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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Fictionalizing the Shoah, or Why tenure remains important

I came late to the story of Herman and Roma Rosenblat, two survivors of the Shoah (he at Schlieben, a sub-camp of Buchenwald, she pretending to be Christian and living on a nearby farm). The tale they told for a decade until last weekend is that during seven months in the winter of 1945, Roma (then nine) met Herman (then a teen) at the camp fence and tossed food to him over the barbed-wire fence. They then met on a blind date in Coney Island in 1957, told their stories of the War and realized who the other was; they fell in love and married and remain together, retired near Miami. This love story landed them two appearances on Oprah and a book contract with Berkley Books (a division of Penguin Group); their story was the subject of a children's book published last fall and of a movie, titled Flower of the Fence, scheduled to go into production in March.

But Ken Waltzer, a Holocaust expert and the director of the Jewish Studies program at Michigan State, looked into the story and began calling it into question. So did Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University, an appointee the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. The New Republic did an extensive investigation, including talking to other Schlieben survivors, some of them members of Rosenblat's family, who denied the story. Last Saturday, Berkley canceled the book after Rosenblat admitted to Harris Salomon (the film producer), his agent, and the press that the story was false. Roma was, in fact, in hiding in a different part of Poland, 200 miles away; Herman did not go to the fence to get food every day for months on end. TNR coverage here, here, here, and here. Comments from Waltzer here and here and from Lipstadt here and here.

I want to touch on two points in this story--one on the merits of the memoir controversy and one closer to the academic focus of this blog.


On the merits, I agree with the argument that falsified stories about the Shoah are troubling. But not because I think that enough small falsifications leave room to deny the entire thing. Rather, my problem is that this event was so horrific and that horror is lost amid false stories that humanize the events and, in the course of humanizing, make them seem more benign. The detail that caused scholars to question the story was that the only space along the fence at Schlieben where such an encounter could have occurred was right by the SS barracks; no prisoner and no Jew in hiding would or could deliberately walk that close to an electrified, barbed-wire fence, much less to the barracks and to the SS on a daily basis. A story, purporting to be true, that suggests otherwise makes the SS, and everyone's situation, appear less dangerous.

Waltzer sharply criticized the "culture makers"--Oprah, Berkley Books, producer Salomon--for failing to investigate or even question the veracity of a story that was on the "far end of implausibility" to begin with. He argues that the willingness to accept the story "shows something about the broad unwillingness in our culture to confront the difficult knowledge of the Holocaust." His suggestion is that the culture makers fail when they try to sugarcoat the Shoah for Middle America, resulting in miseducation rather than education. The flip side, as expressed to TNR by film-producer Salomon, is that the "candy-coated message" gives the story resonance with middle America and "can do more to teach people about the Jewish experience during the Holocaust in a way nothing before has done."

Count me on Waltzer's side of the fence (so to speak) on this one. I do not believe that we can teach about the Jewish experience during the Holocaust (or any experience, frankly) by presenting a story so sanitized that it presents a false (not just fictitious, but false) image of reality. Quite the opposite--we disserve the Jewish experience by giving it an impossibly pleasant veneer. Interestingly, Salomon for now plans to go forward with the movie, which he says was to have been a fictionalized "based on" story, rather than a true-to-life translation of the memoir. Salomon apparently sees this story, fictional though it may be, as much like the recent film The Boy in the Striped Pajamas in depicting a friendship between people on opposite sides of the camp fence. But, as the TNR story pointed out, that at least acknowledged that it was a work of pure fiction. (See here for a taxonomy of Hollywood Holocaust plots).

Now on to the academic point: This story suggests something about the continuing need for tenure. It is quite common to question that institution, given the negative incentives it provides. Or it is used to protect scoundrels, those who use it to write and say outrageous and offensive things (something that I am all for as a general matter, but not all people and not all universities are). But sometimes tenure still is necessary to protect scholars who are doing the right thing.*

As Waltzer's skeptical investigation, and the reportage by TNR, intensified, there was pushback from "culture makers" with a vested interest in this project going forward, most notably from producer Salomon. One move was to contact the dean at Michigan State to question and complain about Weltzer's research. Salomon also called it "bloody repugnant" that Weltzer spoke with TNR. Salomon also went after Lipstadt via e-mail, suggesting that she was slandering Rosenblat by questioning the story, that he (Salomon) knew more about the Shoah than she did, and that her questioning of the story is a "sin to the memory of all those who perished so long ago."

Of course, in neither situation did anything happen beyond sharp criticism of the scholars--which is, of course, completely fair game. And in neither situation did the University decline to support the professor fully and there is no reason to think they would not have done so had it come to that. But a university granting tenure is Ulysses tying himself to the mast--a precommitment that it saves it from even the possibility of its lesser tendencies. Perhaps the University never even will be tempted and perhaps scholars never will "need" to rely on tenure (I frankly never expect to have to). But it continues to serve a purpose, even if it only is wielded in the rarest and most exceptional circumstances. If I am Ken Waltzer, I feel better and safer entering into this fray knowing that I have tenure behind me.


* Yes, I recognize the subjectivity of those last two sentences.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on December 30, 2008 at 09:26 AM in Culture, Current Affairs, Religion, Teaching Law | Permalink

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In the aftermath of revelations that Herman Rosenblat had concocted a "memoir" about the Holocaust that has now been shown to be a fabricated story, with the book "Angel at the Fence" cancelled before publication, the very same man who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to alert the national media to the hoax is now working on a new project as a followup to his book take-down. Danny Bloom, a frequent contributor to RushPRnews, who on October 15, 2008 actually wrote the first published news article on this very website about the possible hoax being perpetrated on the publishing industry -- more than two months before the New Republic and the New York Times did their fine reporting on the book cancellation -- is now creating an Internet campaign to ask Oprah to invite Herman on her show one last time and to give both of them, Herman and Oprah, a chance to say on national television, face to face, sorry, aploogies all around, show remorse, ask forgiveness and then move on, both of them, with their lives.

http://ijcm101.blogspot.com

Posted by: Danny Bloom | Jan 6, 2009 1:29:33 AM

The Rosenblat story is so sad. Why is Atlantic Pictures making a film based on a lie? Why didn't Oprah check the story out before publicizing it, especially after James Frey and given that many bloggers like Deborah Lipstadt said in 2007 that the Rosenblat's story couldn't be true.
Genuine love stories from the Holocaust do exist. My favorite is the one about Dina Gottliebova Babbitt - the beautiful young art student who painted Snow White and the Seven Dwarves on the children's barracks at Auschwitz to cheer them up. This painting became the reason Dina and her Mother survived Auschwitz. After the end of the war, Dina applied for an art job in Paris. Unbeknownst to Dina, her interviewer was the lead animator on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. They fell in love and got married. It's such a romantic love story. Another reason I love Dina's story is the tremendous courage she had to paint the mural in the first place. Painting the mural for the children caused her to be taken to Dr. Mengele, the Angel of Death. She thought she was going to be gassed, but bravely she stood up to Mengele and he made her his portrait painter, saving herself and her mother from the gas chamber.

Dina's story is also verified to be true. Some of the paintings she did for Mengele in Auschwitz survived the war and are at the Auschwitz Birkenau Museum. The story of her painting the mural of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on the children's barrack has been corroborated by many other Auschwitz prisoners, and of course her love and marriage to the animator of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs the Disney movie after the war in Paris is also documented.

Why wasn't the Rosenblatt's story checked out before it was published and picked up to have the movie made?? I would like to see true and wonderful stories like Dina's be publicized, not these hoax tales that destroy credibility and trust.

Posted by: Claire | Jan 2, 2009 3:41:02 AM

I should have made clear initially that this obviously was not a story about tenure. But that is because a) the truth came out relatively quickly and b) MSU and university officials backed Prof. Waltzer. The point I was trying to make is that tenure is important in these circumstances not because of what actually happened here, but in the event a different school behaved differently.

As for a law firm, I think the institutional argument I made as to the press also works for law firms.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Dec 31, 2008 12:40:06 AM

Ken Waltzer's post makes me think this isn't really a story about tenure. As he points out, MSU supported him all the way in the face of attacks on his work. Nothing here makes me think this depended on his having tenure. Of course, his having tenure didn't mean MSU had to do this, either, only that they couldn't fire him based on the content of this work.

There's a lot more to say about why tenure matters (or doesn't), but it strikes me as puzzling that tenure doesn't exist in other fields where the rationale seems to work just as well. To take just one example, lawyers can (and sometimes do) take courageous stands on pro bono cases that might cause them to get fired by their firms, but no one thinks that they should be protected by tenure to do this.

Posted by: Dave | Dec 30, 2008 9:38:48 PM

Trust me. I'm possible.

Posted by: David | Dec 30, 2008 7:07:11 PM

Orin: Fair point about the effect of empirical analysis, which obviously we do not have. The distinction I would make between an academic and a journalist rests at the institutional level and turns on the institutional relationship. An individual reporter works on behalf of the publication and, by extension, on behalf of the editors and publisher who put the work out. The investigation was performed and published by TNR, not by Gabriel Sherman, and TNR is on the hook if the story goes bad. It thus is in TNR's interests to stand behind the story and its editors. Waltzer wrote for himself, not for or in the name of MSU, his dean, provost, or president. To the extent their interests cause them (as they did) to stand behind Waltzer's research, it is in the name of high concepts such as academic freedom. And, as I said in the original post, most universities will stand up for those principles, just as MSU did here and just as Emory did for Deborah Lipstadt when she went toe-to-toe with deniers. The protection exists for those occasions if and when a university decides not to stand up for that principle.

The difference, I think, between the publisher and the university is that the publisher is the "speaker" and thus is in control of its own message--it is not "silencing" its reporters in any way, because it can and should decide what it wants to say. The university is in no sense the "speaker" so it does not control the message. Tenure ensures the university cannot attempt to do so.

Prof. Waltzer: I congratulate you on the outstanding work in this area.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Dec 30, 2008 6:43:55 PM

I AM Ken Waltzer and I feel better that, when push came to shove, Michigan State University -- dean, provost, and president -- backed me, did so on principled basis (academic freedom), and expressed confidence in my work. I also agree that the main danger here is not ammunition for Holocaust deniers but the miseducation of many concerning what Holocaust experience was and meant. Herman and Roma each had valid and important experiences to share; they erased these, subtituting instead a fiction; Herman dissed his brothers who watched over and protected him in the camps; Roma walked away from her truly harrowing personal and family story to join her story with Herman's. These had consequences in their family lives and friendships long before the New Republic broke the story. They continue to impact the Rosenblat and Radzicki families. Anyone think Harris Salomon cares? Or even recognizes the complexities here? Publisher, literary agent, and Salomon say they didn't know, they only just found out, they feel betrayed. They were receiving emails in November, they stonewalled, they refused, they closed their minds -- and Harris Salomon threatened legal action and more.

Posted by: Ken Waltzer | Dec 30, 2008 3:25:26 PM

I agree that the story is implausible on its face and should have raised immediate questions. I say this based on both popular assumptions and reactions that come from a more informed perspective.

Every movie about Nazis and the camps portrays an oppressive environment where anyone near the fence would be gunned down. As someone who has read quite a bit about the Nazi regime (in some ill fated effort to understand how civilized people could become so monstrous so quickly), the regime acted with brutal efficiency. Nothing is impossible, but it is unlikely that its victims could have consistently evaded detection for seven months at the perimeter of a concentration camp.

I also concede that the story could make the actual events seem more benign. I am not Jewish and certainly take seriously the views of those who are on such matters. But I still want to suggest that the motivation that lead the "culture makers" to believe what they ought to have doubted was the desire to see some measure of human perseverance in the face of oppressive evil. We value even small victories over the Goliaths of the world, so we can believe that David is possible; so we can, if so called, aspire to be David.

I have no idea whether the film will be done in a way that celebrates the (even fictional) victory in a way that teaches about the "Jewish experience during the Holocaust." If it does the latter, it's going to have to be a pretty dark movie with but a sliver of sunshine. There are certainly many stories of human bravery. I'd like to see a blockbuster with big name stars on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. But these events occurred in the context of an unimaginable horror. I'm not optimistic.

Posted by: Richard Esenberg | Dec 30, 2008 11:38:50 AM

Howard,

Just to address the tenure aspects of this, I'm not sure I find the link very persuasive. You may be right that tenure lets professors spend time trying to uncover fraud in their discipline: Those trying to cover up the fraud can't successfully pressure the university to fire the tenured professor.

But professors are not the only people who spend time trying to uncover fraud. I would think that this is usually a task more often performed by independent watchdogs, or the press (like the New Republic here). As a result, there's an empirical question: How much more fraud would be uncovered with tenure than without, given that academics are only one group that might look for fraud and that most academics spend most of their time on other things?

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Dec 30, 2008 10:32:13 AM

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