Oprah called Herman Rosenblat's Holocaust story the "Greatest love story ever told." I remember reading about Herman and Roma Rosenblat on CNN. I read that Herman was in a concentration camp during World War II, and while imprisoned, he met a young girl outside the fence who would throw apples to him. These apples helped him survive. Later, after the war and his immigration to the U.S., Herman went on a blind date and learned that Roma was the young woman with the apples. They later married. What a wonderful, heart-warming story, I thought...except it wasn't true. Well, Herman's story of surviving the Holocaust was true, but the story of the girl with the apple was not.
Penelope Holt's new book, The Apple: Based on the Herman Rosenblat Holocaust Love Story, is an attempt to tell Herman's story, from the beginning of WWII to the lie about the apple and the publisher canceling his memoir as a result. The chapters alternate between Herman's Holocaust story and the present, in which he deals with the fallout of the hoax.
Herman was 10 years old when Germany invaded Poland, and his family was forced to live in the Wolborz ghetto. Herman had to deal with a lot at such a young age; his father succumbed to typhus while in the ghetto, his mother was sent to a concentration camp, and he and his three brothers moved from the Piotrkow ghetto to the Buchenwald, Schlieben, and Theresienstadt concentration camps. The Nazis forced him to perform back-breaking labor, and the scene in which he was forced to clean excrement from the "death train" turned my stomach. I was broken-hearted when I read about his separation from his mother. He was sorted into a group of men, workers who would not be shipped off to die, but not knowing what was happening, Herman ran toward his mother to stay with her. To ensure Herman wouldn't share her fate, she told him that she didn't love him and didn't want him near her. Can you imagine having to tell your child that and that it would be the last thing you ever said to him? It brings tears to my eyes thinking about it again. After Herman's lie about the apple was revealed, he received a lot of hate mail and even people close to him were angry and disappointed. In Holt's version, Herman claims he wanted the story to be true, that he wanted to provide some hope and give his story some meaning. But in the author's note, Holt says no one agrees about why Herman embellished his story.
Holt took a chance with The Apple, and her efforts to shed some light on the issue have generated much controversy, from Holocaust deniers to people who believe the hoax casts a shadow on legitimate survivor stories. I think the book really shines in its telling of Herman's survival of the camps -- the horror, the pain, the awful reality of the Holocaust come through. I don't think we should allow the lie of the apple to lessen the importance of his story. As for my thoughts on the story of the apple...well, this is where my assessment of the book becomes complicated.
Rosenblat was wrong to lie, but it's not my place nor anyone else's to judge him. Personally, I believe he should have told the truth from the start, and he could have reached a lot of people with a story of hope, courage, and survival had he marketed his book as a novel based on a true story. However, if Rosenblat so much wanted the story of the apple to be true that it became true in his mind, maybe it was a coping mechanism. He'd seen so many horrors in his life that he needed something positive to help him deal with his past. It's easy to point fingers and call him a liar, but no one truly knows the psychological scars he carries with him. It's easy for me to read books about the Holocaust and agree it was horrendous and terrible, but I never had to live through it. Rosenblat did. There's nothing that can be said or done to take away the disappointment and the sadness caused by the lie, but we can acknowledge it and move on.
The Apple was an interesting book. I never was bored while reading it, though I was touched more by the story of Herman during the war than by the chapters dealing with the aftermath of the apple. However, I wonder why Holt decided to tell Herman's story as a novel instead of a biography and why certain parts (not sure which ones) are fictionalized. **Holt e-mailed to clarify that though the advance readers copy I received stated that it was a novel, The Apple went to press as creative nonfiction. The plan was to write a novel, but it was relabeled since it did not deviate much from Herman's authentic Holocaust story.** I think it is important to note that Holt does not portray Rosenblat as a saint or someone who should be pitied. I think it was her intent to show the horrors the Nazis inflicted upon the Jews and how it might affect -- but not justify -- someone's actions down the road. It's about balancing the lie itself and the reasons why it was told in the first place.
For more information about the book, visit TheAppleNovel.com.
The Apple was book 22 for me for the WWII reading challenge at War Through the Generations.
**I recently posted on War Through the Generations about a giveaway of The Apple, and the post generated much discussion from people (none of whom are participants in the WWII reading challenge) opposed to the book and Rosenblat himself. There was a lot of name calling and derogatory statements, and we were forced to delete offensive comments and eventually close the comments altogether. I hope that doesn't happen here. I don't expect everyone to agree, and negative comments are expected in situations such as this. However, I hope we can have a respectful discussion of the book. Consider yourself warned that any derogatory or offensive comments will be deleted as soon as I notice them.**
Disclosure: I received a free copy of The Apple from York House Press for review purposes.