away from memory lane

How have so many false memoirs been passed off as the real thing?

By AKIN AJAYI
February 12, 2009 09:58
A trip away from memory lane

Herman Rosenblat 88 248. (photo credit: )

 
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As Herman Rosenblat told it, he first met his wife across the fence of Buchenwald. He was a teenage inmate; she - also Jewish, but masquerading as a Christian and sheltered on a nearby farm - gave him an apple every day through the fence for several months. She did this until he was unexpectedly transferred to another camp. She probably saved his life. Twelve years on and Rosenblat, now a resident of New York, goes on a blind date with a Polish immigrant called Roma Radzicki. She is also a Holocaust survivor and they exchange tales of their experiences. She tells Rosenblat about a boy she had helped, by feeding him apples through the fence at Buchenwald. "Did he have rags on his feet, instead of shoes?" Rosenblat asked. She replied in the affirmative. "That boy was me," Rosenblat told her. Months later, they married. Rosenblat has repeated his story many times. It won a newspaper competition for "most romantic story"; it has been repeated on television and in newspaper features. Rosenblat and his wife appeared twice on the Oprah Winfrey Show, in 1997 and 2006, and Berkley Books commissioned a memoir, Angel at the Fence, described as "the true story of a Holocaust survivor whose prayers for hope and love were answered." It was to have been published this month. All were entranced by Rosenblat's story of love and hope prevailing against seemingly insurmountable odds. The only problem was that the story wasn't true. Fake literary memoirs, narratives appropriating the imprimatur of authenticity when in fact they are anything but true, are neither new nor atypical. James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, exposed as an embellishment in part after selling three million copies, is the most notorious example of recent years. Other instances in the last year alone include two memoirs, Margaret Seltzer's Love and Consequences, and the eponymous Holocaust account by Belgian writer Misha Defonseca. The former claimed to be the story of a white girl fostered by a poor African American family; the latter was a somewhat egregious tale claiming that the author had survived by living with wolves after her parents' deportation by the Germans, and that she had killed a Nazi soldier in self-defense. Each fabrication, when exposed, is an embarrassment for all parties concerned, not least the publishers. One is tempted to suggest that it is inevitable, given the sustained popularity of the so called "misery memoir" that celebrates the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. But Judy Labensohn, coordinator of the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University, and a teacher and writer of creative non-fiction herself, points out that "in the 18th and 19th centuries, narratives that featured stories of people kidnapped or abducted - by Indians, for instance - were very popular in the United States." She has a different take on the situation. "Readers today are drawn to stories of personal survival because they give us heroes... we live in an anti-heroic age." It is to be expected that the tragedy of the Holocaust lends itself so readily to this genre, and by extension inevitable that it would suffer from the plight of distorted or invented memoir. Stories of ordinary individuals, victims of the most despicable treatment, who manage to retain their humanity cannot but give hope and inspiration to readers who revisit these stories today. But in the eagerness to present these as the stories of latter-day heroes, good judgment sometimes appears to be replaced by credulity. Dennis Loy Johnson, publisher of Melville House, is explicit on this point. "It's all about the money," he opines. "Big mainstream publishing today is all about the bottom line, and that bottom line has to improve every quarter. Quality control is the first thing to go... favoring books with the lowest common denominator, that appeal to the largest audiences, that are more products of entertainment than of literature." Rosenblat's publishers failed to test the detail of his story - beyond the correct fact that he was a Holocaust survivor - before committing to publishing his book. This raises an obvious issue concerning basic fact checking, and also prompts questions about the importance that publishers and writers ascribe to the term "nonfiction," when used to describe and market books. Labensohn professes surprise at the naivety with which some prospective writers address the issue of basic veracity. "They have no idea of the constraints and issues that serious writers are obliged to tackle when it comes to memoir writing." Ultimately, she observes, for an author - and by extension, a publisher - to label a work as nonfiction, they "need... to be sure about what they are writing." Johnson concurs. He observes that almost all fiction is based, to some degree, on the concept of literary license, but points out that by labeling such work as fiction, "we make a clear delineation between that and what we call nonfiction. And if you call it non-fiction, to my mind there's no way around our human obligation to tell each other the truth." Ilan Greenfield, of Jerusalem-based Gefen Publishing House, has published several volumes of Holocaust-related memoirs. The publisher has not been troubled with issues of veracity, and proposes that this is due to a different emphasis. "We allow ourselves to become interested in the human aspect, even if the story as told is not an obvious best-seller." This philosophy, he says, informs the publishing process particularly at the editing stage, where the story can be considered in detail. "If we miss a comma, it is not the end of the world. If we miss the story, however, then it is the end of the world." The accusation of deceit is a powerful one to level against a memoir writer, and indeed anyone intimately connected with a book that portrays itself as true. Even so, it need not be the kiss of death. Frey, suitably chastened after the furor concerning A Million Little Pieces, published a new work last year, Bright Shiny Morning. Ostentatiously labeled a work of fiction, it has been received positively by the critics. But would this be the same if the accusation of deceit is leveled against a personal story of the Holocaust? Both Labensohn and Greenfield observe that the ramifications go much further than the simple matter of basic truth on the written page. Labensohn: "There are huge ramifications for the Jewish people when something like this happens, because it provides ammunition to Holocaust deniers." Greenfield agrees. "The damage is that this is simply grist to the mill of those who choose to deny the truth of the Holocaust." This is a sobering thought. One can charitably assume that this did not occur to Rosenblat when he began his journey of untruth. Penguin could not be reached for a response, but in a statement released through his agent, Rosenblat states that "I wanted to bring happiness to people, to remind them not to hate, but to love and tolerate all people... my motivation was to make good in this world." By casting himself as a romantic hero in an anti-heroic age, one may surmise. But this does not relieve him of a basic responsibility to the reading public.

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