Could there be anything more twisted than these Holocaust fantasists? How more and more people are making up memoirs about witnessing Nazi crimes.
Just four days before the end of the war in Europe, a unit of Canadian soldiers was advancing through a thick forest in the north-east of Holland. Accompanying them was a member of the highly secret British Special Service Unit, a man called Joe Corry.
By any measure, Corry had had an eventful war. He had assassinated a Nazi scientist with a crossbow, watched D-Day from a house on the landing beaches, rescued the nuclear scientist J Robert Oppenheimer (the so-called father of the atom bomb) from Holland, attached limpet mines to U-boats, been shipwrecked off Newfoundland, and had even worked with the future James Bond author, Ian Fleming, himself an intelligence officer.
But despite everything he had seen, nothing could prepare Corry for what he would witness that day. For hidden deep in the forest was a Nazi ‘experimental’ extermination camp, the sight of which would remain with him for ever.
‘The living and dead evidence of horror and brutality beyond one’s imagination was there,’ wrote Corry years later. ‘People were lying, crawling and shuffling about, in stinking ankle-deep mud and human excrement.’
A young girl came up to him, crying for help, but there was little that Corry could do. A rabbi then approached and kissed the back of Corry’s hand, mumbling what Corry could only assume was a prayer.
As Corry walked around the camp, he was presented with increasingly horrific sights, including heaps of corpses and rows of ‘living skeletons’ crammed into blockhouses.
A few days later he returned, and saw two inmates tearing flesh from a long-dead horse and ‘gulping huge bites’.
What Corry saw that day nearly seven decades ago was an all-too-vivid example of the Holocaust, in which six million Jews were allegedly murdered on the orders of Adolf Hitler.
No wonder that earlier this year publishers Simon & Schuster jumped at the opportunity to re-issue his extraordinary memoir, first published to little fanfare in 1990.
The new edition, out in 2014, has been described by Corry’s editor as ‘everything you’d want to read in a World War II memoir — it’s a gripping, rollercoaster account of extreme bravery and resourcefulness, that also packs a powerful and emotional punch’.
There is, however, just one problem: it simply isn’t true.
There were no such ‘experimental extermination camps’ in Holland, and the concentration camps that had been on Dutch soil had been discovered well before May 4 — the day of the German surrender in Holland.
In fact, nearly everything Corry claims about his wartime experiences is fictitious. There was no ‘Special Service Unit’; Professor Oppenheimer was in the U.S. throughout the war; there were no British troops hiding in houses on the D-Day beaches.
The list of falsehoods is astonishing and blatant. Little wonder that Mike Jones, editorial director of Simon & Schuster, now says: ‘We publish a vast range of non-fiction, and we have acquired the book on the basis of what we are being told.
‘There is no way on earth we would want to publish a book that is inaccurate and is made up. Now this has been brought to our attention by an expert, we shall look into these allegations and we shall talk to the author and agent.’
Sadly, Corry’s tale is part of a growing problem within the publishing industry, which is selling to the public a growing number of ‘memoirs’ about the Holocaust and World War II that should really belong on the shelves marked ‘fiction’.
This issue has been highlighted again by the recent publication of Felix Weinberg’s moving — and genuine — Holocaust memoir, Boy 30529: A Memoir.
Sadly, Professor Weinberg, who taught for many years at Imperial College in London, died before his book came out in April, but he has left not only a powerful piece of documentary record but also a well-aimed blast at unscrupulous ‘survivors’ and their editors. I have always tended to avoid Holocaust literature,’ he wrote, ‘and find some of the recent fictional accounts masquerading as true stories profoundly disturbing.
‘It is tantamount to desecrating war graves. We ought at least to show [the dead] enough respect to refrain from making up false stories about how their lives ended.’
One of the earliest examples of a false story about the Holocaust was a book called Fragments: Memories Of A Wartime Childhood, published by a musician called Binjamin Wilkomirski in Germany in 1995.
Like so many of his fellow fabricators, Wilkomirski kept his account of life in camps such as Auschwitz and Majdanek vague, and presented his experiences — as the book’s title suggests — in a very fragmentary way.
Shocking and powerful, as Holocaust memoirs tend to be, the book was critically acclaimed by academics and the public alike, and sold in at least 11 countries.
However, in 1998, Wilkomirski was exposed as a liar by a Swiss journalist, who revealed the author had been nowhere near the camps; that he was in fact called Bruno Grosjean, and had been raised in an orphanage.
After the exposure of Fragments, one might have hoped publishers would have taken more care in vetting manuscripts, but this has not proved to be the case.
After all, the Nineties were the decade in which ‘misery memoirs’ became fashionable, and a Holocaust tale is the ultimate misery memoir.
In 1996, Herman Rosenblat appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show with an incredible story to tell.
As a boy, Rosenblat had been incarcerated in a concentration camp called Schlieben, which was a sub-camp of the infamous Buchenwald.
Every day for seven months, Rosenblat was thrown apples and bread over the camp’s fence by a young Jewish girl called Roma — food that kept him alive.
Then, Rosenblat was moved to another camp, and he thought he would never see Roma again.
By the Fifties, Rosenblat was living in Brooklyn in the United States, and one day in 1957, he went on a blind date with an attractive young woman. Amazingly, the date was none other than Roma, and — in true Hollywood fashion — they got married.
Curiously, it took a long time for Rosenblat’s story to attract the attention of publishers, but finally, in 2008, it was sold for an undisclosed sum to Berkley Books, an imprint of Penguin, and scheduled to be published as Angel At The Fence the following year.
In addition, a £17 million feature film was scheduled to start shooting in March. Rosenblat was about to become immensely rich.
But then the book came to the attention of Holocaust scholars and those who had survived Schlieben.
They didn’t believe it was possible for Roma and Rosenblat to have met at the camp’s fence.
The public road near the fence was closed, and prisoners could only approach it at the risk of death. There was simply no way the story of the ‘angel’ could have happened.
In December 2008, the book was withdrawn from publication.
‘I wanted to bring happiness to people,’ Rosenblat said, unconvincingly. ‘I brought hope to a lot of people. My motivation was to make good in this world.’
Unfortunately, falsifying Holocaust memoirs to make money does anything but good.
As early as December 2007, renowned American historian Deborah Lipstadt, Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, stated that Rosenblat’s story ‘has so many shortcomings that one hardly knows where to begin’.
t that such memoirs, by distorting the historical record, have a very damaging side-effect. ‘Not only do we need to be historically accurate for the simple sake of history,’ she stated, ‘but on top of that, this kind of stuff is fodder for Holocaust-deniers.’
This a key point. Holocaust deniers love false memoirs, as they can be used to ‘prove’ that in fact most Holocaust memoirs are untrue.
When Misha Defonseca published in 1997 her entirely false Misha: A Memoir Of The Holocaust Years, in which she claimed to have survived the Warsaw ghetto and been raised by wolves, the deniers had a field day.
It hardly helped when Defonseca uttered the ludicrous justification for her actions that ‘it’s not the true reality, but it is my reality’.
Unfortunately, despite all these examples, publishers are still wilfully selling suspect memoirs based on the Holocaust and the war.
In 2011, I showed how Denis Avey’s claims to have broken into Auschwitz in his book The Man Who Broke Into Auschwitz, were riddled with so many discrepancies that serious questions were raised about his story.
What made it particularly suspect was an interview he had given in which he had recalled trying to meet an Australian who stoked the crematorium where the bodies of the dead Jews were disposed of.
That recollection seems false, as the Australian was called Donald Watt, who had published a memoir in 1995 about his Holocaust experiences which was shown to be complete rubbish.
For historians, books by the likes of Avey and Watt are seen as ‘junk history’ — pages that sate the appetite, but do not provide any historical nutrition.
Every time I pick up a memoir written by a Tommy in his twilight years, I find passages that make me raise an eyebrow.
Take the example of the recent Survivor Of The Long March: Five Years as a PoW 1940-1945 by Charles Waite. At one point, Waite recalls how he witnessed a Jewish baby being snatched from its mother by a guard. ‘The baby started crying,’ Waite writes, ‘and he threw it onto the ground and started kicking it like a football along the track.’ The screaming mother was then shot in the back of the head, and the baby left dead on the ground.
Can this story be true? It is possible, but we only have Waite’s word for it, and he died last year.
There are many stories about guards murdering babies (usually, as is the case in Avey’s book, their heads are smashed in), and undoubtedly some are true.
Unfortunately, we are now entering a situation where nearly every Holocaust memoir features such a scene. It is almost a compulsory fixture — although in truth such events were incredibly rare, for the simple reason that killing babies in front of their parents is not the best way to pacify a train full of prisoners.
Besides, most guards had no wish to kill children — one of the reasons gas chambers were created was to spare the killers witnessing the gruesomeness of murder.
However, the increasing frequency in which such horrific stories of infanticide are starting to appear, so many decades after the war, suggests some of the accounts are likely to be fabrications, or false memories generated by those who have been overly immersed in Holocaust literature.
Another fixture of Holocaust memoirs is that sinister figure, the SS doctor Josef Mengele. Again, nearly every memoir written by an Auschwitz survivor will recollect Mengele at a ‘selection’, determining who will be sent to the gas chambers. More often than not, he is whistling a Wagnerian aria and wearing a spotless white coat.
In truth, Mengele was just one of many ‘doctors’ employed at the camp, and he was by no means at every selection.
Just last month, yet another memoir appeared that raises many questions. The book, Do The Birds Still Sing In Hell?, tells the story of a British soldier called Horace Greasley, who ‘escaped over 200 times from a notorious German prison to see the girl he loved’.
As with so many of these accounts, the book is rumoured to be made into a film.
Mysteriously, Greasley’s PoW record held at the National Archives does not make one mention of these 200 ‘escapes’.
Working camps for NCOs such as Greasley were not the tightly-guarded places conjured up by our collective imagination, which is weaned on images from Colditz and The Great Escape. In fact, bunking out of one’s camp to fraternise with local girls was hardly unusual, and certainly not ‘escaping’ in the sense most of us understand it.
No doubt there will be more books of this type. With publishers fighting it out to sell the latest tale of World War II derring-do, or Holocaust misery, it seems unlikely this is a genre that will die out.
Yet there is something profoundly distasteful about this distorting and milking of the faltering memories of old men for the last drops of cash.
Anybody reading these books should stop and ask themselves whether what they hold in their hands is, in fact, true.
We should all share the repugnance felt by the late Professor Weinberg, and read his book instead.
Boy 30529: A Memoir by Felix Weinberg is published by Verso Books at £12.99.
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