January 4, 2009
Candy-coating the HolocaustBy J.R. Dunn
The "Angel at the Fence" story has been proven to be a hoax, and that's a good thing.
It's not a good thing because two aged and troubled people have suffered the humiliation of being exposed as liars. It's not a good thing because the publishers, agents, and producers, not to mention Oprah, have been exposed as foolish and credulous -- though that's not necessarily a bad thing.
It's a good thing because "Angel at the Fence", if it had been published, would have been yet another step in the candy-coating of the Holocaust.
By now the "Angel" story has spread almost universally. As a young man in Europe, Herman Rosenblat was barely hanging on at a subcamp of Buchenwald when a girl who lived nearby began tossing him apples though the fence. For seven months she threw him an apple a day until, in the last weeks of the war, he was transferred to another camp.
After the war, he moved to the U.S. and settled in New York. Twelve years later he went on a date with a younger woman. While speaking of their war experiences, she recalled that while hiding out in Germany with a Polish family, she tossed apples to a young man in the local concentration camp. And lo -- a legend was born.
The falsity of this story should have been obvious to anyone hearing it. Apples, along with everything else edible, were almost unknown in Germany by the war's end. Polish families were not living peacefully in Germany in those days. Even the timing is off -- "seven months" beginning in the winter of 1945 puts the war in Europe's end sometime in July, nearly three months late. A number of scholars, in particular Ken Waltzer and Deborah Lipstadt, were quick to point out the inconsistencies. Neither Rosenblatt's agent, his publisher, or the movie producer who bought the rights were interested in hearing any of it until at last irrefutable evidence (including the fact that the only place where the two could have met was right beside the camp's SS barracks) was presented in The New Republic. Last week Rosenblat at last admitted the hoax to his agent. Only a day later, Berkley Books announced that it was canceling publication.
There is no point in blaming the Rosenblats. An ordeal such as that which they survived leaves scars on the personality impossible for luckier individuals to grasp. They should be allowed to fade out of the public spotlight with no further suffering.
But it remains a good thing that the book was exposed before it was published. The problem here is that the story is exactly what Oprah said it is -- heartwarming. And if the Holocaust is anything at all, it is not heartwarming. There are actual events quite similar to what occurred to the Rosenblatts. Simon Wiesenthal emerged from the camp at Maidenek convinced that his wife was dead. And she, on her way back to their hometown, by then annexed by the USSR, thought the same was true of him. Through an incredible series of coincidences, she learned that he was alive only moments before boarding the train that would have taken her behind the Iron Curtain.
But that story, pleasant as it may be, is not the Holocaust. Wiesenthal lost 89 members of his family to the extermination program. That is the Holocaust.
In Lithuania, a man forced at gunpoint to shove people into a van used for gassing realized only as the door slammed shut that the last person he had pushed inside was his wife. That is the Holocaust.
In Auschwitz, a member of the Sonderkommando, Jews selected to work in the gas chambers and crematoria, was removing bodies from a gas chamber when he came upon the corpses of his children. That is the Holocaust.
A man was performing slave labor at rail yard where several cattle cars had been parked on a siding and the older women inside left to die of thirst. As the man listened to their screams, he thought, as any normal individual would, of his mother. He later discovered that she had been in one of those cars. And that is the Holocaust.
It happens that the laborer in this case was named Simon Wiesenthal. Even the most fortunate suffered almost beyond bearing.
"Humankind cannot stand very much reality." Human beings have a tendency to look away when things get too intense, and no event commands this reaction more that the Nazi extermination campaign. But that is exactly why we must look at it directly. Because by no other means can we gain an understanding of an event so alien to everyday life. You can't say "Never again" about something you know nothing about.
For too many, the Holocaust has become a story about Oskar Schindler, or Raoul Wallenberg, or the Rosenblats. The central truth of the event -- that millions were annihilated under the most horrifying circumstances conceivable -- have effectively become a footnote. Even Spielberg's impressive "Schindler's List" flinched at the reality of Auschwitz, retreating instead into nonsensical visual metaphor.
The Oprafication of the Holocaust may render the topic easier to handle, while also making it easier to dismiss. It's no surprise that comment sections on the "Angel" affair are filled with remarks from deniers hooting that "the Jews are out to make money" and "the Holocaust is a Zionist hoax". That's only to be expected.
But the real problem lies in the fact that negating the shocking aspects of the event distorts it into utter meaninglessness. To study the actual course of the exterminations, to take in the unbearable details, is to be brought face to face with the possibility that the universe as a whole may never be clean until the human race is wiped right off it. What are fairy tales about apples compared to that? Absolutely nothing.
We need tales about rescuers, if only to rebuke the lie that "everybody is capable of what the Nazis did". If that's true, we may as well shut out the lights. What we do not need is sentimentalization. Misrepresenting the event is almost as bad as straightforward denial. The one attempts to negate the reality of the exterminations, while the other negates its meaning.
The Holocaust marks a line of termination for many ideas about humanity -- that human beings are fundamentally good, that progress is inevitable, that civilization protects us from the unspeakable. Anyone who fails to grasp the meaning of the Holocaust fails to grasp a core truth about the modern world. And anyone who attempts to gloss it over... well, the words speak for themselves, don't they?