How important is truth in a story?

fall27The case of Herman and Roma Rosenblat’s love story and what critics called their “fake memoir” definitely makes us reevaluate the narrative role of truth in a story.

Why is it important that a memoir be a true accounts of its author’s life? Obviously, it reflects the way its author remembers it. Yet as we know, the list of memoirs pulled by their publishers grew by one last week to include Angel at the Fence by Herman Rosenblat. He had told a purportedly true story about his concentration camp experience except for one little detail: he made up the girl coming to the fence, throwing apples over it to help him survive. Then, as told by him, he met the same girl on a blind date years later, they recognized each other and married.

Why the literary and publishing scandal? Isn’t it agreed by all a memoir is a partial version of a personal reality, rife of inaccuracies and bias?

I think the indignation is right, in this case. Truth carries greater narrative weight in a story than plausible invention, to the point of justifying rejection of the story if it is fake. The assurance of veracity here gives a real-life confirmation of the archetypal connection between love and salvation. It is the extraordinary, almost extra-natural yet real intervention that saved a young boy when no other hope was possible that caught the attention of potential readers, TV viewers and Oprah.

If the story were presented as fiction, it wouldn’t have gotten the huge positive reception the memoir had. A fictional story would be yet another example of the pattern of redemptive love, known from fairly tales. Even the subsequent encounter of the main characters on a blind date mirrors the climax of agnition in fairy tales. But if true, the power of the story comes from the idea of its achievability. Redemptive love wasn’t just a promise anymore; it had become a real-life possibility, made to look even more powerful on the background of the dire circumstances in which it occurred. Robbing the audience of the extra-ordinary beauty of a factual salvation was like telling a child Santa didn’t actually exist, even if presents would keep coming.

Several years ago similar objections arose about the film The Lives of Others, in which a GDR secret service official, in charge of spying on the dissident relationships of a prominent playwright, decides instead to protect him from the state’s totalitarian machine.

The film was not a memoir, of course. It wasn’t even claimed to be based on true events, apart of a historically correct reality. However, critics of the film denounced it for inventing a wrong – naive, washed-out, romanticized – version of reality, and especially rejected any comparisons to Schindler’s List. They said that the crux of the difference was that, in fact, there was no such actual Schindler in East Germany’s secret police and making one up would be a distortion of truth – even artistic truth such as plausibility.

In fact, wouldn’t we be scandalized by a story of a made-up high-ranking Nazi official secretly saving Jews?

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7 responses to “How important is truth in a story?

  1. Peter Kubicek

    I wish to commend the anonymous writer on his/her cogent arguments.

    As a survivor of 6 German concentration camps, and an author of a published Holocaust memoir called “1000:1 ODDS,” I know what it means to grapple with painful and fragmentary memories. But while I wrote, one thing was always uppermost in my mind: I am contributing to the testimony about the Holocaust and it must be remembered as the truth. As a survivor, the Rosenblat “Apple Story” instantly smelled to me to high heaven. I found most its elements implausible, and some elements contrary to verifiable historical facts. Since coming upon the story six months ago, I worked tirelessly with the other researchers to debunk it. I suppose I should be gratified that this hoax was now exposed, but I also believe that the damage it did to Holocaust memory is irreparable. Holocaust deniers have already greeted it as a gift.

    Peter Kubicek

  2. Dear Peter,

    I appreciate your comment! My only experience related to a concentration camp was the visit of Auschwitz when I was 12. Even though I had seen movies about it and had read about the Holocaust, seeing it in person and feeling the reality of being there
    added a totally different dimension to my understanding. It does make a difference in certain stories to know they really happened. Thank you for writing your testimony and giving us another way to approach a historical reality.

  3. Well, I’ve turned this one over in my mind for years and I’m still not decided on it. As an English teacher, English Major (I will always be that!) and writer, I don’t think this is a simple issue.

    I started thinking about it after the Oprah Million Little Pieces problem a few years ago.

    I think the following things simultaneously, however contradictory they may be:

    1. Memoir is art, not “Autobiography.” Autobiography is what people who aren’t important enough to have a biography written about them write. Therefore, art needs all parameters to be open, including truth. Memoirs are constructs of memory, attempts to communicate a life to those who were never part of that life. Lies are just a part of that.

    2. If the major motivating factor to read your memoir—the parts that get you on Oprah and make everyone want to buy the book—are completely a lie, then there’s a problem. The kind of truth-stretching or truth-changing that I think is part and parcel to memoir is about those things that we either don’t want to reveal, can’t really remember, or we make a literary decision that the made up is a bit more interesting.

  4. Adam, you are right – there are some details in a memoir that are non-negotiable truthwise for the reader. You can “misremember” many things, but there are others that are important and may become the basis on which the contract with the reader may be broken.

    However, why is it that exactly that detail, about a girl tossing apples, happened to be the non-negotiable one? It is captivating, isn’t it, that it became the point of attraction for potential readers. After all, it doesn’t seem to be so technically important to the narrative. If Rosenblat had other factual failures, the scandal may have not been so public but at the same time the story wouldn’t have been as attractive.

    Thanks for commenting!

  5. Since eleiva cajoled me in an e-mail exchange to contribute some additional thoughts on this subject, how can I resist?

    Some latest comments on this story say that apart from the “minor” apple detail, the rest of the story is true and must be respected. Rosenblat now says that he “wanted to make good in the world” and some of his supporters are ready to hail him as a misunderstood benefactor of mankind. A new publisher, York House Press, has announced that they plan to publish the story as a work of fiction, but “grounded in fact.” They refer to his “no doubt verifiable account of his time as a young boy…”

    Here is what they ignore or maybe do not know. Rosenblat’s entire narrative, starting with the Piotrkow ghetto, in 1942, is full of holes. As his fame grew, he kept adding further hair-raising details about his experiences in Buchenwald and Theresienstadt which are demonstrably false. The only indisputable fact is that he is indeed a real concentration camp survivor. He may have had a real story, but it is now lost in his fabulation.

    When Harold Salomon, the movie producer, whined that neither he, nor Oprah, nor the original book publisher, could have known that the story was false, I pointed out that if he and the the other enablers had had but half a brain, they would have contacted three concentration camp survivors and said, “Here, look at this. What do you think?” And each one of us would have told them that the story did not pass our smell test. I recently gave the same advice to York House Press and offered myself as the first survivor they could consult. I await their reaction, if any.

    And there is another important point which eleiva discussed in her original story. Even if a preposterous story is labeled as fiction, it can do untold damage. It is bound to color people’s perception of a historical event. The image of a chubby-cheecked boy in striped pajamas squatting contentedly at the (electrified) fence of Auschwitz, talking amiably to another boy on the other side, will stay in the minds of movie-goers. It distorts and sugar-coats the reality of the unrelieved, incomprehensible savagery of the concentration camps.

    Peter Kubicek

  6. What you mention reminds me of the controversy around the movie Life is Beautiful and the debate on truthful representation in fiction. Thanks for adding those details.

  7. If you like, I can e-mail you “Tragedy and the Whole Truth”
    by Aldous Huxley; a very interesting essay about truth in art.

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