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Published: Tuesday, 1/6/2009

Tall tales

EVERYONE likes a good story, especially if it's true. And stories have a way of getting bigger, better, and further from the truth with each retelling. But is that enough to explain away the recent spate of inspirational tales that have proved to be not just exaggerated but downright false?

Angel at the Fence, a supposed chronicle of Holocaust love and survival, is but the latest such story to turn out to be too good to be true.

Herman Rosenblat, the author, admitted recently that his story - about a Jewish girl pretending to be a Christian, who threw apples and bread to him over the fence at a subcamp of the Buchenwald concentration camp, and how the two met again 12 years later on a blind date in New York and eventually married - was the product of imagination rather than memory.

His admission came after a book deal, a movie deal, and two appearances on Oprah, in which the TV host said it was the "single greatest love story" she had come across in more than two decades on the air.

Earlier this year, Misha Defonseca admitted that her 1997 memoir, Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years, in which she claimed to have lived with wolves while she was on the run from the Nazis during World War II, was made up. Shortly afterward, Penguin Books pulled Margaret Jones' Love and Consequences, after the author admitted that her memoir of growing up amidst the gangs and drugs of South Central Los Angeles could have been someone's life but was not her own.

Perhaps the most famous bogus memoir of recent years was James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, also highly touted by Oprah Winfrey. It sold more than 3 million copies before it was discovered that parts of the supposedly nonfiction work were anything but.

These and other instances of literary fraud have prompted calls for publishers to do a better job of fact-checking before foisting books off on an unsuspecting reading public, but it's not just authors who are in the habit of embellishing their lives. The Chicago Tribune recently reported on the number of people who falsely claim to have been prisoners during the Vietnam War, to have served in elite Special Forces units such as the Navy SEALs and Green Berets, or been awarded military decorations they never received.

A Missouri group that investigates such assertions says it has exposed nearly 1,900 fake POWs since 1998, along with 2,000 people who falsely claimed membership in Special Forces units. Mary Schantag, who with her husband, Chuck, runs P.O.W. Network, says people who make these sorts of claims change history. "It causes real heroes to be grouped with the phonies and frauds," she said.

And that's important, whether it's real POWs, real Holocaust survivors, or simply real everyday people who overcame adversity to carve out productive lives whose stories are being diminished by imposters.

And that's why neither Mr. Rosenblat's age, 79, nor his explanation that he just wanted to remind people "not to hate but to love and tolerate all people," is sufficient excuse for his lie.

The publishers' claim that they deal with too many books each year to fact-check each one shouldn't let them off the hook either. Mr. Rosenblat's memoir, scheduled for publication in February, has been cancelled (although a film based on his story will survive as a work of fiction) but the book industry's integrity has once again been called into question. People wonder, with reason, whether publishers are so focused on declining sales that they're willing to sacrifice truth for the bottom line.

That chilling tale does not have a happy ending for readers.



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