Dr. Kenneth Waltzer, Holocaust History and the "Angel at the Fence" Affair
Dr. Ken Waltzer is the Madison Professor and director of Michigan State University's Jewish Studies program. He was a key member of a team of that disproved a Holocaust memoir, Angel at the Fence set for publication in February, 2009. Waltzer began raising questions to the agent and publisher in November, suggesting that the story was fabricated.
In May 2008 Ken Waltzer delivered the Mona and Otto Weinman lecture at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on "The Rescue of Children and Youth at Buchenwald." He was one of 15 international scholars supported by the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the Museum to explore the newly opened Red Cross International Tracing Service archive in Bad Arolsen.
He is interviewed by Dan Leshem, program manager of the HDOT website.Q. [Leshem]
Dr. Waltzer, I want to thank you first of all for taking the time to speak with us today.A. [Waltzer]
You’re most welcome.Q. [Leshem]
How do we know that the stories history and historians tell us about the past are more accurate or reliable than other stories people tell us about the past?A. [Waltzer]
I think there’s many ways at getting at the truth of something, but what history brings to the effort is a meticulous interest in an evidentiary basis for making claims about the past. And in writing about the concentration camps, or even ghettos, during the Holocaust, we do have a significant evidentiary base to check what happened.
It’s not possible to make any claim because every claim is subject to possible corroborating evidence or not. And in particular, my work on Buchenwald is rooted not just in testimony by men, who were then children, now in their seventies, and what they say about their experience, and what they have said in Spielberg testimonies, or written in their memoirs, but it’s also based on evidence from the camp itself and the meticulous record keeping by the Nazis, who were the overlords of the camp. Every person in the camp has a prisoner personal card, every prisoner personal card states when somebody was brought to the camp. If you have access to the records at Bad Arolsen in Germany, there are block books, which say where prisoners were placed inside the camp.
We’re able, because of such evidence, actually enter into these dark places and see when people arrived, where they were placed, whether they were sent out to outlying camps. In fact it’s very much the same thing as doing immigration history. If you do immigration history you look at the ship manifests of the people who came through Ellis Island, you look at the census manuscripts to see what neighborhoods and what cities they moved into. You can do the same sort of work in the camps. So, I can check any claim about being in Buchenwald, and being in a particular block of Buchenwald, against an evidentiary basis, which says that claim is true or false.Q. [Leshem]
It still seems peculiar that when reviewing immigration history to the United States, Ellis Island still exists, and it’s a museum, and one can go and look at documents there and in other places, but when we’re talking about some of the concentration camps in Eastern Europe -- where you can go today and nothing remains -- how is it possible that there is an evidentiary basis somewhere?A. [Waltzer]
Well, it varies, obviously, depending on the camp. Buchenwald was the most meticulously documented, and also we have ninety-five percent of the records from Buchenwald. So, I’ve been particularly lucky in working on that camp. There are several other camps like that. On the other hand there are some sub camps that I am very interested in, which have basically returned to nature, haven’t been memorialized, there are no museums. And there we have to work from testimony its self, and some records, but not as strong a record basis. And what we find is then you read testimony in tandem, you read it comparatively, you put testimony and memoirs in conversation with one another. And it’s still possible to find out what claims have some sort of resonance, and some sort of ring of truth, and what other claims are just made up.Q. [Leshem]
That brings us to our main topic of conversation today I think very nicely. You’ve been recently, or for the last while I suppose, involved in uncovering the truth behind what’s been called a "false memoir," that has to do with Herman and Roma Rosenblatt’s text Angel at the Fence. Can you briefly describe how that memoir came into existence, and what it contains, and then how you became involved in some of the fact finding?A. [Waltzer]
Sure. The memoir originally was a small story invented in the late Fall of 1995 -- fifty years after the events themselves -- in which Hermann Rosenblatt was a young man who had been in a small town called Wolbórz which was near Piotrków, and then in the Piotrków ghetto told of his experience during the Holocaust, which included being taken to Buchenwald (Hence my interest in it), and then to a sub camp called Schlieben, where he says, or he said in his false memoir, that he met daily at the fence with a young girl, slightly younger than he, who was a Polish Jew but was hiding under Polish Catholic identity in the nearby village. She would come daily, she would throw an apple over the fence, or sometimes bread, and this helped him to survive. And the story went on to say that, twelve years later in New York in 1957, they met again on a blind date. She said she was hiding in Schlieben, and she would go to the camp and bring an apple for a young boy, and Hermann said, "That young boy was me, and I’ll never let you go again." And they got married, and they lived happily ever after. The memoir, the story actually, was built around that theme: Young love blossoming at the fence of a Buchenwald sub camp, and then being fulfilled later on by a chance blind date, as if some hidden presence brought these two together again.
That story circulated on the Internet for about a dozen years, he had gone on the Oprah Winfrey show in February 1996 to tell the story. It had a lot of legs from that appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s show. It appeared in Readers’ Digest, it appeared in Chicken Soup For The Couple’s Soul, it appeared in a number of inspirational collections of stories, it became connected with a screenplay written for a movie that supposed to have been produced, then it appeared in a magazine called Guideposts in 2006, and from there a book deal was signed, and by 2007 it was going to appear in a memoir to be published by Penguin Berkeley, it had already appeared in a children’s story called Angel Girl, and it was to appear in a blockbuster movie called Flower At The Fence, which the producer still wants to make.
I had heard about this story two, three years ago, maybe even four years ago, by 2005 when I was doing interviews for my work on Buchenwald survivors who came from the same town, Piotrków, or who were in the camps with Hermann, or who were liberated together with he and other boys at Theresienstadt, and went to England as a group called "The Boys," told me about this story that was circulating on the Internet. And they told me they suspected it, they thought it wasn’t true, but they didn’t tell me very much about why they suspected it or how they knew it wasn’t true.
So I knew about it. I tried to contact Hermann as a subject to be interviewed for my book and never got a response from him. And so I didn’t interview him, but he was in my pool of people I was tracking. I was very interested in the question why many boys were protected in the camp at Buchenwald, and yet some the same age were sent out to outlying sub camps, which was much more dangerous than staying in the camp; the outer camps had much more killing, [people] were much more likely to be worked to death there.
So I was actually tracking Schlieben the sub camp and tracking boys fifteen and sixteen years old who were sent there. I had quite a case study going, a kind of control group. So I knew about him. And then, November of 2007 I was contacted by a forensic genealogist by the name of Sharon Sergeant who works out of Boston, Massachusetts. She was part of a group already conducting an inquiry into the veracity of the soon-to-be memoir. And she had contacted one of the same survivors who had told me originally about the existence of the story. He wouldn’t talk to her, but he suggested to her that she be in contact with me. She called me, I agreed to join the group, and we began to investigate.
We investigated fairly carefully. We tracked survivors who were with Hermann Rosenblatt all the way had to say about the story. And when we did that we found that almost all the survivors we contacted were upset about the story, they thought there was no truth to it. And in particular, a very prominent survivor by the name of Ben Helfgott was a very interesting control in all this because he was with Hermann every step of the way: Pietrokov ghetto, Buchenwald, Schlieben, Theresienstadt. They even worked in the same place in Schlieben. They were together the whole time. He told us that there was no truth to it, that Hermann invented it, and that he was close with Hermann’s brother and he knew that Hermann’s brother became estranged from Hermann for telling and making up this story.
So that was a powerful piece of information for us, in particular because Ben Helfgott is a very prominent survivor in England. After he came out of the camps he trained as a weightlifter, and he captained the British Olympic weightlifting team. And since then he’s been head of the Holocaust Memorial Trust in England and this is just, not just anybody, this is someone who actually works to bring Holocaust memoirs to the public. And here he was saying this memoir was not true, there was nothing true about it.
The second way we investigated was to look into the history of Schlieben, and to see whether it was possible, or even plausible, that a prisoner could daily show up at the fence and rendezvous with a civilian hiding under false identity on the other side of the fence. And when we did that we got in contact with amateur historians in Germany who are trying to resurrect the history of Schlieben. And they had maps, and they sent us the maps. And they also were of the opinion, "no way, this is not plausible." And they pointed out that three of the four fences around the men’s camp at Schlieben were internal fences; they faced inside the camp. So he couldn’t have rendezvoused there. The only fence that was possible to rendezvous and see somebody outside the camp was the south fence in the men’s camp. And there, very clearly on the map between the men’s barracks and the south fence, was the SS barracks. So not only was it prohibited to go the electrified fence that was guarded with men in a tower at all times, but to do so you would’ve had to go past the SS barracks, which made it just ridiculously impossible for it to have happened. We also found that the civilian road on the other side of the fence had been closed to civilian traffic from 1943 on.
So by doing this we now had survivor testimony that said it wasn’t true, we had physical evidence, a map and the knowledge of the routines of the camp, which said it was not true. But we didn’t have the real smoking gun because it was still a matter of he says/they say. And we continued to look; it began to dawn on us, that what we should do is to look for where the young girl was, because if we found that she was not in Schlieben at all then the whole story would fall apart. And so we asked the historians who were working on the history of Schlieben to help us on that front. They gave us the names of every farm and farm camp in Schlieben during that period with farm workers on it. And then we worked through the farm workers names and we couldn’t find anything relating to the family of the young girl, which the family name was Radzicki.
So we found at there were indeed Polish Catholic workers working in Schlieben, and in fact we even found one Polish Jewish family hiding under false identity there, but it wasn’t the right family. And so we began to explore where the young girl was, and by two different means we found out at the same time that she was not there; she was 210 miles away in a small town near Breslau, which is Lower Silesia. One way was another survivor came out of the woodwork and told us (It was the same survivor who had told me three or four years before about the story its self.) that he was with Hermann and Roma the night before Hermann and Roma went on the Oprah Winfrey show. And he was very interested in Roma’s story, the young girl’s story, because he’d never met someone who’d survived in hiding. He only knew people who had survived in the camps. And so he asked her about her story and she told him straight out that she was hiding not in Schlieben but somewhere else near Breslau. And so he knew from the very beginning that when they went on the Oprah Winfrey show they were not telling the truth, they were making up a story. And he explained to us that it was if they were in a theater act.
At the very same time we contacted the son of Roma’s sister, who was hiding with her near Breslau. And we found out that the family had filed claims in the claims conference for material claims on Germany, and obviously over their own signatures they had told their story about where in fact they really were. And they were in a small town called Brieg near Breslau, which again is 210 miles away. So that evidence was firm evidence, documentary evidence filed with an institution that said this story was just full of beans, that they had invented the story, they had erased their own specific stories to tell this false story to win attention and whatever other benefits they could gain from telling the story.Q. [Leshem]
And, can you describe a little bit what’s happened in the fallout of your announcement?A. [Waltzer]
Well, the initial fallout was to deny, deny, deny. We made the claims. We were still searching for the last piece of evidence when the first claims were broadcast in the New Republic by two articles by Gabriel Sherman. And the first response of everybody connected with the story, Hermann, the movie producer Harris Solomon, and others, was to deny, was to say, "This is his memory. He knows what his memory was. The story is true. It’s a miracle story," until a second story came out in the Republic, and then it all fell apart. He admitted that he had made it up and the publisher cancelled the memoir, the children’s story was withdrawn by that publisher. There was two publishers affected. The literary agent began to talk. She was mortified. She had thought the story was true, she was an innocent victim of all this. The ghostwriter who polished the story began to talk. So we got lots more information in the wake of the collapse of this fraudulent memoir.
But the story continues because Hermann and the movie producer Harris Solomon now have committed to bringing the book out, or some form of a book out, as a fiction. So that which had been presented as non-fiction but turned out to be fiction is now going to be presented as a form of fiction. And the movie is still slated to go ahead. And they have circled their wagons in terms of any commentary of a negative kind about this whole episode, and they have done their very best to demean and cast dispersions on those of us who are engaged in legitimate enquiry about the truth and veracity of a Holocaust memoir. I had been deluged with email and letters from survivors thanking me and thanking my colleagues for working on this and preventing a false memoir from mixing with other people’s memoirs, which they feel gives aid and comfort to holocaust deniers and demeans the truth of the whole body of works of memoirs. As one survivor put it to me, "His false story would’ve mixed with my story and who would be able to tell the difference?" We’ve also heard from lots of people who have known Hermann and Roma and the picture gets more complicated and thicker all the time.Q. [Leshem]
Can you describe a little bit about what you discovered about Hermann and Roma’s real historical experiences, what they went through?A. [Waltzer]
Sure, they both have legitimate dark Holocaust stories. What particularly upset me about the story is that it was a kind of Hallmark card set against the Holocaust as a backdrop, that the Holocaust was turned into a setting for young love. And one of the things that I think about Holocaust knowledge is that it’s difficult knowledge. It’s heart rending rather than heart warming. It challenges and destabilizes our beliefs, whether they’re in god, or in human kind, or in the justice of the universe. Holocaust stories are stories that challenge all of that, even though they may be about human courage and human resilience they still take us into the dark heart of the Holocaust. And this story didn’t do that, and it purposefully didn’t do that because it was seeking a market rather than speaking to and educating the market.
So, Hermann’s story was a story in which he was part of a band of brothers. He was the youngest of four brothers. The older brothers were put in the work groups at Piotrków, the ghetto where they wound up. And they had work cards and so they were able to protect him from being deported in October ’42 to Treblinka. His mother was deported, and that was an important episode in his life but he was under the protection of his brothers.
They remained for two years in Pietrokov in a factory labor camp called the Dietrich Fischer woodworks on the River Bugaj. It was a fairly benign factory labor camp. You could get access to additional food; there wasn’t the brutalization of everyday experience. But then the camp was evacuated in November of ’42 and the brothers altogether still were brought to Buchenwald -- hence you know, my continued interest in the story -- and they were almost immediately transshipped from Buchenwald (they were there only six days) to this sub camp Schlieben. At Schlieben the prisoners were forced to work on the Panzerfaust, which was an anti-tank weapon. And the older brothers worked in the foundry, which was terrible work, with close connection with chemicals that were poured into the grenade heads of the Panzerfaust.
But Hermann actually had a benign experience, at least initially. He worked in a room called the Zinderpachraum, where they made the triggers, which was also called the Kinderpachraum, because mostly youths worked there. And they worked alongside German civilian women who were fairly friendly with them and gave them extra food and stuff. So he was okay in Schlieben for a time, but them he got beaten by an SS guard pretty nastily. And it was arranged for him to go work in the foundry with his brothers who could then watch over him and be caring about him.
He made it through Schlieben; he was liberated ultimately after a train ride to Theresienstadt. He made it through because his brothers swore to one another that they would do everything for him. They found him extra food, they lied upward about his age so he could work with them: they just kind of protected him constantly. So his story is actually a positive story but it’s not a story of a young angel at the fence intervening, it’s the story of his brothers. And when he wrote his brothers out of the story in his memoir it caused huge riffs in the family and his closest brother, his brother Sam, stopped talking to him; he wouldn’t talk to him, didn’t talk to him even on his own deathbed, and that was why.
Roma’s story is an even darker story. Roma’s family was from a small community near Lodz. And both sides of the family, the father’s family and the mother’s family, were nearly completely wiped out during the Holocaust, taken to Treblinka or to Auschwitz. The immediate core family, nuclear family (father, mother, and sister Mila) managed to get out of the ghetto. They were in a ghetto near their maternal family’s home in central Poland (they had moved early during the war), and they escaped from that ghetto, they got false identity papers and they actually went to lower Silesia in Germany to hide almost in the belly of the beast, if you will.
First the parents went with Roma, and then the second sister Mila, with an Aunt, rejoined them a year later. And the family of four hid under false identity on a farm in a small town near Breslau. But the pain in this story goes very very deep because there was a third sister, a fifth member of the family, the youngest daughter by the name of Barbara. And she was too dark and too young to pass as a Polish Catholic, and so she got left behind and she died in Treblinka. That’s a pain that still exists in the family and in fact one of the reasons we got information from others in the family is that they wanted to memorialize this lost relative who had never been memorialized, and they wanted it to come out. This was a secret that just had pained the family and been a burden that they had carried silently.
So they each had really important stories that give us some real sense of what I call the difficult knowledge of the Holocaust ‐ the pain and the burden of the dark places they were made to inhabit. But they just threw those overboard and made up a love story about two young people meeting at a fence as if they were children in the forest with magic apples, roaming amidst the beasts. They made up a children’s story and they tried to sell it successfully until it was revealed that it was all false.Q. [Leshem]
Aside from what we might see as selfish desires to become famous or to become wealthy that we might ascribe to the Rosenblatts, in his statement after this all came out, after the truth came out, Hermann Rosenblatt sort of tried to defend himself saying that "I wanted to bring happiness to people. To remind them not to hate, but to love and tolerate all people." So my question to you is, why is it important to out a story like that? Why is it important to contradict someone who’s motives seem so decent, to bring happiness and light to people’s lives?A. [Waltzer]
In that scripted statement that he made I think he wants to play on people’s best attitudes. But I don’t think that’s what happened at all. I think he got caught up in telling a story, he liked the fame and the attention it brought, it got he and his wife on the Oprah Winfrey Show, it got his story out, it made him feel important, there were possible benefits to be won from this. This is why he did it
Initially I thought perhaps this was some outcropping of the psychology of survivors carrying a burden for a long time. He’d also gone through a second trauma being shot in a robbery in Brooklyn. And there was some evidence that suggested that this is someone who is maybe confused in his memory. But ultimately I abandoned that kind of thought because I learned so much from the family about how the family was upset by this, and they continually confronted Hermann talking to him about truth, about the importance of telling the truth, and about the importance of bearing witness and not giving aid to Holocaust deniers and all this kind of stuff. And Hermann’s response to them was, "This is what people want. This is what I’m going to give to them. This is show business." And so I think Hermann really was not someone motivated by the most benign intentions.
And I think in terms of our roll, I think our roll is to point out what memoirs are important and worthy of attention. We get asked to review books all the time for professional journals, and to say, "What contribution does a book make?" The flipside of that is to say, "What miscontribution, or what damage does a book do that is in fact not at all true?" The people I was working with, the forensic genealogists, had already had one experience in which they broke the Misha Defonseca case, which was the false memoir written by a woman who claimed she was a Holocaust denier who had run with the wolves in Europe. And they immediately saw in this memoir a kind of second example of someone who was just using the interest in the Holocaust to spin a false story rather than to really give us some knowledge about the actual past. This is not someone like most survivors, who when they do write memoirs, struggle with the pain and burden of doing so because they think they’re engaged in a public service to bear witness to the past, to tell something of the truth, and many of them also go into the schools and talk about this thing. This was someone who was spinning stories for his own benefit.Q. [Leshem]
In an interview you gave recently on this topic you spoke about the Rosenblatt memoir, but I think also slightly more generally, and you said, "Inventions that serve to hide those realities from us," and those realities refers to, I’m gathering, the sort of depth and depravity of the Holocaust itself, "actually invert reality and damage our sense of the past. They besmirch it," you said. Can you describe what you mean by, how do you...A. [Waltzer]
Yeah, yeah... but let me first correct I think an impression that you’re giving. I am not against stories that talk about positive outcomes. I’m writing a book about the rescue of children at Buchenwald. That’s a positive story. When Patton’s army shows up there are 904 boys found at Buchenwald. That’s a positive outcome. It’s not a matter simply of rubbing people’s noses in the worse aspects of the past. That’s not what I’m concerned about. What I’m concerned about is some effort at verisimilitude, some effort at approaching the past as well as we can, ferreting out the truth of that past.
Memoirs are powerful contributions to our knowledge. They take us where otherwise we are not likely to go. They take us into the ghettos; they take us into the camps. But they have some responsibility to do that with an orientation towards truth. What happened there? And when people start making up anything, and they start making claims that can’t be corroborated by other witnesses, by other people’s memories, by the documentary evidence or anything like that, then we’re engaged in using the Holocaust (I think Deborah Lipstadt calls it instrumentalizing the Holocaust.) for purposes other than really approaching what I call the difficult knowledge of the Holocaust. And a difficult knowledge of the Holocaust is the dark center of the Holocaust. It’s what we can learn about A) what the Nazis did, and B) how people responded to it. Some people responded well, and some people endured, survived, and that’s great, and we should tell those stories. But other people were done in by it, or they were dirtied by it, or they collaborated with it, and all of that is the story that we need to look at, not false stories of young love at the fence of a concentration camp.Q. [Leshem]
The Rosenblatt story started out, of course, as a chain email that for years was circulated on the Internet through emails people sent to each other, and encouraged each other to send on to friends. And the Internet poses other challenges for Holocaust education where there are so many sites spreading what could be called Holocaust denial or revisionism. On YouTube there are so many videos espousing those views. How can viewers read that material critically? What questions should they ask themselves when they encounter claims, and what are some of the basic steps they can take to verify what their reading?A. [Waltzer]
Okay, that’s a good and challenging question. There is a cacophony out there and it’s very hard to concretely assess, and critically respond to all of them. It’s just overwhelming. And in some sense we’re not going to be able to respond critically and effectively to everything that’s out there. There is also responses to this recent story, which are very nasty. There are Holocaust revisionists and anti-Semitic stuff in response to all this. It’s palpable. You can’t respond to it all.
But I would say to anyone who reads this stuff on the Internet, you should ask, "How does it fit with what else we know about the Holocaust?" If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true. If it sounds radically implausible, it probably is implausible. The idea of throwing apples at the site of a concentration camp, somebody in hiding would risk her own capture by going to that place where the SS cluster every day? Somebody in a concentration camp would go to a fence freely every day at the same time? There are things in the story itself that should have been a giveaway.
On the other hand, not everybody’s a historian, not everybody is critical-minded. They want to read things to make them feel good, but that’s where professionals like Deborah Lipstadt and myself come in. Our job is to provide some guidance to people ‐ "Read this; it’s important, it makes a contribution, it is corroborated by the evidence. If you read this you will learn the following sorts of things." There are book reviews written all the time. We’re asked to comment on these sorts of things. I think it is possible to get some sort of critical purchase on what’s out there by having historians play this role. Sometimes we make mistakes, and something slips by. We know that that’s happened. But for the most part, if people are critical-minded, at least raise the question, "Is this really true?" That’s the beginning of some steps towards corroborating, checking, assessing, and figuring out what contribution, if any, something makes.
The Internet also works a different way, and so I’d like to add this, if I can, to my answer. The Internet made possible a community of people working together to disprove this latest false memoir. I still have not met the people with whom I work. There was a forensic genealogist in Boston, a forensic genealogist in California, there was a historian in Cottbus, Germany, there was a historian in Paris, France, there was me in East Lansing, Michigan, and we were all a virtual community bringing our skills and our expertise together to do this work in ways that we couldn’t have done ten/fifteen years ago without the Internet.
The Internet also was able to carry to me from the Holocaust museum the digitized versions of the materials on the Rosenblatt brothers in Buchenwald and Schlieben. The prisoner personnel cards from Buchenwald and Schlieben are now digitized in the Holocaust museum, and sitting at my computer I was able to receive them. So the Internet works also to help us at the speed of light, speed up the corroborating process of checking these memoirs.
As a consequence, I’ve heard from lots of survivors who are still writing their memoirs; child survivors who are now in their seventies. And I’m able to help them, using the Internet, to check the veracity of their own claims. These are people trying to be careful. They’re not completely trusting in their own memory fifty/sixty years later, and they ask me to check things. And I’m able to do that using the Internet.Q. [Leshem]
Finally, finally, can you just tell us what the title of your forthcoming book is and when we might expect it?A. [Waltzer]
Well, I’ve got probably another year of writing to go. The current title is The Rescue of Children and Youths at Buchenwald, and it tells the story of the communist-led underground in the camp who in ’43 and ’44 evolved a response to the rise of young children and youths inside Buchenwald. They tried to protect them; they tried to increase the likelihood or probability that they would endure until the end of the war. They did it in an ad-hoc way because they didn’t have control of the transports and they didn’t know who, or what number, would be coming. And initially they didn’t save very many. Many were sent to the outlying camps and died doing harsh work. But from summer of ’44 on, against the backdrop of the Allies coming closer from both East and West, which the underground knew about, the underground kept large numbers of boys inside the camp, kept them from being sent out to the outlying sub camps, sheltered them in barracks under underground control -- a kind of tough love disciplined control -- and gave them access to extra clothing and food, and even in a couple of cases in some barracks conducted schools that lifted their minds beyond the everyday nastiness of the camp.
And as a consequence, that helps answer the question how it is that there were 904 boys alive to be liberated when Patton’s army showed up. They had been nurtured, protected, and helped to be made safe by older men, including Communists from Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, and a Polish-Jewish element that worked with the underground to help save the boys.Q. [Leshem]
Well, I’d like to thank you very much Dr. Waltzer for taking your time and helping us out with these complicated questions.A. [Waltzer]
I hope I’ve been of some help.