Theirs was a love story that could rival Romeo and Juliet.
He was a boy trapped in a Holocaust concentration camp. She was a young Jewish girl in hiding who threw him apples over a fence. Years after the boy was liberated and the war ended, a chance blind date in New York City brought them together. They would marry months later.
The tale, which was featured twice on The Oprah Winfrey Show, made into a children’s book, slated to be published as a memoir and made into a movie, seemed too good to be true. After some probing by MSU professor Dr. Kenneth Waltzer and other researchers, it turns out it was.
To debunk a fictitious love story about a couple in a Nazi concentration camp, MSU professor Dr. Kenneth Waltzer, Sharon Sergeant and Colleen Fitzpatrick used dozens of documents, including:
Transport lists: The names of prisoners who were being sent to the camps.
Historical records: Information that came from the United States, Israel and Poland
Maps of the camp: The maps were drawn by former prisoners and survivors of Schlieben.
Survivor testimonies: Alerted Waltzer to the story and helped bring the truth to light
The story of Herman and Roma Rosenblat began during a dark time in the world’s history and ended with the truth about their story splashed across newspaper pages and TV screens. But they were not the first people who have told a false story about the Holocaust. Misha Defonseca, who’s real name is Monique de Wael, claimed that she lived with wolves as a child during the Holocaust. She admitted in early 2008 that it was a lie, after work by Sharon Sergeant and Colleen Fitzpatrick, the forensic genealogists who worked with MSU professor Dr. Kenneth Waltzer on the Rosenblat case. In fact, she was not even Jewish, as she had claimed. These stories, which some have defended as bringing something beautiful out of something ugly, are hard for Waltzer to take. “(People) thought it was affirming, that it indicated God’s presence in the world because the two people found each other,” Waltzer said. “But the idea of looking at the Holocaust to show God’s presence in the world is a very difficult proposition.”
“The Holocaust is an event of serious magnitude … and its essence is brutality, terror and suffering,” said Waltzer, director of Jewish studies at MSU. “So to dress up a Holocaust story in the form of a love story is really to do violence to that difficult knowledge that we should be confronting.”
That’s what Waltzer, along with several others, said the star-crossed couple Herman and Roma Rosenblat did.
The tale first garnered national attention when it was featured on Oprah Winfrey’s show in 1996, after Herman Rosenblat submitted the story to a Valentine’s Day contest in a New York newspaper.
“They kept performing the theater act, and ultimately the theater act become the real thing,” Waltzer said.
Waltzer first became suspicious of the story about three years ago when he was interviewing survivors for a book about children imprisoned at Buchenwald, a concentration camp. The survivors told him they thought the couple’s story was false, he said.
Waltzer tried to contact Herman Rosenblat as part of the research for his book, since Rosenblat was kept at Buchenwald and at one of its subcamps, Schlieben. When Rosenblat didn’t respond, Waltzer let it go.
Also wary of the story, forensic genealogists Sharon Sergeant and Colleen Fitzpatrick contacted Waltzer in November 2008 about its authenticity.
“There were a number of things missing,” Sergeant said. “One of the first things we determined was that there was some info in the story that was true.”
Using historical records, the team was able to verify that Rosenblat and his three brothers had been at Buchenwald and its subcamp. But one of the most crucial part’s of the story lay in Roma Rosenblat’s location.
“We couldn’t find a trace of her there (around Schlieben), and the historians who were helping us couldn’t find her,” Waltzer said.
The team discovered Roma’s family had been in hiding more than 200 miles away, near Breslau, Germany.
“The sad thing is that she completely suppressed her own story in order to join her husband’s, and her story is horrific,” Waltzer said. “She survived with the parents and a sister; a family of four in hiding, which is a remarkable story. How that happened, we’re still trying figure out.”
The couple has declined to talk to media about their story after releasing a statement.
Another red flag for Waltzer was in the layout of the camp. According to maps drawn by Schlieben survivors, three of the fences faced inward. A fourth bordered the exterior of the camp and a civilian road.
The problem, Waltzer said, is this fence was next to an SS barracks and the civilian road had been closed since 1943. Civilians were barred from the road and prisoners were not allowed to go to the fence, under penalty of death.
“We basically have access to public records all over the world, and for the Rosenblat case we used U.S. records, records in Israel and records that came from Poland,” Sergeant said. “Dr. Waltzer was able to zero in directly with experts in Schlieben, which is where this whole story was supposed to have taken place.”
Asking for answers
As the evidence mounted, Waltzer tried to get a copy of the manuscript for Herman Rosenblat’s memoir, “Angel at the Fence: The True Story of a Love That Survived.” Waltzer first contacted Rosenblat’s literary agent, Andrea Hurst, who referred him to the publisher, Berkley Books, a part of the Penguin Group. Waltzer then worked up the chain from the publisher’s publicist, to the book’s editor, and finally to the president of Berkley Books. He never received a response.
“I thought they didn’t want to face to the problem they had,” Waltzer said. “I was telling them ‘I have concerns about this, let me see the manuscript, I would love to be proved wrong,’ but I was honest. I said right up front, I said, ‘I think that memoir is at best embellished, and, at worst, invented.’”
Waltzer also e-mailed “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” and again, received no response. A phone message left by The State News to Harpo Productions Inc., Winfrey’s company, was not returned.
On Dec. 5, five days after e-mailing the president of the book company, an article about the story’s validity was published in The New Republic. The following day, a second article was published. Both used the research done by Waltzer and the rest of the team.
“The first raised the sufficiencies and talked about my research, and the second went over the grounds of my research and talking to the survivors and the family, which pushed beyond my research,” Waltzer said. “It was so devastating that one day later, Rosenblat confessed.”
When Rosenblat confessed Dec. 27, the memoir was canceled.
Berkley Books released a statement saying the deal was off and it was demanding its money back from Rosenblat. Craig Burke, Vice President and Director of Publicity for Berkley, said the company had no further comment beyond the initial statement in an e-mail response to The State News.
“There’s a part of the story that involves not just Herman and Roma, but all of the culture makers who stood to profit by developing, packaging and presenting the story to a mass public,” Waltzer said.
To some people, the incident could be viewed as a failed book deal. But to those who endured the horrors of the Holocaust, it’s something much worse.
“It’s a matter of trust,” said Sidney Finkel, a Holocaust survivor who met Herman Rosenblat shortly after they were liberated. “I do a lot of speaking in schools. The fear is that people won’t believe what I’m saying or will doubt my own experiences.”
1945: Herman Rosenblat and his three brothers are in a subcamp of Buchenwald called Schlieben. This is when Herman claimed to have met his “angel,” a Jewish girl whose family was hiding nearby. She would throw him apples over the fence. In reality, there was no girl. Rosenblat is later liberated from the camp of Theresienstadt after being moved from Schlieben.
1950: Rosenblat immigrates to the U.S.
1954: Roma Radzicki, the “angel” in the story, immigrates to the U.S.
1957: Rosenblat goes on a blind date with a young woman named Roma Radzicki. Roma is an immigrant to the U.S. from Poland. They discuss where and what they had been doing during the war. Herman realizes that she was the young girl who used to throw him apples over the fence. They marry months later. According to Sergeant, it was around this time that they had actually first met, not years ago across a concentration camp fence.
Early 1990s: Herman is shot at a TV repair shop where he worked by a burglar. While he was in the hospital, he said his mother came to him in dream and told him share his story.
1996: Herman and Roma appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show to share their story after he had sent the story in to a newspaper for a competition.
2007: The Rosenblats appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show for second time.
Nov. 2008: Dr. Kenneth Waltzer, Director of Jewish Studies at MSU, begins to investigate the story along with Sharon Sergeant and Colleen Fitzpatrick, two forensic genealogists.
Nov. 21, 2008: Waltzer e-mails the Rosenblats’ literary agent, Andrea Hurst, voicing concerns about the pending book, “Angel at the Fence: The True Story of a Love That Survived,” which is scheduled to be released in February 2009. Hurst tells him to contact the publisher, Berkley Books.
Nov. 25, 2008: Waltzer contacts the book’s publicist. He receives no response.
Dec. 4, 2008: Waltzer contacts the books editor. Again, he receives no response.
Dec. 20, 2008: Waltzer contacts the president, publisher and editor in chief of Berkley Books and receives no response.
Dec. 25, 2008: The New Republic posts an article by Gabriel Sherman that discusses the discrepancies and issues with the story.
Dec. 26, 2008: The second New Republic article is posted, discussing the story’s validity.
Dec. 27, 2008: Penguin-Berkley cancels the release of “Angel at the Fence.” Herman Rosenblat recants.