How do we measure 2008? Wasn’t it the year of Oprah? She selected the new president of the United States, tried to start a new age cult, avoided a major fire at her Montecito mansion, her mom got sued by a department store, and we discovered she’d been in bed, so to speak, with Obama’s political rivals all along. Oh, yes, one more thing: there was a scandal at her self named Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa involving abuse and harassment of students. Just toward the end of the year, she announced she’d gained 40 pounds—not surprising with all that stress!
Now, just before we sneak out of 2008, Oprah gets hit again: she’s endorsed yet another memoir that turns out to be a fake. A bad guy named Herman Rosenblat, a Holocaust survivor no less, who’d dined out on a make believe story about his experiences in a concentration camp, sold her a bill of goods. He sold it not only to Oprah, but to a publisher, as well as countless groups he’d spoken to over the years.
Rosenblat had been trying out his story for years. When Oprah heard it, about Rosenblat and his now-wife tossing apples over a fence to each other at a Buchenwald subcamp in Poland circa 1945, she called it “the single greatest love story, in 22 years of doing this show, we've ever told on the air.” In the story, the kids never saw each other, but were reunited years later, after World War II, by accident. They fell in love, and married. How do you like them apples?
It’s not like this was a new story to Oprah when Rosenblatt sold his story to book publishers. He and his wife first told it in 1996—twelve years ago—on Oprah’s show. It’s still on her website. On that first show, Rosenblatt stood and declared, "Darling, you've fed me when I was hungry. You fed me when we were married. You fed me … until now. But now I'm not hungry anymore, and I'm hungry for your love!"
The couple became Oprah regulars. In 2007, they returned and Herman re-proposed to his wife. He said, “Sweetheart, it was 64 years ago when I first saw you," he says to Roma. "My mother came to me and said to me, 'I'm sending you an angel.' And a couple of days later you appeared at the other side of the fence while I was in a concentration camp. Then in 1957, 14 years later, I had a blind date, and it was you. Now our 50th anniversary is coming up. With this ring, my dear, I pronounce my love for you forever. And as this ring has got no end, my love for you doesn't have any end."
Oprah told them, "You have become the beautiful metaphor for what love can be," Oprah says. "For endurance, and fate and destiny."
It’s the second time Oprah has been fooled by a memoirist. The first time was James Frey, the guy who made up a whole rehab-addiction story that Oprah enthusiastically promoted in her book blub. It turned out he’d made the whole thing up. He wasn’t even contrite when he reappeared on her show to explain what he’d done.
It’s not like Rosenblat wasn’t in a concentration camp. Kenneth Waltzer -- director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University -- was a key member of the team that disproved Rosenblat’s apples story. He noted, however, that Rosenblat had been in a subcamp of Buchenwald with his two brothers and that his wife had been forced into hiding.
The account of how the Rosenblats came to be exposed was revealed a week ago in The New Republic by Gabriel Sherman. It’s a fascinating story. Since then, the Rosenblats’ book, Angel at the Fence, has been canceled by Berkley Books. Even worse: family members who knew Rosenblat had made up the apples story had kept quiet for the last 12 years. What were they thinking?
As one scholar points out in Sherman’s article, the real danger of the Rosenblats is that it feeds into the world of Holocaust denial. As we’ve noted before, that group actually has a face in Mel Gibson’s father, Hutton Gibson. There are people who claim the Holocaust never happened. When a story like the Rosenblat’s is disproven, it only feeds their craziness.
Oprah could not have known the Rosenblats were lying. Even in 1996, it would have been above and beyond her abilities to challenge the couple. After all, they were in concentration camps. Let’s not forget that. Whatever they saw or endured was pretty bad. Their lies cannot be compared to Frey’s. Their experiences—Rosenblat vs. Frey—is like comparing apples to oranges. Or nuts.
Book publishers do not fact check memoirists, or any authors, for that matter. They merely “vet” books for legal improprieties, so they don’t get sued. They never have fact checked memoirs, which is why back in 1995, Lorenzo Carcaterra’s book, “Sleepers,” got into so much trouble. My sources then detailed how he made it up from other people’s lives. Carcaterra stood by his book. But it was fiction. He was discredited.
You’d think after that incident, publishers would have been more wary. But there have been many more fake memoirs since then. In the Rosenblats’ case, you can see how it happened. Someone at Berkley Books probably said, “But they’ve been on Oprah twice. She loves them.” The tantalizing prospect of a promotional appearance on Oprah’s show was too good pass up. Oprah is god to book publishers. She’s all they have left to sell books.
William Faulkner—whose books Oprah should have her audience reading, and not this contemporary junk—wrote in his novel, "Light in August:" “Memory believes before knowing remembers.” The next line is: “Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.” That’s Herman Rosenblat’s problem. He believed his apples-over-the-fence story so long it became true to him. I’d rather hear what really happened to him at Buchenwald, or what he saw—get to the “core” of the story, if you will. But let’s let Oprah, at least, off the hook on this one. In a season of pardons, she and even Herman Rosenblat are innocents.