March 12 2009 12:00 AM
Kenneth Waltzer, the head of the Jewish Studies program at Michigan State University’s James Madison College, was instrumental in the recent debunking of the Holocaust memoir, “Angel at the Fence,” by survivor Herman Rosenblat.
Rosenblat’s memoir, which was canceled, claimed that he survived in a concentration camp with the aid of a girl who would throw him apples over the camp’s fence. The two were reunited years later, the memoir claimed, on a blind date in New York City and later married.
The debunking, which was publicized by The New Republic magazine reporter Gabriel Sherman, ignited a national media storm that focused on “yet another” false memoir.

Neal McNamara: Where are you from?
Kenneth Waltzer: I’m from New York City. I grew up in The Bronx — the north Bronx, in the Kingsbridge area.

NM: And you ended up attending Harvard University?
KW: I went to Harpur College at the State University of New York at Binghamton as an undergraduate and then went to Harvard as a graduate student. Then I came here to build James Madison College because it’s very much like Harpur College — a residential college.

NM: When you were at Harvard, did you focus on Jewish Studies?
KW: My main field was American history and immigrant and minority urban history. I was interested in the mass immigration that helped build 20th century America.

NM: How did you come to Jewish Studies?
KW: It was one of my fields. One of the immigrant groups I studied was European Jewish immigrants coming through Ellis Island. So, I had long been interested in immigrant history including Jewish history.

NM: You came to Michigan State University in 1971?
KW: Yeah. A long time ago. I only came for one year.

NM: One year?
KW: Then I was hired permanently for a tenure track position and after that I stayed and helped build the residential college.

NM: Was James Madison College then what it is now?
KW: It was very new then. When I came it was in its fourth year, fifth year maybe. It was not solid or institutionalized as an ongoing place at MSU; it was still very much an experimental place. Unfortunately, in 1979 and 1981, it was on the reorganization or chopping block. They tried to shut it down. So that was a formative time. But the college sustained itself with a lot of help from others and then began to thrive and really be sponsored and protected by the university.

NM: I understand you reestablished the study abroad program to Israel. Is that correct?
KW: That’s right. Jewish Studies is new at MSU; it was created in 1992. The kind of program we created was global program. We couldn’t do everything  — because we’re not Harvard or Berkeley or Penn — and build a Judaic program that focused on ancient texts. Instead, we focused on the last 150 years of the Jewish experience where once what had been central to Europe became peripheral, and what had been peripheral to North America and Israel became central. The Jewish location has transformed itself. There are now two centers of Jewish existence. Eighty to 90 percent of the worlds Jews now live in either the U.S. or Israel. So we built the program around that and included those two centers. And we did it with an eye toward setting up study abroad and study in Israel as a key part of it. And so we built that in the 1990s and then the second Intifada started — it was very hopeful in the 1990s with the Oslo peace process and all that. We thought, hopefully, that there would be a two-state solution, but it wasn’t to be. But we built a study abroad program and we started going in 1996, 1998 and 2000; around then the second Intifada hit and the university suspended study in Israel. But we were one of the first universities to reestablish study abroad in Israel. Of course, we fought very hard in Jewish Studies with petitions and the Risk and Security Committee, to reconsider the mechanical use of U.S. State Department travel warnings to put on or off study abroad programs — we have a risk committee and we can make our own decisions. Then we got them to gradually open up again. And students could go independently by 2005. And our own — we have faculty led programs in the summer — we started going in 2006 and it has gone the last three years in 2006, 2007 and 2008. We also have a lot of endowed support for students to study in Israel and that’s a big important part.

NM: Has the current situation there affected study abroad?
KW: We’ve had some meetings to brainstorm scenarios about what would trigger a security concern. Right now we have five students studying in Israel this spring. We’re recruiting for our summer study abroad program.

NM: What’s your opinion of the situation there?
KW: I’m pessimistic about the current situation in terms of regional peace or Israeli/Palestinian peace. I think the situation has improved in some ways in terms of the willingness of Israel to establish a two-state solution or to accept a two-state solution; that’s even the majority Palestinian position, but I think the Palestinian leadership is really divided about whether to move in that direction or to embrace a rejectionist position. To the extent that they embrace a rejectionist opinion and are funded and supported by Iran, I think that there will continue to be instability in the region.

NM: I read part of a review you wrote of the Steven Spielberg film, “Munich.” You seemed to be saying that the film didn’t seem to show the consequences or emotions on either side. Is that what you meant?
KW: Well, I thought the movie was a kind of … it didn’t do the heavy lifting that it purported to do in terms of addressing the ethical questions, in my view. It didn’t understand fully enough what the response by Israel was to Munich, which was a terrible, terrible event; the people involved in it had every deserving consequence coming to them.

NM: I’ve read you’ve studied Buchenwald in particular. Why is that?
KW: Let me give you the background. I began as an American immigration historian. I studied New York politics influencing immigrant politics of the 1930s and 1940s and then I asked the questions: What did people know and what did they do in response to the situation abroad in the 1940s? Then, I got interested in the Yiddish-speaking Jewish labor movement and what it did or didn’t do during the Holocaust. I researched that and I found that rather than the general notion that nobody did anything, that Jewish labor had been active both in putting pressure on the Roosevelt administration and undertaking rescue actions in violation of the blockade in Europe — illegally sending money to the Jewish underground. In Poland they had used the Polish diplomatic pouch and the Polish embassy and British planes and they had actually sent dollars into Warsaw. And the Jewish underground after the Warsaw ghetto rebellion had established itself as a rescue organization and that money was carried by women couriers to Jews that were in hiding in and around the Warsaw area.

That got me interested in the question of “rescue.” I read about that and gave papers on that. I was very unhappy with what people knew or thought about rescue; it seemed to me there was a formula that people were using to try and understand what passed as rescue during the war and that was a formula that there were good people in good communities doing altruistic activity and if we could study them in a bottle the formula of what made them so good was radical concern for others, and education. That didn’t seem to fit with me. What I thought about rescue, which is collective activity, individual activity, is that it was political; it was a form of resistance, it wasn’t a form of altruistic activity. A lot of it took place in very gray moral areas in terms of choosing the rescue of that person to this person — there was a lot more than I thought the goody two shoes approach was.

Then I discovered when Gen. Patton’s army showed up at Buchenwald, which was the first concentration camp to be liberated, they found 904 boys there. There were 21,000 survivors in the camp and 904 boys. By boys I mean 16 and under. One-sixth of them were 12 and under and the two youngest were 3 1/2. And nobody had asked the question of how these kids were still alive to be liberated. Because those under the age of 16 in the camps were marked for extermination and cleansing and yet there were 904 boys. So what explains why they were there? The camp was partially evacuated a week before liberation and there may have been 1,200 to 1,400 boys in the camp. There were a couple hundred who were lead out the final day before liberation and a couple hundred who perhaps were evacuated before that. So I began asking the question, ‘Who were these boys, what was their experience and what explained why they were liberated?’ And I found a rescue operation inside the camp.

It was led by the German communist underground leadership of the camp, which could do so because it was actually collaborating with the Nazis running the camp’s internal self-administration. It was acting the same way the Jewish leadership had acted in the ghettos — it ran with the Nazis in accordance with Nazi specification, but at the edges it tried to gain influence, save fellow members of the resistance and get people in a position of authority where they could amass weapons. And finally, they began saving children. I couldn’t say they had a plan to save them; it wasn’t that organized and they didn’t know how many people would come to the camp, but they began protecting children. And over time the number of youths in the camp grew and they developed a sort of ad hoc strategy with keeping them inside the camp rather than sending them to sub-camps, which were more killing places; they were terrible, people were worked to death. It was the communists who made up the transport lists because they were in the labor records office; they could cross people off and put them on. They then put the children in special barracks under mentored leadership — very tough leadership — to keep them from running through the camps and scavenging for food and bringing the SS down on them. They kept them inside the barrack and disciplined them. They got their hands on extra food for them; they got their hands on extra clothes for them especially in the winter months, and they even in time developed schools inside the barracks, which were partially forms of control — keeping the children occupied and out of trouble but also to lift their minds and spirits beyond the everyday existence of the concentration camp. And to show them that there was another world and that there had been, would be and that they would survive to live in it. And this is a story that’s not been told, so I got very excited about the story.

I also got very excited about the method of research because these boys were so young in 1945 — 15 and under a lot of them — they were still around and they were in their mid to late-70s now. And in the age of the Internet I could find them, I could call them, I could write them and get permission to call them, I could visit them. And I could do a lot of this in their voice and that’s what I’ve been doing for the last three to four years.

I’ve been working with documentary evidence, because the Red Cross International Tracing Service has opened and Buchenwald is the most documented camp — 90-plus percent of its records are open. I can get records on everybody and I could interview everybody, read their memoirs, watch their Spielberg tapes and actually talk to them and ask them questions.

NM: Where are the boys living now?
KW: They are all over the world. After liberation, 427 were taken to France and 173 were sent immediately to Palestine. The other ones stayed in France or came to North America or Canada or went to Australia. Most were orphans else they found a distant relative and were claimed. They lived mostly in the U.S., Canada, Australia, France, England and Israel.

NM: How did you go about finding such a specific rescue mission?
KW: One of the things you discover doing this work is that the Nazis were meticulous; they kept records of everything. So every prisoner, including every boy I’m studying, was registered in the camp and had a prison registration number. Which means I can download them from my computer from Yad Vashem, they’re online there. Everyone had a prisoner’s personal card in Buchenwald, which also states the time of arrival, where they were from, their date of birth, their parents’ names, the shape of their face and their color hair and eyes. There are other things in the personal card envelope included in the block card. So I can actually track these boys into the camps and the transport list. I can track their time of arrival and into what barracks they were placed. When you do that you see the pattern almost immediately. It hits you in the head like a hammer. All of these boys were in blocks 8, 23 or 66. These were protected barracks. Many of the boys, especially those who were older, had a sense of what was going on. So, when you interview them, they talk about being rescued, about being protected. They talk about underground communists and their allies saving them. And it’s true that not all the boys have the same memories. Some of them, late in the game, arrived in such bad condition that they were not aware of everything going on around them. It’s absolutely clear that there was an organized clandestine resistance that evolved over time. In the final months of the camp, when Auschwitz was evacuated to Buchenwald, and thousands of thousands of prisoners came to Buchenwald, nearly all the boys 16 and under were placed in a single barrack, which was barrack 66.

That’s where Elie Weisel was. That’s where many other people were. That barrack was created by clandestine resistance to protect children. Weisel’s “Night” doesn’t talk about it. He doesn’t say how he lived because his book was about becoming radically alone and losing his faith in God, losing his faith in his father. Then there’s one throwaway line that no one has thought to investigate: when his father dies he was placed in a barrack with 600 other boys. Period. And nobody has thought, ‘What? A barrack with 600 children in Buchenwald. Who created that?’ The truth is the underground created it with allies among the Polish Jews who were in the camp and elements of the national committees connected with the underground. The Czech and Hungarian national committees as well as the Polish Jews were implicated in that barrack. My job is to tell that story. It’s a remarkable story.

And to go back to where I began, it’s a very murky story. Because the guy who was the main guy in barrack 66 — a guy by the name of Red Gustav, a Polish Jew — he was also the chief enforcer and head of the assassination squad for taking care of collaborators who came to the camp form elsewhere, who had brutalized prisoners in other camps. So, this was not an altruistic guy, Gustav Schiller. He came from Lvov. He was the main man. The Polish kids loved him. And the Czech-Jewish kids loved him. And the Hungarian Jews like Elie Weisel who came later and weren’t Polish feared him because he was a tough disciplinarian. He appears in “Night,” but he’s kind of menacing, armed with a rubber truncheon.

This guy up in Canada, in Montreal, a Hungarian Jewish guy, the only guy in barrack 66 with glasses — so we’ve been able to find him in some pictures — I said, ‘Do you remember someone by the name of Red Gustav?’ And there was a pause and he said to me, ‘I went through so much, I was in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, but if there’s one guy who I could get my hands around his neck, I would strangle him to death. I said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Did you know that Gustav was a rescuer?’ But he came around. He understood. The reason he hated him was because he had stolen food in the barrack and Gustav had made an example of him and beaten him in front of everybody else. So he nursed this terrible wound and he hated Gustav. But Gustav was demonstrating how the kids need to behave to live in a barrack that reached over 1,000 boys. Can you imagine 1,000 teenage boys, mostly starving, having come from other concentration camps, under discipline control in a barrack in a concentration camp?

NM: Did the Nazis have records of the resistance?
KW: No. There were a couple SS people who went along with it. In barrack 66 the SS guy charged with oversight of the barrack actually conducted the roll call inside in the winter. He was not an ideological, menacing Nazi, he just went along. The Germans were political prisoners themselves. Mostly communists, some socialists. They had gotten control of the camp. In 1942 it had become the Grand Central Station of a far-flung industrial slave labor empire. The camp grew to about 80,000 — it was like two MSUs. The Nazis needed middle management to run the camps internally. They had two choices: They could go with the Greens, the criminals who do what criminals do; they would’ve ripped the Nazis off. Or they could go with the communists who were ideologically wrong but they were Germans. They were racially and linguistically and culturally right and they gave them the franchise to run the camp, although they wanted them to run it in accordance with Nazi goals and objectives. From 1942 on — part of 1943 — the communist-led underground was controlling most of the main offices in Buchenwald. They were the block elders; they were the capos and work commandos; it was like a kind of Chicago machine throughout the camp. And they ran the camp according to Nazi specification. So, the Nazis said, when some of these first kids came in the spring of 1944, everybody is supposed to go to Dora, where they were making the B-1 and B-2 rockets, and work and build tunnels, which was killing work. Something like more than half the people died. But the communists sent the kids. They sent them all. They tried to keep 10 to 20 aside but they basically sent them all. Over time they became more emboldened. They knew about D-Day, they knew about the Allied advance in the west. They knew about the victory of the Red Army in the east. They had a clandestine radio and access to newspapers. So the rescue began to expand its activities. And gradually they were saving most of the boys coming into the camps. And then in the end, it just got all out of hand; there were just so many people. My estimate is that 1,300 to 1,400 boys in the camp. They couldn’t save them all, but they saved most of them.

NM: How did you get in touch with Gabriel Sherman (The New Republic reporter who broke the story about Herman Rosenblat’s “Angel at the Fence” memoir being false)?
KW: He contacted me. I had been working on an essay about “Angel at the Fence.” I had actually sent it to Deborah Lipstadt and she then put him in touch with me. I was also in touch with someone from the New York Times who didn’t act, which disappointed me. He actually called Herman and Herman persuaded him that he was legit. But it wasn’t legit and I had the goods.

NM: Why do you think Rosenblat would make this up? Was it a hallucination? Did he want to believe this actually happened?
KW: My first thoughts were benign. I work with a lot of survivors with traumatic memories that are tough to handle late in life. A lot of survivors I had worked with had tried to write memoirs or had spoken at schools were kind of reintegrating their lives after 40 or 50 years of putting it aside and repressing it. I thought that late in life, after trauma and the challenges of integrating two selves — the self that went through the war and the self that you built in the new life — was difficult. I knew in Herman’s case he had been robbed and shot in Brooklyn in 1992. My first thought was, ‘Well he kind of was dealing with the memory under difficult circumstances by being double burdened by the trauma of the Holocaust and also the trauma of being a robbery and shooting victim.’ I gave him every benefit of the doubt having thinking that it arose out of that. The evidence I have suggests that’s not the right explanation.

The right explanation is that he made it up because he wanted attention and fame and money. And it’s nothing more elaborate than that. He’d been that kid of person for a long time. This opportunity kind of stumbled his way. He lost his business as a result of the shooting, he had a long recovery and he had other kinds of issues happening including some monetary judgments against him and he was not in good shape. And he wrote a love story in a New York Post love story competition that won. And that got him invited on Oprah. He was reluctant to at first go on Oprah. But he went on Oprah and he generated the story and that was the genesis. He hadn’t told the story for 45 years before this point. He generated the story right at that point. He knew he was doing it as a lie and then it took off. It appeared in Reader’s Digest and then “Chicken Soup For the Soul.” It just had a life of its own. And then there were other people intervening called “enablers” who helped him package it and re-tell it and sell it. It became a small industry and he couldn’t let go of it. What became a theater act became the real thing.

NM: Did he profit of this at all?
KW: He did. He stood to make a lot of money from the movie, which apparently the producer of the movie still wants to bring out as a work of fiction. Herman got an advance from Penguin, some of which he had to pay a literary agent and some he had to use to pay for a ghost writer, so he did get that kind of funding. He was part of a speaker’s bureau. He was speaking all around the country at $5,000 a clip. He appeared at this end-of-times minister’s church, this protestant minister in Texas. He had done workshops for his ministry in Texas. I know he appeared at some synagogues in Houston and elsewhere. He didn’t make huge amounts of money but when the book came up, Penguin thought it had a bestseller. The children’s book was moving briskly — it has now been recalled. It really was a small industry and that doesn’t happen to Holocaust survivors.

NM: Is what Herman Rosenblat did offensive to you?
KW: It is offensive. You know, now I’m left with feeling different than I did before. I really know what happened now. After two to three months of investigation I’m very connected with some of my sources, who call me daily. What he did was really cynical. What some of the people did who work with him, some were taken, some were innocent — the children’s book author, the literary agent, the ghostwriter, they didn’t have a clue. They were actually nice people. I think the movie producer is really a sleaze. I’ve called him a liar in print. You can quote me saying he’s still a liar. I think they should’ve known that it was false and they wanted to package something. They wanted to take advantage of the Holocaust for their own commercial purpose rather than do what most Holocaust survivors who write memoirs do, which is to share a difficult experience. It’s very hard for them because they want the world to know. This is not wanting the world to know. This was taking advantage of the Holocaust to sort of sell a product. It’s sad.

NM: Have you determined whether he was actually in the camp?
KW: He was. He was one of the boys I tracked. It was not a surprise to me. I have the transport list on which he arrived at Buchenwald. I had been told by survivors that came from the same town about the story, and told that they thought it was false. But I hadn’t done anything about it because I had never interviewed him. He was one of the boys who was slightly older. He lied upward about his age. Because of that he was shipped out to Schlieben. Actually, I had decided to study Schlieben as one of the outlying camps. So I actually had tracked him and I tracked other boys who were the same age as him who I could then ask, ‘What do you think about this Angel at the Fence story?’ One of the most famous of them — a guy by the name of Ben Helfgott — who was from the same town and in the same transport and who was in Schlieben at the same time, liberated at the same time and went with Herman to England. Ben Helfgott became one of the most famous survivors in England because he was on the British weightlifting team. I e-mailed him, I’m in touch with him. He invited me to call him and I called him in London and he said, ‘This is a figment of Herman’s imagination.’ There’s nothing true about this story at all. He clued me in that there were rifts in the family. Because Ben remained close with Herman’s older brother, Sam. And he told me that Sam was ashamed of him, which turned out to be absolutely true.

Now, I’ve become close with – Sam is dead – but I’ve become close with Sam’s son, Ron Rosenblat, who I talk to everyday. In fact, nobody knows this but Ron Rosenblat has found Herman’s Spielberg tape, which was made in 1995 — the year before he went on Oprah and he doesn’t mention an the angel at the fence.

NM: How much do you know about Herman’s wife, Roma, and her role in this?
KW: Roma is the compliant wife in this story. She turned out to be a big part of our proving that the story was false. We could find survivors who knew Herman and was in the same place, and they could tell us the story was false. But it was basically they said, he said. Then we could talk with historians in Germany who were actually working on the history of Schlieben and they could send us maps of the camp and send us testimonies that talk about routines of the camp, but it would be basically those historians say, and Herman says.

But then we could look for Roma’s family in Schlieben, and we couldn’t find her there. And then we realized that if she wasn’t there, that would be the biggest proof of all. Because she couldn’t be approaching and throwing anything over that fence if she’s not in town. So we went to her family. We had some crackerjack genealogist that traced her family. We found her sister’s son, who’s a professor at Princeton. He told me that his aunt, Roma, and his mother, Mila, had filed claims with the claims conference. I think it’s called the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. We could see what they filed seeking restitution. He knew because he had helped his mother, he actually had it on his computer. He knew what their experience was. Their experience was horrific. The family had hidden and they had hidden in Germany in a place called Brieg, which is near Breslau, which is about 210 to 212 miles away from Schlieben. She would have had quite an arm to chuck apples that far.

That’s where she was. They also told us — this is what gets to me — she deep-sixed her own story. Her family, where they lived, nearly everyone was wiped out. Where her mother was from, nearly everyone was wiped out there. This family alone of a huge family got false identification papers and went into Germany to hide as Poles and they did it from 1941 to 1945, running and hiding. But, there was a third sister. The family has never faced up to it. In fact when the family went out of the ghetto to go into hiding they left two of the girls behind. They only took Roma. Mila was taken by an aunt out of the ghetto. But there was a third sister by the name of Barbara who was too young and too dark to hide as a Pole. So she was left behind with the rest of the family in the ghetto and she was wiped out.

After the war, the surviving members of the family memorialized everyone at the Yad Vashem site. But there’s no Barbara. The reason there’s no Barbara is that the whole family is consumed with guilt. This is what Holocaust survivor memories are like. But it’s so wrapped up with loss and shame, in this case with a younger sister who got left behind. I think the reason the professor wanted to cooperate is because he wanted to memorialize this person.

Herman also deep-sixed his own story, which is a story of being saved by his three older brothers — his three brothers were with him the entire way; they fed him, stole food for him, lied upward about his age; they protected him every step of the way. He kind of threw them under the bus to invent this angel at the fence. And Roma, to please him in some kind of cooperating way, just walked away from her own family’s story. And they spun this Hallmark fantasy of a boy and girl meeting at a concentration camp fence. It drives me a little bit crazy. These kinds of things just don’t understand what a concentration camp was. What a fence was. A fence was a barrier to another universe. A fence wasn’t a meeting place to throw apples back and forth and begin lifetime love relationships. We have a problem with confronting what I call the difficult knowledge of the Holocaust. We don’t deny that it happened, but we deny some of the substance of it.

NM: What do you think are the cultural implications of Herman’s actions?
KW: He was taking advantage of the culture by not trying to educate the culture. And the people most offended by Herman — I’ve been swamped with by e-mails and phone calls and a few letters from survivors about this and they’re the angriest, most vitriolic letters. They are so angry that he would do this not because they say he’s a certain kind of person or sought monetary gain, but simply because he was muddying the waters of memoirs. He was mixing his fables in with everybody else’s. And everybody else had been honest and everyone else had struggled to get at the aspects of their experience that they thought the world ought to know. They worried that10 years from now no one would know the difference. Boy, did I get a lot of letters like that. Then I also go letters from people who are writing their memoirs and want me to check and help them.

NM: Were you surprised at the reaction it got in the press? Was that a sore spot for you?
KW: Yeah, the press was mostly, I thought, shallow. Not locally. I thought because people took the time to talk to me — the Lansing State Journal, the State News, the Detroit News — I thought that was good stuff. But at the national level I thought it was a quick momentary thing and they were mostly interested in the gotcha politics of it — Oprah’s duped again or publishers put their foot in it again, another false memoir. They were interested in the superficial aspects of it. They weren’t as interested in it in the way we’re talking about it now, either about the nature of the Holocaust or how the culture absorbs it. It was harder to do that. I thought the New Republic handled it well. Gabe Sherman is a hell of a reporter. Basically he channeled most of my research but he did one better, he broke into the families. And that opened all the possibilities. I had a good piece in Harper’s where they asked me six questions and I got to write the answers. I thought I had a good voice in it. There was also a good National Public Radio program in Philadelphia. They put me on with a guy, a psychiatrist, who runs aging services for a lot of survivors in Miami. We saw directly eye to eye.

NM: When the movie comes out are you going to see it?
KW: I don’t know. I’m going to speak against it. I’m going to speak against the producer. He told me things that are just horrific. That this is his way, his strategy, of candy-coating the Holocaust to middle America — he called it the Wal-Mart crowd — so that they would learn what happened to the Jews. It was just so cynical. I told him that the book was not true, he said, ‘It is true, and it’s also a miracle.’ He said when Herman confessed, ‘Oh, I’m so surprised.’ But he knew. He had been hearing from me for months. He’s got a strategy of bringing out the book now as a fiction too. He’s got a lot of legal rights to manipulate it.

NM: Do you think Herman Rosenblat will ever talk to you?
KW: No. He’s sequestered. Roma’s little brother is his lawyer, Harvey. He’s got a real hard reputation.

NM: Do you think Herman is sad about this?
KW: I heard through the grape vine that he’s in the first stage of dementia. Whatever he was, he’s no longer. Roma’s under medical care. When the movie producer sleaze started calling deans and provosts here to shut me up, he said he would hold me responsible for their health. That was the biggest manipulation of all. Because the truth was their health was problematic already.