Greene: Holocaust survival tale took in many
It's sick enough that a Colorado woman seems to have posed as a Holocaust survivor. But what's almost as curious is the number of people who lined up behind her unlikely story.
RoseMarie Pence, a one-time Super 8 manager, has lived for at least five years in Longmont. She also goes by "Hannah."
For the record, I've never met the 71-year-old and, despite my attempts, can't find her since former admirers outted her as an apparent fake.
What I do know is that Windsor writer Jean Messinger was so inspired by her life that she took on the project of self-publishing Hannah's biography.
"She didn't come to me. I went to her," she says. "I felt her story had to be told."
The result was 143 pages of supposed nonfiction titled "Hannah: From Dachau to the Olympics and Beyond."
As the story goes, Hannah was 3 when Nazis yanked her from her family of German Jews. She said she endured medical experiments and starvation at Dachau before American forces freed her. Orphaned, she claimed to be the only known survivor of 146 kids rescued from the camp.
Post-war, Hannah said, she went on to live in a convent whose nuns taught her to ski. She claimed to have competed on Germany's 1956 Olympic ski team. Then came a stint on a kibbutz in Israel. And a heroic battle for real estate she said Germany rightly owed her. And a marriage to a U.S. pilot who, she said, later went missing in Vietnam.
Oh, and a scare during the 1972 Olympics, an audience with the pope, an encounter with Ronald Reagan at the Berlin Wall and an airplane hijacking by a Palestinian terrorist.
Hannah is a Forrest Gump type who, we're supposed to believe, stumbled into some of the 20th century's biggest moments. Her biography reads like a hybrid of Anne Frank's diaries, "The English Patient," "Exodus" and "The Sound of Music" — almost believable in chapters, but implausible in its entirety.
Hannah elicited the kindness of Coloradans who housed her, fed her and found inspiration in her story. She agreed to share her sad tale with church groups and history classes. More than once, she didn't show up.
"Knowing Hannah, it isn't surprising that she finds no fraternity in the gloominess of self-inflicted despair. She recognizes it is destructive to be immersed, however justifiably, in self-pity and anger over past injustice," Messinger wrote about the happy Holocaust survivor she contrasted with the "bitter, sad old men" who work as "professional Holocaust spokesmen/ activists."
Messinger says the story began to unravel this summer when a Texas evangelist baptized Hannah and made her somewhat of a Christian folk hero. The national celebrity poked holes in a biography Living Proof Ministries now disavows as a "stunning fabrication."
Messinger voluntarily came forward about "misrepresentations" in a story she says she had no reason to doubt. She didn't check into Hannah's claims "because, to me, that would have felt sneaky."
University of Northern Colorado historian Barry Rothaus also was snookered. He wrote the following blurb on the book: "Messinger has captured the inner being of Hannah, and without editorializing, reveals the challenges and hardships of Hannah's life. This writing of Hannah's recollections adds to the literature of Holocaust survivors."
Rothaus, chief of UNC's history department, now says the story "didn't really hold together."
"Why did I attach my name to this piece of crap?" he mused. "Well, I made a mistake, and have to live with it."
Susan Greene writes Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Reach her at 303-954-1989 or firstname.lastname@example.org.