NEIL CONAN, host:
In February, Berkley Books, a division of the Penguin Group, planned to publish a book by a Holocaust survivor named Herman Rosenblat called "Angel at the Fence." It's a love story: a child prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, Rosenblat sees a young girl on the other side of the fence who lobs him an apple. For the next seven months, she throws food to him over the fence. Then, many years later, on a blind date in Coney Island, they meet again and get married.
Rosenblat called it a memoir. Berkley Books marketed it as true. But, as it turns out, the crux of the story is fiction. In the face of these revelations, the publisher decided to cancel the book's publication. Do you care if a memoir is loose with the facts? Does it matter? Why? Our phone number is 800-989-8255; email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can join the conversation at our Web site as well. Go to npr.org, click on Talk of the Nation.
Gabriel Sherman is a special correspondent for The New Republic. His original reporting revealed that "Angel at the Fence" was, in fact, a hoax. He joins us now from our bureau in New York City, and Gabriel Sherman, nice to speak with you.
Mr. GABRIEL SHERMAN (Special Correspondent, The New Republic): Hi, Neal. Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And again, this is a story - when you started first publishing, the publisher, Penguin - and there's also a movie to be made of this story - the maker of the movie, the producer, were adamant that the story was correct and vilified you for questioning it.
Mr. SHERMAN: Well, Neal, actually what's interesting is my attempts to speak to the publisher were completely stonewalled. The entire reporting process, no one from the publisher would speak to me about the book. In fact, the editor of the book slammed the phone down when I called her up to ask her questions. Some Holocaust scholars have been making...
CONAN: You called her at home?
SHERMAN: I did call her at home after several calls to the office and e-mails went unanswered. I mean, for me, the initial reporting was just to get to the bottom of, you know, had the publisher done some fact-checking? Had they been hearing the same concerns that scholars were raising about the veracity of the narrative?
CONAN: And it's not a new story. The story's been around for some years?
SHERMAN: It is. It's a very old story and what's remarkable is it actually went on this long without folks stepping forward to point out that the book's central premise was, indeed, fiction.
CONAN: And how did you discover that it was fiction?
SHERMAN: Well, some scholars have been, over the past several months, looking into the claims that the story took place and by studying maps of the Schlieben sub-camp of Buchenwald, they determined that it was physically impossible for either Herman Rosesenblat to approach the fence from within the camp and Roma, the young girl who he says he eventually married, to approach it from the outside. In fact, the only point at the fence where they could approach was adjacent to the SS barracks.
So, from there, they actually started talking to survivors who were in the camps who also said they had never heard this story and nobody from the camp would dare to approach the fence. And from there, they started to draw conclusions that this couldn't have happened.
CONAN: And then, it appears that by the time Mr. Rosenblat decided to make this into a book and had a literary agent - again, the fact-checking process, you suggest, should have kicked in then?
Mr. SHERMAN: Exactly. And, you know, my whole line of thinking throughout this reporting processes is, you know, I wouldn't have even been reporting the story if the book publisher, the agent, the movie producer had done the same level of vetting that, you know, any serious magazine or journalist does with their own stories.
And it's amazing that, you know, he told this story twice on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and not one person, you know, stepped back to say, wait a minute, like, is this very fantastical, amazing love story that seems like the product of a Hollywood movie actually fiction, like it turns out to be?
CONAN: Like many things in life, if it sounds too good to be true, maybe it isn't.
Mr. SHERMAN: Exactly.
CONAN: And the scholars who also pursued this story, they have been vindicated?
Mr. SHERMAN: In a way, although, Neal, I would say, you know, even from my own vantage point, this is not - there's no winners in this story. It's a very tragic story. Herman did survive the Holocaust. He had a very tragic childhood. He lost both of his parents and in 1992, he was shot in a robbery in Brooklyn. And his son was also shot during the robbery and has been left in a wheelchair.
So, he's had a very tragic life and, you know, everyone feels bad that he invented this story, which, you know, he didn't need to invent because his own experience was so emotionally gripping that, you know, his own personal narrative didn't need any embellishment.
CONAN: Have you had a chance to speak with him - has anyone - to find out why he felt the need to embellish?
Mr. SHERMAN: You know, his agent released a statement to the media, which, in effect, said that he, after the shooting in the 1990s, was on some very heavy medication. And during that time, he had this vision that his mother had come to him and told him to share this story with the world. And he wanted to share the story, in his words, to spread good feeling and love to the world. And you know, this was perhaps his way to tell a happy story when his own life was personally so tragic.
CONAN: We're talking with Gabriel Sherman, special correspondent for The New Republic, about his reporting that uncovered another memoir hoax, this one called "Angel At the Fence," a Holocaust love story. And if you'd like to join the conversation, does it matter if what's presented as fact is fact? Does it matter to you? Why? 800-989-8255; email is email@example.com. And let's start with Pamela, Pamela with us from Panama City Beach in Florida.
PAMELA (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.
CONAN: Sure. Go ahead please.
PAMELA: I was just going to say that it doesn't matter to me personally if a memoir is completely fact as long as the person makes a note and tells a reader that, you know, this is my subjective experience. And otherwise, I think it is sort of deceptive.
CONAN: Well, Gabriel Sherman, Mr. Rosenblat did something quite similar to that. He said this is my memory.
PAMELA: I guess with the fact checking, it turned out to be false. But I would think that a memoir should have a note that says, you know, hey, this is not exactly...
CONAN: It should come equipped with a pinch of salt?
Mr. SHERMAN: And I think Pamela raises a good point, but the more important point is that - of course memoirs are written from memory and they contain embellishments or compressions of certain scenes and time. But the most important point is that the central premise, the guiding plot, narrative behind the book needs to be true and that if you make up those central details, the entire memoir can't stand up.
And I think that's what happened with Herman, because his story is tragic and riveting, but the love story, which the entire book was based around and promoted by the publisher as a miraculous story of love - if that doesn't hold up, the entire book falls apart.
CONAN: And it was interesting to read in your story - some of his fellow survivors saying, look, there was a love story in his camp - his brothers kept him alive. He and his brothers kept each other alive, that is an amazing story. And to put this candy-coated love story on top of it just trivializes what in fact happened.
Mr. SHERMAN: Exactly. And Neal, that's what - in some ways, what makes this such a sad story is that his own brother, Samuel Rosenblat, died very upset and angry at Herman because he had invented this story, which Sam felt had altered their own personal experience in the Holocaust. And he felt there was no need for Herman to tell this invented story. And this was really, like you said, a story of brothers and not - it is a love story but not - it doesn't turn out the love story that Herman wrote about.
CONAN: Let's talk with Christiana - Christine, excuse me, in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.
CHRISTINE (Caller): Hi. Yes.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
CHRISTINE: I called to say that whether a memoir is "true" in quotes, because of course, memoir has to be subjective, is very important to me. My daughter gave me a book called "Lopsided: How Having Breast Cancer Can Be Really Distracting," memoir by Meredith Norton - that's in the title: "a memoir." But it begins with an author's note saying that my sisters always called me a liar at every meal because when I'd start talking, I'd say something unbelievable. I'm not a liar but I am a storyteller, she says. So then, she says, try to enjoy this book for what it's worth.
Well, I was given it because my - I was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago. But I was really, really annoyed as I read the book, not that her experience was so incredibly different than mine, because that's obviously quite possible. But the fact that I didn't know when she was embellishing, when she was being - exaggerating for dramatic effect, such as when she said that she urged the nurse to let her see her scar - mastectomy scar - before the nurse thought that she really should be able to see it.
CONAN: Mm hmm.
CHRISTINE: And she called her husband and said oh, look at this wonderful scar. Isn't this wonderful? Isn't this the cutest scar you've ever seen? - which just seemed so outrageously untrue to me. So, the answer to your question earlier, it's yes. It makes a huge difference to me and I'm - even though, as your other caller said, as long as they have some sort of disclaimer at the beginning. But had I not gotten it as a gift and I saw the disclaimer at the bookstore, I wouldn't have bought it.
CONAN: All right, Christine. Thanks very much. And it does matter to a lot of people and a disclaimer like that the beginning of the book is - well, it's just about a license to do anything, isn't it?
Mr. SHERMAN: It is, but I think, Neal, the point that you're hearing from readers and this is the point I would - if we had a guest from the publishing industry on, I would ask them. You know, there's a reason why these books are marketed as true stories. I think in the culture there's an intense demand for true stories. We like to - you know, if you look at the popularity of, quote, "reality television" and movies that are based on true stories - we love to consume stories that supposedly happened to real people.
And so, you know, I would ask the publishers, you know, why not market these books as novels, if they're invented memoirs? I mean, really that's all they are. I mean, many novels - you know, the Hemingway works - were written based on their own personal life experiences, except they were marketed as fiction. And so, you know, I would like to understand why the publishing industry feels the need to publish books that are marketed as true when they cannot themselves stand behind the veracity of the books.
CONAN: Gabriel Sherman is a special correspondent for The New Republic. We're talking about his reporting about "Angel at the Fence," which revealed that the memoir was a hoax. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's get Barb on the line, Barb with us from Ann Arbor.
BARB (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.
CONAN: Go ahead.
BARB: I'd like to follow up on what your guest just said. I just completed a novel based on a true Holocaust love story involving a family member. I chose to write it as a novel, as supposed to memoir, because there were things that I didn't know, number one. And number two, there were things that I felt artistically were important. It was an author's choice to write it as a novel and I...
CONAN: Hello? Well, I'm sorry, we lost Barb. Apparently the line went out from Ann Arbor, but let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go to Michael, Michael with us from MOKE-uh-LOO-mee Hill. Is that right?
MICHAEL (Caller): Muh-KUL-uh-mee Hill.
CONAN: Mokelumne Hill in California. Go ahead please.
MICHAEL: Yes. And it's - reason that they have a fiction and nonfiction sections in the bookstores is to give the readers a choice. And when you are not given a choice, you're making a false assumption on that choice. And it's all about the money, when it really comes down to it, because someone who's writing about a love story at a death camp - and that what's those Nazis were doing over there, they were dealing in death...
CONAN: Mm hmm.
MICHAEL: And that's wrong, because there's nothing sexy about the Holocaust, unless you're into sadomasochism on a large scale. And it's morally wrong for a publisher to go out and say this is the truth and it's not. And they - actually I'm pretty sure if you really were to get the background, you'd find the publisher really kind of knew that this was kind of fishy to begin with.
CONAN: Gabriel Sherman, any suggestion that there was a wink, wink, nod, nod here?
Mr. SHERMAN: You know, Neal, we don't know whether the publisher knew when they purchased the book that there were serious questions about it. They said in their statement that they were shocked that the author, Herman Rosenblat, had invented the story.
But what I do know is that, starting in late November, Professor Kenneth Waltzer at Michigan State University - he's the director of the Jewish Studies program there - had made numerous efforts to reach out to both Herman's agent, the editor of the book, the editor-in-chief of the entire imprint, Berkley books, to express his serious reservations that he discovered with his historical research with the narrative and not one person, to the extent that I've done all the reporting that I know of, ever responded to Kenneth Waltzer's inquiry.
So, we know that at least for the past month, Professor Waltzer has been expressing his reservations and the publisher did know that these concerns were raised. So, we don't know when they purchased it whether they had realized that the book was fake.
CONAN: Every journalist has a collection of stories that are too good to check. We don't put them in the newspaper (laughing) or talk about them on the radio very often.
Mr. SHERMAN: Of course. We talk about them at the bar but we don't publish them.
MICHAEL: If they would just look at how those camps were set up in a physical aspect as it has been looked at, they were set up so that people couldn't get to the camps, couldn't interact with the inmates and the fact that it was isolated in many aspects, as from the communities, so they could function as death camps. You know, there was a lot of thought and engineering put into those camps for their function, which was mass genocide of people.
CONAN: Michael, thanks very much for the call.
MICHAEL: OK. Bye-bye.
CONAN: But he also raises another interesting point, Gabriel Sherman, and that is our hunger for authenticity. He's right. Nonfiction stories sell a lot better than fiction stories, for the most part.
Mr. SHERMAN: Of course they do. You know, the publishers, you know, latch onto these stories and I think this was - I hate to use this expression because it's overused - but a perfect storm because we had a story - a feel-good story that dealt with the Holocaust and we had the imprimatur of Oprah Winfrey. And in the book world, you know, Oprah is the, you know, golden seal of approval and I think, you know, following...
CONAN: To say - the couple had appeared on her show.
Mr. SHERMAN: Twice.
CONAN: She did not read the book and did not review - talk to them about the book.
Mr. SHERMAN: Of course.
CONAN: But they told their story on the show.
Mr. SHERMAN: Exactly. And so, you know, after that story had been promoted on the Oprah Winfrey show, both the agent and the publisher thought that, you know, if Oprah had talked about this, this has to be true. And I think, you know - following the story, I think both the publishing industry and Oprah, you know - you would think Oprah would have done this because of the James Frey incident, which was another memoir that had been proven to be not true. But I think there's going to be some hard questions asked, both in the book world and on "Oprah," about, you know, how they deal with memoirs going forward.
CONAN: And not just James Frey, but Margaret Seltzer, too. And there have been other examples. The publishing industry is not exactly a profit center for the conglomerates that hold most of those publishers.
Mr. SHERMAN: You're right, Neal. It is a tough business, margins are slim and I think one of the common lines that publishers use to explain why they do not fact-check is that it would be prohibitively expensive to fact-check every book they publish, you know, thousands upon thousands of books a year.
And I don't necessarily know what the answer is. I mean, one argument is that, you know, perhaps they need to publish fewer books if they can, you know, put the resources into each project to make sure they're true or - I know a lot of authors hire their own freelance fact-checkers to vet their books.
But it seems like it shouldn't be just reliant upon the authors themselves to make sure that they've, you know, crossed the T's and dotted the I's. I mean, I think the publishers, because they are the ones ultimately who are releasing these books to the culture, need to be able to stand behind them.
CONAN: Gabriel Sherman, thanks very much. Good reporting.
Mr. SHERMAN: Thanks a lot.
CONAN: Gabriel Sherman, a special correspondent for The New Republic, a contributing editor to New York Magazine, with us from our bureau in New York City. You can find a link to his articles on "Angel at the Fence" at our Web site at npr.org. And this is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.