For years, Herman Rosenblat led a quiet existence in New York, where he and his wife built a new life after the Holocaust. The world might never have noticed him, an immigrant television repairman who died Feb. 5 at 85, if he had not told what talk-show host Oprah Winfrey declared the “single greatest love story” presented on her program.
As a young man, Mr. Rosenblat survived the deprivations of Nazi concentration camps — that much was true. He said that he owed his life in part to an elusive girl outside the barbed-wire fence who, day after day, risked her life by approaching the camp to throw him apples.
He professed that he did not learn her name until more than a decade later, when he found himself on a blind date in America.
His companion on that outing, Roma Radzicki, was also a Holocaust survivor and mentioned, Mr. Rosenblat said, that she had tossed fruit to a boy interned at Schlieben, a subcamp of Buchenwald in Germany.
“Did he wear rags on his feet instead of shoes?” he inquired, according to an account published in the Miami Herald. He did, Roma said.
“That was me,” Mr. Rosenblat replied, asking her at that moment to be his wife.
Herman and Roma Rosenblat were married for decades before he shared their purported wartime encounter with acquaintances, who later described him as a raconteur. In the 1990s, he committed the account to paper, entering it into a newspaper contest that marked the beginning of its public consumption.
A book contract and movie deal followed, along with appearances on Winfrey’s show in 1996 and 2007. The Rosenblats were anthologized in the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” inspirational-reading series. Thousands, if not millions, heard their story before scholars began to cast doubt on it, and before Mr. Rosenblat confessed that its central character — his apple-bearing savior — was an invention of his imagination.
“I brought good feelings to a lot of people and I brought hope to many,” Mr. Rosenblat said in a 2008 statement after his falsehoods were uncovered. “My motivation was to make good in this world. In my dreams, Roma will always throw me an apple, but I now know it is only a dream.”
The Berkeley Books publishing house canceled the scheduled release of his memoir, titled “Angel at the Fence: The True Story of a Love that Survived.” Winfrey — who also was embarrassed when one of her book club selections, James Frey’s memoir “A Million Little Pieces,” was revealed to be fraudulent — said she was “very disappointed” by Mr. Rosenblat’s actions.
To many scholars, survivors and readers, his transgression was particularly severe because it could serve the interests of Holocaust deniers spreading much greater lies.
“His story transformed the horror of the Nazi camps into a setting for human connection among innocents,” Kenneth Waltzer, a historian who helped debunk Mr. Rosenblat’s story, wrote in an online article. “In his fantasy, which evoked mythic folk tales of magic apples and of innocent children hiding amidst the beasts . . . hunger, terror, lice and other terrible conditions, history as actuality in the camps, were erased.”
Mr. Rosenblat was born in Poland on Sept. 23, 1929. By the end of World War II, both his parents had died. He lied about his age to avoid being separated from his older brothers and was interned at Nazi camps including Schlieben and Theresienstadt, near Prague, where he was liberated in 1945.
As his account became more widely publicized, Holocaust experts began to question the love story. Deborah Lipstadt, a professor at Emory University, wrote on her blog that circulating versions had “so many shortcomings that one hardly knows where to begin.”
Witness testimony indicated that approaching the fence, as Mr. Rosenblat said he had done to meet his benefactress, would have been punishable by death. “Nobody ever went to the barbed wire,” Ben Helfgott, a prominent survivor, told the New Republic magazine during its investigation of the memoir. “I never ever approached the fence. And I can tell you I was much more enterprising than he was.”
Maps of the camp showed that the only external fence was near the SS barracks. Furthermore, civilian access to the area outside the camp was restricted. Additional research indicated that Roma had survived by living under a false identity, as her husband said, but that she was more than 200 miles away from the camp.
After settling in the United States, he served in the Army before establishing his repair shop. He and Roma married in 1958.
The persistent question was why — when he had already survived such genuine drama — did Mr. Rosenblat embellish his experience? Some members of his family said that he concocted the story for money, a charge that Mr. Rosenblat denied.
He traced his impulse to 1992, when he and his son, Ken Rosenblat, were the victims of an armed robbery. Mr. Rosenblat sustained a gunshot wound and said that, while he was recuperating, his mother came to him in a dream and prevailed on him to tell the story of his survival.
That explanation led to suggestions that perhaps he had invented the account as a defense mechanism, to separate himself from the awful reality of what he experienced. During an appearance on “Good Morning America,” Mr. Rosenblat was asked why his wife, who did not join him on the program, had previously gone along with his story. “Because she loves me,” he said.
“It wasn’t a lie,” he remarked in the same interview. “In my imagination, in my mind, I believed it. Even now, I believe it, that she was there and she threw the apple to me.”
Mr. Rosenblat’s death was confirmed by the Levitt Weinstein Eternal Light Funeral Service Center in North Miami Beach, Fla. His son said he died at a hospital in Aventura, Fla., and that the cause was complications from heart surgery. Besides his son, of Waldwick, N.J., survivors include his wife, of North Miami Beach; a daughter, Renee Enea of Manhasset, N.Y.; and three grandchildren.
As Mr. Rosenblat’s deception emerged, some observers judged him harshly. Others, including Waltzer, offered another consideration.
“Our culture underwrites this sort of mythmaking,” Waltzer wrote, pointing to the television, movie and publishing industries that at times seek happy endings where they cannot be found. “The desire is to find in Holocaust stories innocence, goodness, human kindness, and redemption.”