In Praise of Critics

Sunday, January 11th, 2009 at 6:13 pm

The cancellation of Herman Rosenblat’s Holocaust memoir, An Angel at the Fence, affected me personally because, if not for timely criticism of an early draft of Until Our Last Breath: A Holocaust Story of Love and Partisan Resistance, I might be facing something similar.

For those of you who may not be following this story, the pivotal event of Rosenblat’s book is being saved from starvation at Buchenwald by a girl who threw him apples over a fence. It’s a great love story, since many years later in New York he accidentally reconnected with the girl, and they eventually married. The problem is, he has now admitted he fabricated the story.

“So what?” some have asked. It’s a great, uplifting story, and memory is a tricky thing anyway. Deborah Lipstadt, author of Denying the Holocaust, has a succinct reply. “If you make up things about parts, you cast doubts on everything else,” Lipstadt recently told a reporter. “When you think of the survivors who meticulously tell their story and are so desperate for people to believe, then if they’re making stories up about this, how do you know if Anne Frank is true? How do you know Elie Wiesel is true?” She’s right. If someone wrote about being wounded at Midway but wasn’t actually there, no one would offer this as proof the battle never took place, but such denial happens all too easily with the Holocaust.

My research partner in Until Our Last Breath is the son of two Holocaust survivors, now deceased, whose role in the Jewish resistance against the Nazis in Vilna, Lithuania, forms an important part of the book. Jews who fought back are rarely the focus of Holocaust books, and I had more than enough documented facts to write the historical parts. The problem was we wanted a stronger narrative focus on this one particular couple’s story than the known or inferred facts allowed. Since this personal element of love and resistance distinguished this book from others, we initially made the decision that I could write as if they experienced certain things personally, when all we actually knew was that such things happened in places they were. After all, if what I wrote was generally true, all I was doing was making the book a better read, no?

No. And here’s where my praise of critics comes in. They did exactly what critics sometimes need to do: they panned the manuscript. A number of publishers turned it down out of discomfort with the fictional feel of parts of it. Good for them! I am genuinely grateful. Individuals close to the family gave even more pointed feedback about the need to stick to the facts. At that juncture I understood that, well-intentioned as we had been in including what only could have happened, the book fed the denial that Lipstadt warns against.

It would be nice if we’d gotten it right the first time. It’s never pleasant to be wrong about something in which one has invested a lot of time and effort, and I can attest to how tedious a major rewrite can be. This was a case, however, where what at first felt like a burden turned out to be a blessing. I wish for Mr. Rosenblat’s sake, that he had been similarly blessed.

I’ve worked with editors for many years and agents for a few, and I know the importance of having an open mind about something as personal and fraught with ego as one’s own writing. I know the down side also–that criticism can undermine fragile confidence and wreak havoc on a writer’s voice, but today I would like to say thank you to those who, by their willingness to give me feedback I haven’t always wanted to hear, have had a constructive influence on my writing.

3 Responses to “In Praise of Critics”

  1. Danny Bloom says:

    http://globalwishingwell.blogspot.com

    Hi. I am the blogger in Taiwan who made sure the book was cancelled. read how i did on my website….all those other PHD people got the credit, as did the New Republic reporter who wrote the two part series, which was brillaint by the way, but I was the one who led the charge to get the book cancelled before publication, and who gave all the smoking guns to the New Rep reporter by phone over a period of three days and in 100 emails, and at first he was reluctant to even talk with me, telling me to stop bothering him on the phone. FInally, one last call at midnight, and he woke up to the fact that i was giving him a great story for him to report. He never did thank me…

    YOur post above is intersting and a good one. Is your book out now? How was the critical repcetion after you made the changes………? I think Debby Lipstadt would love to read your blog here and i will send a link to her on this. because you did it the right way,,.,,you LISTENED to those who were tryign to help you. good for you. !!!

    danny bloom
    Tufts 1971

  2. Danny Bloom says:

    How ‘citizen journalism’ blog in Taiwan uncovered a Holocaust hoax in U.S. publishing industry: The Herman Rosenblat saga

    by Danny Bloom

    TAIPEI — Long live the blogosphere, and I’ll tell you why. A chance encounter by an alert blogger in Taiwan with a wire story in The China Post in early October began a chain of events worldwide that led to uncovering a literary hoax in New York — and the cancellation of an “Oprah-approved” book. True story. Read on.

    The China Post covered the news of his hoax thoroughly, publishing five wire service articles from early October to late December. You might have read the news in this newspaper: an elderly Holocaust survivor named Herman Rosenblat was invited to appear on Oprah Winfrey’s popular TV show in Chicago twice, once in 1996 and again in 2008, to “tell a tale” of how he survived life in a Nazi concentration camp (this was true), when a little girl threw apples to him over a fence (this was untrue).

    He told American media that he met this same woman, Roma, now his wife (true), on a “blind date” in New York in 1958 (not true), and after finding out she was the same girl who allegedly threw apples to him in wartime Germany, he immediately proposed to her (also not true).

    It sounded like a great, romantic story, and Oprah fell for it — twice. Thousands of bloggers around the world did, too, as well as senders of millions of chain email letters. The problem was — well, it just wasn’t true at all.

    Now I want to tell you why this story might be interesting for readers — and bloggers — in Taiwan. The aforementioned blogger spent some of his spare time during the last three months of the year using the blogosphere to follow a very strong “hunch” that Mr. Rosenblat’s “blind date” backstory was full of holes.

    And his hunch proved correct. The sad story of yet another literary hoax was exposed by a magazine reporter in New York, after receiving “the smoking gun” evidence from the Taiwan-based blogger in a barrage of emails and long midnight phone calls.

    To learn more and help expose the hoax, our blogger here contacted top Holocaust historians in America and found that they, too, were aware of the hoax. In fact, it was these Jewish historians who found the evidence that Mr. Rosenblat’s account included false details, as they had been looking into the “story” for over a year.

    However, being busy professors, with books to write and papers to publish, they didn’t have time to spend pestering the U.S. news media to report the hoax and stop the book before it reached bookstores. But the blogger in Taiwan found a good reporter in New York who was willing to expose the hoax, and Gabriel Sherman came on board at the last minute. Although Sherman had never before heard of Rosenblat, on Christmas Day, the New Republic magazine published his two-part expose of the hoax, and the publishers pulled the book the very next day. Case closed? Almost.

    After Mr. Rosenblat — who really was a Holocaust survivor and suffered much in his teenage years in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany, admitted he had “fabricated” and “embellished” major parts of his book (not for money or fame, but rather for emotional reasons that psychiatrists will explain some day in the future) — his book became history.

    How do I know all this? I was that blogger.

  3. Laurel says:

    Hi Danny–your perseverance is commendable. Thanks for sharing your story here, and keep in touch!