More memoir fakery and atrocity kitsch

While putting together PEN America 8: Making Histories, we thought a lot about the way writers engage with historical fact. The smartest writers seemed to agree that narrative was never strictly factual-- that fiction creeps into any kind of storytelling. Maggie Nelson, for example, in her beautiful and brilliant memoir/book-of-poems Jane, confesses, “I don’t know what to say,” when asked by her father if the book will be “a figment of your imagination.”

A now-scuttled book that had been planned for early next year brought these matters back to mind over the holiday: Herman Rosenblat’s Holocaust memoir, Angel at the Fence: The True Story of a Love That Survived, was cancelled by Berkley Books after Gabriel Sherman reported serious doubts about its veracity in The New Republic. In the memoir, Rosenblat told the story-- as he has many times before, on television and elsewhere-- of “his reunion with and marriage to the girl he says helped him survive the Holocaust by bringing him apples through the fence of Schlieben, a subdivision of the Buchenwald concentration camp.”

In the commentary that followed, one of the more striking responses came from Professor Ken Waltzer, director of Michigan State University’s Jewish Studies program, who found the episode saddening in many ways, not least because of the picture Rosenblat’s story paints of the Holocaust. “Holocaust experience is not heartwarming, it is heart-rending,” Waltzer writes.

That comment reminded me of Anya Ulinich’s story “The Nurse and the Novelist,” from PEN America 9: Checkpoints. As Anya told Maud Newton recently, the story satirizes “atrocity kitsch fiction”:
What’s appealing about atrocity kitsch is that there is always a strong hero. There is also a record keeper, a paper trail, an old love letter, an old key, what have you. At the end of the story, somebody becomes stronger…. The nurse character is a curmudgeon and a nut, and her grandmother’s history is a fine example of what happens to ordinary people come times of atrocity. The weak scramble to survive when they’re in a pickle. Their weaknesses come to the fore, betrayal goes unpunished, people would rather forget, ordinary life continues in utilitarian apartments.
I suspect that Anya has a kindred spirit in Aleksandar Hemon (whose conversation with Rabih Alameddine also appears in Checkpoints), judging from his most recent book, The Lazarus Project-- which addresses, in a similarly merciless fashion, more recent atrocities: the war in Bosnia, the torture at Abu Grhaib, human trafficking in Moldova. Hemon interweaves the narrator’s experiences with and reflections on these events with a fictional account of Lazarus Averbuch, a historical figure, and the victim of his own personal atrocity. Thinking of The Lazarus Project again (with some help from Anne Yoder’s post yesterday at The Millions), a point of contact appears between the purveyors of false memoirs and atrocity kitsch, respectively. Both groups of writers exploit the wishes of many readers to see redemption in the worst the world has to offer, rather than merely facing it for what it is. This is, perhaps, its own kind of lie, the kind that has nothing to do with historical fact.


Racheal said...

This hoax is a tragedy. The Rosenblats have hurt Jews all over and given support to those who deny the holocaust. I don't understand why Atlantic Pictures is still proceeding to make a film based on a lie. I also don't understand how Oprah could have publicized this story, especially after James Frey and given that many bloggers like Deborah Lipstadt said in 2007 that the Rosenblat's story couldn't be true.
There are so many other worthwhile projects based on genuine love stories from the Holocaust. My favorite is the one about Dina Gottliebova Babbitt - the beautiful young art student who painted Snow White and the Seven Dwarves on the children's barracks at Auschwitz. This painting became the reason Dina and her Mother survived Auschwitz. After the end of the war, Dina applied for an art job in Paris. Unbeknownst to Dina, her interviewer was the lead animator on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. They fell in love and got married. Now that's a romantic love story! I also admire Dina for her tremendous courage to paint the mural in the first place. Painting the mural for the children caused her to be taken to Dr. Mengele, the Angel of Death. She thought she was going to be gassed, but bravely she stood up to Mengele and he made her his portrait painter, saving herself and her mother from the gas chamber.

Also, Dina's story has been verified as true. Some of the paintings she did for Mengele in Auschwitz survived the war and are at the Auschwitz Birkenau Museum. The story of her painting the mural of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on the children's barrack has been corroborated by many other Auschwitz prisoners, and of course her love and marriage to the animator of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs the Disney movie after the war in Paris is also documented.

Why wasn't the Rosenblatt's story checked out before it was published and picked up to have the movie made?? I would like to see true and wonderful stories like Dina's be publicized, not these hoax tales that destroy credibility and trust.

wanda1234 said...

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