13 January 2009

Forensic genealogy: Finding the fakers

Colleen Fitzpatrick and Sharon Sargeant exposed the Holocaust frauds concerning Misha DeFonseca and Herman Rosenblat, has just shared a new article in Publisher's Weekly (PW)concerning their forensic work.

Additionally, Colleen and Sharon have launched a website for their new company, Identifinders. The homepage features an explanation of how they uncovered Herman's fraud.

Writes Colleen:

It was an important revelation to Judith Rosen, the reporter, that DNA could be useful to the publishing industry in determining whether to go forward with a book, and then how to position it. Working with the publishing industry to evaluate potential book projects is breaking new ground for forensic genealogy.

I certainly agree with Colleen and Sharon. Publishers shouldn't rush into deals for manuscripts purporting to be true - such as Holocaust "true" stories - without first utilizing the skills of experts to determine the truthfulness of the stories and, depending on the outcome of the investigations, then clearly label the stories as what they are (novels or fables). It would save publishers from PR nightmares, from book cancellations, recalls and legal entanglements.

If these two authors had merely presented their works as novels, the books would have been runaway hits, and films would still have been made. The problem is that the authors swore that the stories were true and the publishers believed them without checking things out.

I can understand the publishers, of course, for believing that no one in his or her right mind would actually lie about this tragic period of history. As we know now, at least Defonseca and Rosenblat presented fabrications.

The PW story will certainly reach industry movers and shakers - some consider it the "bible" of the publishing world. In print for 136 years, it purports to reach (according to a 2004 study) 6,000 publishers; 5,500 public libraries and public library systems; 3,800 booksellers; 1,600 authors and writers; 1500 college and university libraries; 950 print, film and broad media; and 750 literary and rights agents.

Perhaps the right people will take Judith Rosen's article to heart in the future. Here's an excerpt:

Genealogist is not a typical publishing title, yet forensic genealogy, best known for tracking down heirs, played a key role in unmasking two of 2008's biggest publishing hoaxes: Misha Defonseca's Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust and Herman Rosenblat's Angel at the Fence.

Colleen Fitzpatrick and Sharon Sargeant worked on both cases pro bono, largely because when they learned about them—the Defonseca story came from former U.S. publisher Jane Daniels's blog, Rosenblat from Holocaust expert Deborah Lipstadt's blog—they knew they could bring resolution to the controversy that surrounded each story.

Their research uncovered baptismal and school records proving that Defonseca didn't escape the Holocaust by running with wolves. She didn't need to; her father was a Nazi collaborator. And if Defonseca had denied the evidence, Fitzpatrick and Sargeant were prepared to use DNA, which, along with photographs and archival records, are a forensic genealogist's stock in trade. “I almost feel disappointed that Misha confessed,” wrote Fitzpatrick on her IdentiFinders.com Web site. “I was looking forward to identifying her through DNA.”

Although there is no question that Herman Rosenblat was a concentration camp survivor, his memoir also turned out to be a work of fiction. According to Michigan State University professor Ken Waltzer, figuring out the real Rosenblat story was “truly a team effort. Sharon and Colleen found crucial information about the two families, discovered additional people we could interview and additional evidence that pointed to serious contextual issues in the case. We wedded the methods of forensic genealogy and social history to discover a publishing fraud.” ...

Read the complete article at the PW link above. Learn more about issues of context, inconsistencies, inaccuracies, why checking out hints and rumors is important, and how publishers can avoid getting entangled in big problems. According to the story, Colleen and Sharon are already working on another bestseller with a Holocaust angle.

There's a selection of other articles on this issue at the end of the PW story, so do click on those for additional viewpoints and information.

Also, Sharon has just posted (she works as late as I do!) "From Bunk to Bunko Squad: The Sleuthing News peg you can use," click here if you are already logged into Facebook.

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