The cancellation of Herman Rosenblat’s Holocaust memoir, An Angel at the Fence, affected me personally because, if not for timely criticism of an early draft of Until Our Last Breath: A Holocaust Story of Love and Partisan Resistance, I might be facing something similar.
For those of you who may not be following this story, the pivotal event of Rosenblat’s book is being saved from starvation at Buchenwald by a girl who threw him apples over a fence. It’s a great love story, since many years later in New York he accidentally reconnected with the girl, and they eventually married. The problem is, he has now admitted he fabricated the story.
“So what?” some have asked. It’s a great, uplifting story, and memory is a tricky thing anyway. Deborah Lipstadt, author of Denying the Holocaust, has a succinct reply. “If you make up things about parts, you cast doubts on everything else,” Lipstadt recently told a reporter. “When you think of the survivors who meticulously tell their story and are so desperate for people to believe, then if they’re making stories up about this, how do you know if Anne Frank is true? How do you know Elie Wiesel is true?” She’s right. If someone wrote about being wounded at Midway but wasn’t actually there, no one would offer this as proof the battle never took place, but such denial happens all too easily with the Holocaust.
My research partner in Until Our Last Breath is the son of two Holocaust survivors, now deceased, whose role in the Jewish resistance against the Nazis in Vilna, Lithuania, forms an important part of the book. Jews who fought back are rarely the focus of Holocaust books, and I had more than enough documented facts to write the historical parts. The problem was we wanted a stronger narrative focus on this one particular couple’s story than the known or inferred facts allowed. Since this personal element of love and resistance distinguished this book from others, we initially made the decision that I could write as if they experienced certain things personally, when all we actually knew was that such things happened in places they were. After all, if what I wrote was generally true, all I was doing was making the book a better read, no?
No. And here’s where my praise of critics comes in. They did exactly what critics sometimes need to do: they panned the manuscript. A number of publishers turned it down out of discomfort with the fictional feel of parts of it. Good for them! I am genuinely grateful. Individuals close to the family gave even more pointed feedback about the need to stick to the facts. At that juncture I understood that, well-intentioned as we had been in including what only could have happened, the book fed the denial that Lipstadt warns against.
It would be nice if we’d gotten it right the first time. It’s never pleasant to be wrong about something in which one has invested a lot of time and effort, and I can attest to how tedious a major rewrite can be. This was a case, however, where what at first felt like a burden turned out to be a blessing. I wish for Mr. Rosenblat’s sake, that he had been similarly blessed.
I’ve worked with editors for many years and agents for a few, and I know the importance of having an open mind about something as personal and fraught with ego as one’s own writing. I know the down side also–that criticism can undermine fragile confidence and wreak havoc on a writer’s voice, but today I would like to say thank you to those who, by their willingness to give me feedback I haven’t always wanted to hear, have had a constructive influence on my writing.