For years, Lali Sokolov lived a quiet existence in Melbourne, Australia, where he and his Jewish wife Gita built a new life after the Holocaust. The world might never have noticed him, an immigrant Holocaust survivor, if he had not told his “story” to a promising new screenwriter in the same city named Heather Morris. Some readers and fans of her now-controversial novel — based on a screenplay that she started when she first met Lali in 2004 before it was re-created as a novel in 2018 — ”based on a true story” as the cover breathlessly exclaimed! — as “the single greatest love story” ever told.
As a young man age 24, Lali survived the deprivations of a now-infamous Nazi concentration camp and told Heather that he met the 18-year-old girl who would later become his future wife after the war inside the camp: Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The story Morris tells in her bestselling novel, published in 2018 and based on the screenplay she started in 2004, reminds some literary scholars of another Holocaust survivor in New York who wrote a ghost-written “memoir” in 2008 and was invited by TV star Oprah Winfrey to appear on her live-audience TV program in Chicago not once but two times to regale Oprah and audience members (and TV viewers across the nation) with his heartwarming and touching story about how he met his wife when she was just a little girl of nine living just outside the gates of another infamous Nazi concentration camp, Buchenwald, and how she saved his life by throwing sweet apples over the fence to him once a week to save him from certain starvation and death inside the camp.
He told Oprah with a straight face that he never saw this little ”angel” Jewish girl again until after the war when in 1958 in New York he went on a blind date and discovered that the woman was he was dating was in fact that little girl who saved his live in the 1940s. Oprah loved the story, audience members shed tears, his wife came out from backstage and more audience tears flowed and later a Hollywood producer wrote a screenplay and a book about this man and his wife. The book’s cover said the story was “based on a true story” and blessed by Oprah herself.
The man and the woman were married for decades in New York before he ever shared their purported wartime encounter with acquaintances, who later described him as ”a charming raconteur.” In the 1990s, he committed the account to paper, entering it into a popular local newspaper contest that marked the beginning of its public consumption.
A book contract and movie deal followed, along with appearances on Winfrey’s show in 1996 and 2007. The story he told on her show was anthologized in the ”Chicken Soup for the Soul” inspirational reading series and thousands, if not millions, heard their story before Holocaust scholars began to cast doubt on it, and before the elderly New Yorker confessed that its central character — his apple-bearing angel savior — was an invention of his imagination.
Yes, the man, in connivance with his loving wife, fabricated the entire story of the apples and of how he met his wife on a blind date. None of that ever happened. But Oprah believed it and a bestselling book was published.
In a TV confession on a third Oprah show in 2008, the man tried to explain his literary hoax this way after his falsehoods were discovered: “I brought good feelings to a lot of people and I brought hope to many. My motivation was to make good in this world. In my dreams, my wife will always throw me an apple, but I now know it is only a dream. I apologize for making this all up.”
The New York publishing house cancelled the scheduled release of his faked Holocaust memoir, which was subtitled ”The True Story of a Love that Survived.”
Again with this “based on a true story” fiction.
Winfrey — who was previously embarrassed when one of her book club selections, James Frey’s memoir ”A Million Little Pieces,” was revealed to be fraudulent — said she was “very disappointed” by her 78-year-old Holocaust survivor guest’s deceit..
One Holocaust historian and scholar in the U.S. put it this way in an online article: ”His story transformed the horror of the Nazi camps into a setting for human connection among innocents. In his fantasy, which evoked mythic folk tales of magic apples and of innocent children hiding amidst the beasts, and the daily hunger, the terror, the lice and other terrible conditions, history — as actuality in the camps — was erased.”
As the hoaxer’s account became more widely publicized in America and online, Holocaust experts and journalists began to question the love story. A Jewish professor following the news wrote on her blog that circulating versions of the book had “so many shortcomings that one hardly knows where to begin.”
One major question that surfaced in the media was why — when the man had already survived such genuine wartime drama — did he embellish his experience? Some members of his own family said that he concocted the story for money and fame, a charge that the old man vehemently denied to his dying day. He passed away in 2015.
Other people suggested that perhaps he had invented the account as a defense mechanism, to separate himself from the awful reality of what he had experienced. During an appearance on TV after the hoax had been exposed, he was asked by a reporter why his wife, who did not join him on the TV news program, had previously gone along with his story. “Because she loves me,” he said.
“It wasn’t a lie,” he remarked in the same TV interview. “In my imagination, in my mind, I believed it. Even now, I believe it, that she was there and she threw the apples to me.”
Does our American and Australian culture underwrite this sort of myth-making, as we know how the television, movie and publishing industries at times seek happy endings where they cannot be found. Is our desire as book readers and movie viewers to find in Holocaust stories such as “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” the memes of innocence, goodness, human kindness, and redemption what makes these kinds of re-created stories, created with good intentions and sincere wishes to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive pile up?
Scholars will surely be debating these storytelling issues for decades to come, as more and more Holocaust novels and movies surface in Western countries, not only Australia but also in Germany, France, Spain, Holland, Norway and Italy.
Will these literary novels be reduced to dime novels?