Thu, Feb 19, 2009 - Page 14 News List

The truth will out

Herman Rosenblat survived a Nazi death camp. Fifty years on, he told Oprah of the little girl who had thrown food over the fence and kept him alive. Years later they married. But, as he prepared to publish his sensational memoir, the truth emerged

By Elizabeth Day  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

VIEW THIS PAGE Herman Rosenblat knew how to tell a story. At family occasions, he was the one who would spin fantastic yarns with only a kernel of truth. He was the clown, the joker, the raconteur whose tales had to be taken with a liberal pinch of salt. “I remember him laughing, being silly and making jokes that weren’t funny,” recalls his wife’s nephew, Bernard Haykel. “He was quite a jovial character, fun-loving. He always seemed pretty harmless.”

One of Uncle Herman’s favorite stories was about how he met his wife Roma. He would recount the astonishing tale of how, as an 11-year-old Polish Jew interned by the Nazis in a sub-camp of Buchenwald, he was sustained by a young girl who came each day to throw him apples over the fence. He never knew her name. In 1945, Rosenblat and his three elder brothers were liberated by allied troops from Theresienstadt concentration camp, where they had been transferred shortly before the armistice.

Twelve years later, Rosenblat was living in New York when a friend set him up on a blind date. In an incredible twist of fate, the curly-haired woman with green eyes who was his date for the evening turned out to be his childhood savior, the girl who had thrown him apples all those years before: his “angel at the fence.” He proposed on the spot, against the twinkling lights of the Coney Island amusement parks. They were married in 1958 and had two children, Ken, born in 1960, followed two years later by their daughter, Renee.

To begin with, it was an anecdote he shared only with friends or new acquaintances. Then, in 1995, Rosenblat wrote it up and entered a newspaper competition to find the best Valentine’s Day-themed short story. He won and his story was featured on the front page of the New York Post. Television crews and local reporters swiftly tracked the couple down. Within months, the Rosenblats were appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show, sitting hand in hand on a cream sofa, in the full glare of studio lights.

BRAGGING RIGHTS

In the years that followed, Rosenblat was signed up by a literary agent who brokered a book deal. A movie producer expressed an interest in adapting his story for the big screen. The Rosenblats, now living in Miami, began appearing at local schools and Holocaust-education centers, with Herman giving his moving account of how love triumphed over the forces of hatred. He enjoyed the attention. “He was very jolly but he was also a show-off,” says Sidney Finkel, 77, a lifelong family friend. He was from the same Polish town as the Rosenblat brothers and was interned with them at Buchenwald. “He was always bragging about all the publicity he got. He wanted to stand out so badly.”

In 2007, the couple appeared once more on The Oprah Winfrey Show where Rosenblat got down on one knee to profess his continuing devotion to his wife. Oprah, teary with emotion, described it as “the single greatest love story we’ve ever told on the air.” The following year saw the publication of a book for younger readers, Angel Girl, written by children’s author Laurie Friedman. Rosenblat’s memoir, Angel at the Fence, was slated for publication by Berkley Books this year. Richard Dreyfuss was rumored to have signed up for the US$25 million film adaptation. Life was good for the Rosenblats.

There was just one problem — it wasn’t true. Although Rosenblat did survive the Holocaust and his marriage to Roma was genuine, the story of a young girl throwing him apples was a fabrication. His “angel at the fence” was a fake.

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