The controversy surrounding the fate of the bestselling Holocaust sex-in-the-barracks novel by Australian romance novelist Heather Morris continues unabated. On Monday, Publishers Weekly, a major book trade magazine in New York ran an item in its free daily online newsletter headlined ”The Tattooist of Auschwitz Under Fire” with a subheadline reading “The Auschwitz Memorial Research Centre claims that ‘inaccuracies’ in Heather Morris’s hit novel “blur the authenticity” of the true history, with a link to the recent UK Guardian expose of the book by book industry reporter Alison Flood in London.
And meet Claudia Miriam Reed, a writer in Massachusetts, who read the recent Times of Israel news report about the book, summing up the Guardian’s article. Reed left a comment on the Times website that reads: ”A book like ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’ is not one that ‘inspires people to engage with the terrible events of the Holocaust more deeply,’ as the article says. It’s one that sends the message that things weren’t so bad after all. It also reinforces the master/slave fantasies of the sexually confused.”
Then there’s Australian book reviewer and blogger Lisa Hill who in June — five months ago, before this Holocaust literary storm broke — blogged then about the publication of the novel in Australia.
“The horror of Auschwitz has been muted in this novel by the implied suggestion that survival was possible for those who were wily and determined enough,” Hill opined. “Lali’s ‘will to survive’ is critical to this narrative. Whereas everything I have read about the Holocaust, from Primo Levi to most recently ‘Bella and Chaim’ tells us that no agency on the part of the Jews made any difference. Survival was merely a matter of luck, and to assert otherwise is to suggest that Jews could have averted their fate.”
And on December 12, Hill added a postscript to her June blog, writing: “There is now an authoritative source for disputing the veracity of events in this book. See Alison Flood’s article ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz attacked as inauthentic by camp memorial centre.’
There was a novel from 2008 that was at first wildly-championed by Oprah Winfrey on her TV show, inviting an elderly Holocaust survivor — an 87-year-old Jewish man who was soon-to-be-outed-as-a-literary-hoaxer named Herman Rosenblat — on her TV program three times to glowingly tell her audiences in New Age parlance that his Holocaust novel “Apples Over the Fence” was ”the greatest love story ever to to be told on my television program.” That’s heavy.
It was later reported by New Republic magazine journalist Gabriel Sherman in a two-part expose that Mr Rosenblat had made up — fabricated — the entire love story about meeting his future wife in a concentration camp when she, as a 9-year-old, threw apples over a fence to satisfy his hunger as a starving inmate in Buchenwald.
Sound familiar? Man meets future wife in a Nazi concentration camp, gets book contract to tell his story, and is later exposed as someone who might have very well made the whole thing up? Am I talking about Lali? No, not at all.
Once exposed in the mainstream media as a liar, Rosenblat was at first hesitant about reappearing on Oprah’s show to explain the reasons for his hoax, but he did appear and swallow his pride and admit he fabricated the entire story. Undaunted, he also tried to explain his reasons for making up the tale by talking to Oprah about the persecution of the Jews in Poland, his Jewish family’s imprisonment in the Warsaw Ghetto and eventual transfer to a concentration camp where his mum was murdered.
It’s when Herman revealed to Oprah on TV how he met his wife Rosa when she (as a child of nine) threw apples to him over the fence at Schlieben (part of the Buchenwald concentration camp complex) that alarm bells went off among Holocaust scholars worldwide. It beggars belief that SS guards would not have noticed the apples thrown over the fence and allowed it to happen, especially not time and time again. Oprah thought it was cute.
The backstory to Rosenblat’s big fat Holocaust white lie to gain attention and fame was a simplistic muddle of pop psychology and fable, and it covers the story of how his tale came to be ghost-written by a movie producer and screenwriter and celebrated in the America media and by tens of thousands of gullible ‘”fans” on social media. We must also not forget the story behind the story — what happened after Rosenblat’s fake account became public and created ”a perfect pop-culture storm, complete with gotcha journalism, adventures in culture making, publishing dilemmas, modern victimhood, freedom of speech and storytelling, new media and the power of the internet to explode a story,” as one commentator put it.
But some questions remain and they might be useful in looking at the story behind “The Tattooist of Auschwitz,” too.
For example: Why did Mr Rosenblat invent his story? What circumstances came about for his publisher PenguinRandomHouse not to vet and verify the story? Why was Oprah and her TV producers so gullible? Why did her viewing public accept the whole improbable story anyway? Why is this fantasy so damaging to the history of the Holocaust?
One might also ask: Why did 87-year-old Lali Sokolov invent his story, if in fact he did? Maybe he didn’t. Maybe it’s 95 percent true, as the author maintains. We still don’t know how his story came to be.
What circumstances came about for his Australian publisher not to vet and verify the story? Why were Australian and UK and U.S. and Canadian book reviewers and Morris’ readers so gullible? Why did the general public and fans of the book accept the probably improbable story anyway?
And again, could this fantasy be, in the end, damaging to the history of the Holocaust?
Hill suggests that only a wise and humane psychiatrist could possibly hope to disentangle Lali’s motives for making things up, if indeed he did make things up, but one suspects that he never really came to terms with the evil that confronted him as a 24-year-old inmate at Auschwitz, and somehow needed to believe that there was humanity and compassion among some Nazis and SS guards.
The American publisher’s failure in 2008 to detect the Rosenblat hoax got a lot of media attention and Oprah’s lapse of judgment did, too. The whole sordid story fed into the Holocaust denial industry, at a time when younger generations are either ignorant about this shameful event in human history or subjected to revisionist versions of it.
Does this cautionary tale apply to “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” as well?
We are about to find out in the next few weeks and months.