Further Dispatches from the “Fiction Not Memoir” Department, Holocaust Division

Book CoverI can’t even measure the size of the dent my head left on my countertop (ow) upon reading this story. The small saving grace is that Hillel Italie yet again does a bang-up job of covering it: Berkley Books has cancelled Herman Rosenblat’s memoir Angel at the Fence after it was revealed that, well, it’s not a memoir. It’s fiction:

[Rosenblat] acknowledged that he and his wife did not meet, as they had said for years, at a sub-camp of Buchenwald, where she allegedly sneaked him apples and bread.

While Rosenblat was indeed at Buchenwald, as historical documentation proves, his “memoir” is yet another in the saga of “fiction is better than truth, despite temptation of fact-checking.”

My personal favorite sentence, at which I snorted coffee up my nose, was this gem:

Other Holocaust memoirists have devised greater fantasies. Misha Defonseca, author of “Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years,” pretended she was a Jewish girl who lived with wolves during the war, when she was actually a non-Jew who lived, without wolves, in Belgium.

There’s an etymological myth that “sincerely” derives from “sin cere,” which means, “without wax”, as in “this crap is not coated with wax to make it look better than it actually is.”

Perhaps all future memoir sales need to come with a “without wolves” clause: “I swear, under penalty of being eaten alive by the wolves of the fact-checking Internet, that I have not made this shit up. It’s all true.”

[Thanks to Barb Ferrer for the original heads up.]

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  1. 1
    Chicklet says:

    I’ve lost all patience with publishers’ unwillingness to vet or fact-check their authors. They can’t keep operating under “gentlemen’s agreements” or whatever they used in the 1950s—it’s a new era, one with this thing called “Google.”

  2. 2

    What I wanna know is if there’s some sort of clause in non-fiction contracts that if the story proves to be false, the author returns all monies received.

  3. 3
    Krista says:

    Does it really matter? If an author can write a good story, it shouldn’t make a difference if it’s true or not. All good tales are rooted in true experience, whether the author says so or not. And the “true” ones are always exagerrated in some way.

    That said, the publisher really should check out the facts before they still the “memoir” label on the cover. I’m sure many people would still have loved this book if had been published as literary fiction. Now it’s been ruined by the controversy.

  4. 4
    JoanneL says:

    Sarah: Why do the wolves have to do all the dirty work for humans? (*-*)

    @Krista… you take my breath away. Unless I missed the sarcastic laughter? What difference does it make if a “true story” isn’t true? Honestly? Particularly regarding such a horrific time in our History? The controversy didn’t ruin the story, the authors’ total lack of ethics ruined the story.

  5. 5
    Suze says:

    Historians hate to use memoirs as sources, because they tend to be factually inaccurate.

    Something based on a person’s memory is going to be flawed, because memory is flawed, and a person’s interpretation of actions will colour the event.  Five people at the same event will remember different details, and some will get it wrong.

    Memoirs are supposed to be emotionally authentic.  They should be understood to be subjective, biased, and supportive of the author’s agenda.

    They should also strive to be as historically accurate as they can be.  If you’re writing your memories as you would like for them to have happened, then you have to label it “based on a true story” and maybe add a disclaimer that some events have been changed or fabricated to protect the innocent, or increase the ratings, or whatever.

    I don’t have a problem with memoirs being partially fabricated, when it’s clear that the fudging is filling in gaps of memory, and that the story is true to what the author feels about it.  I don’t think a body can be expected to remember every conversation they’ve ever had.  A memoirist has to fill in the gaps.

    I do think that memoirists have a responsibility to not fuck with themes that are so emotionally fraught.

  6. 6
    SB Sarah says:

    Something based on a person’s memory is going to be flawed, because memory is flawed….

    YES. Especially my memory, which is so awful. Should I ever write a memoir, it’ll be all, “And then I learned how to fly, which reduced my commute by 34%. And then I gained the power of sleeping 9 hours in a single minute!”

  7. 7
    Barb Ferrer says:

    Does it really matter? If an author can write a good story, it shouldn’t make a difference if it’s true or not. All good tales are rooted in true experience, whether the author says so or not. And the “true” ones are always exagerrated in some way.

    It matters because in this day and age, it’s essentially “cheating.”  In the current publishing climate, it’s no longer enough to have written a good story, which has been proven time and again.  Both Margaret B. Jones and James Frey tried to sell their manuscripts as fiction—no one bit.  The minute they were labeled memoir, however, the tune of the publishing houses changed.  The stories were no longer stories, they had platform.  They had a selling point.  And in Jones’ case, in particular, the writing and storytelling was lauded as one of the hallmarks of the memoir, so you can add irony to the list.

    To add insult to injury, Rosenblat’s agent insists that he wasn’t paid a large amount for the manuscript, that it was ““not a great deal.” Other articles have specified it as less than fifty thousand dollars.  Let me tell you something—fifty thousand dollars, for a first novel that didn’t go to auction or have a special interest or celebrity connection is an enormous amount of money.  I mean, seriously—I’d have been doing the Snoopy dance for weeks had I been offered 50K for my first manuscript.  So it’s not only cheating, it adds to the incorrect assumption that’s so often made that writing is easy money.

    So yeah, it does matter.  A lot.

  8. 8
    Megan says:

    Again, I ask myself in shock and amazement that this work got so close to publication without anyone noticing—and, more importantly, without Rosenblat ‘fessing up to his reinterpretations of history. If you’ve gotten so close to releasing the work, why admit you changed history around now? Why even market the book as a memoir in the first place?

    I know we’ve all rehashed this issue many times, but somehow it still bears questioning. The only reason I can think of that Rosenblat would admit he fabricated parts of the story is that someone else was about to call him on it—and they forced his hand. How sad.

  9. 9
    Chrissy says:

    I remember the wolf girl story being debunked because it was in many local papers.  The author settled somewhere around here, I believe. (Cohasset… Scituate?? )

    Honestly?  The first time I read an article bemoaning the fact that a girl living among wolves after escaping death camps… my reaction was who in gawd’s name thought that was genuine and published it????

  10. 10
    HaloKun says:

    I read that wolf book too and thought for sure it was fiction…

    Actually when I was a kid I didn’t understand the difference between biography and memoir and just plain old fiction.  And now as an adult I still don’t really know the difference. 

    I’ve read some freaking fantastic novels that are so drawn from th authors life I wonder why they didn’t publish it as a memoir,..  And then I remember,..  It doesn’t make a story any better to know it “really happened” to a “real person”.  Stories are better with make-believe.

    I think everything “based on real life events” should be categorized as fiction.  Like TV movies based on real crimes are labeled fictionalizations or re-enactments or whatever.

  11. 11
    Krista says:

    @Krista… you take my breath away. Unless I missed the sarcastic laughter? What difference does it make if a “true story” isn’t true? Honestly? Particularly regarding such a horrific time in our History? The controversy didn’t ruin the story, the authors’ total lack of ethics ruined the story.

    Just to clarify….the story itself isn’t ruined. That hasn’t changed. But now many people (like Oprah a la James Frey) will be betrayed enough not to buy it. The author and the publisher both are at fault for ruining what could have been a successful novel.

  12. 12
    Appomattoxco says:

    Are people under the impression that nobody reads fiction? I don’t understand why they bother to lie at all.

  13. 13
    Kalen Hughes says:

    The author and the publisher both are at fault for ruining what could have been a successful novel.

    But as a memoir, Oprah was all over it. As a work of fiction, its fate would likely have been a quiet death in the lit fic section . . .

  14. 14
    Jessa Slade says:

    some events have been changed or fabricated to protect the innocent, or increase the ratings

    Like Suze, I just want to know what level of reality I’m dealing with: Verified journalism, hazy memory, perfectly acceptable fiction.

    I think a true story does spark a different level of interest than a “based on” or complete fiction.  Not better, necessarily, but definitely different.  Because if I end up having to live with wolves, I’m going to take Farley Mowat with me, not the chick who makes stuff up.

  15. 15
    Persia says:

    Why it was sold to the publisher as a memoir instead of “autobiographical fiction?” With that small change, the emphasis would’ve shifted. The author would’ve gained credibility because of his stay in a concentration camp—instead of losing it because he made up the part about how he met his wife. Maybe the author thought he’d find a publisher faster by saying it was a memoir. Sheesh, if I’d led that interesting a life, and survived that much hardship, I sure wouldn’t feel the need to make stuff up.

  16. 16
    Chrissy says:

    Thing is… incomplete or faulty memory is a cop out.  Because it’s one thing to incorrectly “remember” that a person was wearing a blue jacket when he or she actually wore a red sweater.

    It’s another to remember being part of a wolf-pack when you were ummm living quite comfortably in Belgium.

    Just sayin’.

  17. 17
    AgTigress says:

    I think Barb Ferrer’s summary says it all – why it is wrong to deceive the reader about the status of a story, and quite possibly why publishing houses are only too ready to be hoodwinked themselves because of their appetite for ‘memoirs’.
    A good story, well written, is going to be a pleasure to read whether it is pure creation or an account of real events, but those two things are not the same and should not be conflated or misrepresented.  Writers should be honest with their readers (and that can even include, as someone said, the category ‘based on a true story’). 
    I find it particularly distasteful to invent a ‘true’ tale set in the extreme circumstances of the Nazi concentration camps.  There are many inspiring true stories from that shocking episode in human history, and they should not be devalued in this way.

  18. 18
    hope101 says:

    I do think that memoirists have a responsibility to not fuck with themes that are so emotionally fraught.
    http://

    I think this is the issue that makes this more of a betrayal of the reader’s trust than average.  This planet already has more than enough Holocaust deniers.  To have someone basically denigrate their own story as being insufficient, then to have it get so near to publication with the so-called “experts” not exposing it as fundamentally flawed, really does undermine the credibility of all the genuine suffering that took place at this time.  This is a case of fraud, clear and simple; but its taint has far bigger implications in this case than average.

  19. 19
    SonomaLass says:

    I feel exactly how I expected to feel, way back when.  Sad that such a pretty story is now tarnished because someone tried to pass it off as truth rather than fiction, even though I couldn’t ever really believe that it was true (as I said back then, color me cynical.)  A lot of people commented, here and elsewhere, “I choose to believe it,” or a variation on that.  I could never shut off the questioning/investigating/scholarly part of my mind enough for that, so I’m only disappointed, not surprised.

  20. 20

    There is probably a pretty nasty place in hell for people who pretend to be Holocaust survivors, is all I’m gonna say.

  21. 21
    Silver James says:

    But as a memoir, Oprah was all over it. As a work of fiction, its fate would likely have been a quiet death in the lit fic section . . .

    Kalen, this is one of the reasons I’ve never been a huge fan of Oprah or her book club. One of the wags on national news today suggested that Oprah needed a “book czar” to vet the books she endorses, just so she’d have someone to fire for the screw up.

  22. 22
    Tina C. says:

    I find it particularly distasteful to invent a ‘true’ tale set in the extreme circumstances of the Nazi concentration camps.  There are many inspiring true stories from that shocking episode in human history, and they should not be devalued in this way.

    Exactly.  In this case, though, I must admit that I don’t feel quite as angry as with Misha Defonseca, Margaret B. Jones, or James Frey.  At least Rosenblat actually did experience life in a concentration camp.  On the hand, Defonseca, Jones, and Frey cynically usurped the personae of people who have been marginalized or persecuted for profit.  You know they chose the life of a gangbanger or of a convict or of an orphanned Jewish child reared by wolves in WWII Europe because they felt it provided more dramatic effect than the life of a whitebread middle-American or bourgeois Belgique Christian did.  That, in turn, translated into more money and notoriety.  There are any number of people who have survived those experiences and the writers I mentioned just casually profitted off their pain, exploiting them yet again.  That flat-out pisses me off.  Additionally, I simply don’t understand how any of those people didn’t realize that more notoriety would translate into exponentially more people who could (and would) bust them for the lying liar-face liars that they are.  That level of stupid is simplying galling.

  23. 23
    Barb Ferrer says:

    There is probably a pretty nasty place in hell for people who pretend to be Holocaust survivors, is all I’m gonna say.

    Actually, Mr. Rosenblat is a Holocaust survivor—that’s not in question at all.  The element of the story that was questioned was his ability to get up to the fence he claimed to have met the little girl (AKA his future wife) at, and what ultimately proved to be his downfall since Holocaust scholars said there was little to no way he’d ever have been able to access that section of fence regularly since it was located beside SS barracks.  Not to mention anyone being able to approach the fence from the other side since it most undoubtedly would have been patrolled.

    See—that’s really the sad part.  There are so many elements of their story that are amazing.  He IS a survivor, they’ve had a love story that endured over fifty years—it was just that one little embellishment that he felt a need to add.  Perhaps he had created this story for himself as a child in the camps in order to exist day to day and when he met the woman who’d become his wife and discovered that she was from the same area where he’d been held, maybe he thought it a serendipitous event, maybe he slipped her into the place of the avatar.

    The human mind is a powerful, powerful thing that allows us to endure a lot.  I think this was in all likelihood a case of circumstance and a long-held fantasy gone horribly, horribly awry.

  24. 24
    Barb Ferrer says:

    Additionally, I simply don’t understand how any of those people didn’t realize that more notoriety would translate into exponentially more people who could (and would) bust them for the lying liar-face liars that they are.  That level of stupid is simplying galling.

    Yet, Frey continues to get book deals.

    Go figure.  It seems that galling stupidity does pay.

  25. 25
    Charlene says:

    “if I end up having to live with wolves, I’m going to take Farley Mowat with me”

    If I were you I’d check with people who actually live in Northern Canada. Farley Mowat is thought by many who live there to have made stuff up too.

  26. 26
    Jessa Slade says:

    Farley Mowat is thought by many who live there to have made stuff up too

    Nooo, say it ain’t so!  Another bubble burst.  Guess I’ll have to give up living with wolves.  Perhaps a naked mole rat immersion semester…

  27. 27
    Ann Bruce says:

    Perhaps he had created this story for himself as a child in the camps in order to exist day to day and when he met the woman who’d become his wife and discovered that she was from the same area where he’d been held, maybe he thought it a serendipitous event, maybe he slipped her into the place of the avatar.

    Ah, actually, he just wanted to win a contest.

  28. 28

    he just wanted to win a contest

    And then I think he came to believe his own creation. A lot of liars do. What’s sad is that he’ll now be remembered for his fraud, instead of the real, moving fact that he survived the concentration camp and beat the Nazis by going on to have a happy, long life. I’m kinda sorry for Rosenblat. For Penguin, I only have bitchslaps for the stupid.

  29. 29
    Barb Ferrer says:

    Ah, actually, he just wanted to win a contest.

    Leave it to me—the one time a cynic like tries to give someone the benefit of the doubt based on circumstance and it still provides a sound kick in the ass.  *g*

  30. 30
    Jennifer says:

    No wonder I don’t read too many memoirs. I am pretty sick of this “fictionalized” crap being put out. Y’know, people would probably still read this stuff if it was fiction and sold as such…

    Gah. This book sounded interesting too.

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