'Literature, Not Journalism'
The Historian Who Invented 22 Holocaust Victims
The three men from the archive were clearly uncomfortable. On an early April afternoon, they were sitting somewhat sheepishly in an office belonging to the Stralsund City Archive. Files and large format copies with family trees and biographical information had been laid out on a table in front of them for the journalist visiting from Hamburg.
Archivists spend much of their time silently sorting documents and other materials -- and they typically try to avoid these kinds of public encounters. But these archivists haven't had much rest since the case emerged of a Ph.D. historian at Dublin's Trinity College -- a colleague of theirs, so to speak. Marie Sophie Hingst, the "lady from Dublin," as one of the archivists said right at the beginning of the conversation, had been fabricating stories about the people of Stralsund. "It's a horrible story," he said, giving "people a false identity."
The men at the archive didn't want to be quoted by name in DER SPIEGEL and instead spoke to the magazine as an institution. In the semi-official verdict of the archivists, "Dr. Hingst" adopted a fictitious family history. "With the exception of a few names, it's all completely made up."
It may not have been such a big deal if the historian had merely been engaging in a bit of harmless speculation. But Hingst did more than that: She reported the names of 22 alleged Holocaust victims, eight of them from Stralsund alone, to the archives of the Israeli Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem. Most of the 22 people never even existed. The documents from the city archives and other sources show that only three of the people had actually been real. None of those three, however, were Jewish nor had they been murdered.
Hingst didn't just send her made-up stories to Yad Vashem. She used numerous channels to disseminate them, including in lectures and conversations with fellow researchers. Primarily, though, she relied on the blog she started in 2013, called "Read On My Dear, Read On." It was here where she regularly shared stories about her alegedly Jewish grandmother. She even managed to win "Blogger of the Year 2017," an award given out by the Golden Bloggers, and her blog attracts an audience of almost 240,000 regular readers.
Her story has also attracted significant interest beyond her blog. In a 2018 essay competition, she won the Financial Times' "Future of Europe" prize -- and at the award ceremony in Dublin, she again told of the suffering endured by her allegedly Jewish family, comparing their fate with that of the refugees stranded on Europe's coasts today. The applause was loud and long.
A Uniquely German Trait
But who is Hingst? And what led her to do something like this? Con artists can be found all over the world. But wanting to have Holocaust victims as part of the family tree? That is likely a uniquely German trait.
In photographs, the 31-year-old, with her long brown hair, has an innocent look to her and by no means pretentious. Vanity seems alien to her: Her entire disposition seems as intellectual as it is modest.
Raised in a college-educated family in Lutherstadt Wittenberg in eastern Germany, Hingst graduated from high school in Dessau and studied history in Berlin, Lyon and Los Angeles. In 2013, she moved to Dublin, where she graduated from Trinity College. In an initial telephone call with DER SPIEGEL, she said in a soft voice that her early years in Dublin had been difficult ones, that she knew few people. She said she had been quite lonely around the time she launched her blog, and it became a creative universe that seems to have turned into a kind of ersatz home for her.
And so began the bizarre story of a con artist who doesn't even appear to have had anything to gain with her fabrications -- at least materially. She did, of course, make herself sound more interesting as the alleged descendant of victims of the Holocaust -- at least more so than other, non-Jewish Germans. It also had a positive side-effect, at least for a German: It allowed her to be viewed as being on the side of the victims rather than on the side of the perpetrators. Her story, in fact, is reminiscent of Wolfgang Seibert, who resigned as the head of the Jewish community in the city of Pinneberg near Hamburg after DER SPIEGEL exposed in October 2018 that he was actually the son of Protestant parents and had made up his Jewish family history and ties to the Holocaust.
Hingst, too, sought to establish close ties to the Jewish community. She moderated panel discussions for the Association for the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, she works for the Selma Stern Center for Jewish Studies Berlin-Brandenburg and she became involved in the Jewish Society at Trinity College. She also sought out other victims of persecution: During their detention in Turkey, she wrote postcards to the Turkish-German journalists Deniz Yücel and Mesale Tolushe. She allegedly wrote to Yücel daily, a move that generated positive publicity for her in the media.
More recently, Hingst published a much-discussed book in March called "Kunstgeschichte als Brotbelag," a coffee-table book depicting replicas of well-known paintings in the form of open-face sandwiches. The project began last summer with the author soliciting images on Twitter and Instagram. The bizarre campaign became so successful that DuMont, a major publishing house in Cologne, transformed it into a book that proved to be a surprising hit.
Relatives Who Never Existed
But Hingst's Twitter followers were also treated to a photo of the letter from Yad Vashem thanking her for providing documents from her alleged family members. She filled out and signed 15 forms by hand on Sept. 8, 2013, and sent seven further documents by email. It was Hingst's first step into a parallel world of a second, fictitious existence as the alleged child of a Jewish family that had lost many relatives in the Holocaust. But one which never, in fact, even existed.
Her father's family, the Hingsts, are featured in eight forms in Yad Vashem's Pages of Testimony, a memorial repository remembering the names and backgrounds of those murdered in the Holocaust. But the Stralsund City Archive has ruled out the existence of six of the people she submitted in Jerusalem. The archives have survived in their entirety and those names are nowhere to be found.
Two of the members of the Hingst family she named actually did exist: her great-grandfather Hermann Hingst and his wife Marie. She wrote that the two had Jewish ancestors and that Marie's maiden name had been Cohen. She also wrote that the Nazis murdered the couple in 1942. Otherwise, she mostly stuck to the truth. According to the form she submitted to the Pages of Testimony, Hermann and Marie had lived on a street called Grosse Parower Strasse in Stralsund, which is true. She also wrote that Hermann had been a teacher by profession, which is also true.
The Stralsund City Archive is in possession of a personal questionnaire from the Mecklenburg state government dating from October 1947 that Hermann Hingst had to fill out in order to continue working in the Soviet occupation zone. The questionnaire makes note not only of his vocation and his Protestant religious affiliation, but also of his children -- two daughters and a son named Rudolf, born in 1917, who was a pastor by profession.
Rudolf was Marie Sophie's grandfather. Starting in 1956, he worked as a pastor in the Friedrichstädter congregation in the city Lutherstadt Wittenberg. He died in 1977. Rudolf's wife, the same grandmother Marie Sophie Hingst loves to write about, was Helga Louisa Brandl. On her blog, Hingst has written that her grandmother was a dentist and was born in 1922. What she didn't write, of course, was that, just like her grandfather, her grandmother was also a Protestant.
Hingst gave her great-grandfather Josef Karl Brandl a slightly different name. He is referred to in the Pages of Testimony as "Jakob Brandel," and he was, according to Hingst, murdered together with his wife and children in Auschwitz in 1942.
In addition to the 14 pages for the Hingst and "Brandel" families, the historian also submitted eight additional documents for people who perished in the Holocaust with the family names "Rosenwasser" and "Zilberlicht." They were apparently supposed to be ancestors from her mother's family. But otherwise, these people do not appear in any of her stories.
As it happens, there are no traces of any of the people Hingst registered with Yad Vashem anywhere. The names of the 22 alleged Holocaust victims are neither to be found in the digital collections of the International Tracing Service, nor in the archive of the Auschwitz Memorial, nor in the Memorial Book of the Federal Archives for the Victims of the Persecution of Jews in Germany.
This kind of con job may not be a crime per se, but it is nevertheless scandalous. Inventing Holocaust victimes is essentially a mockery of all those who really were tortured and killed by the Nazis.
Hingst's own portrayal of her family's supposed Jewish roots is filled with inconsistencies. Her blog states that her great-grandfather had already been deported and killed with his family at Auschwitz in February 1940. As a matter of historical fact, however, nobody had been deported by that date from the German Reich to Auschwitz -- the earliest that could have happened would have been in 1941. Second, in the Pages of Testimony, she states that six sons were killed, but in her blog, she claimed that four were murdered. Third, according to the document she sent to Yad Vashem, her great-grandfather wasn't killed in Auschwitz, but in 1942 in Ponar (which is in Lithuania and not in Latvia, as she wrote). She also wrote that her great-grandmother perished in Treblinka the same year.
The story of her family as it appears on her blog sometimes reads like a fairytale. Parallel to the story of her great-grandfather Hingst, who was allegedly murdered with his wife and four sons (only the fifth son, the author's grandfather is said to have survived Auschwitz), she tells the inverse story of her other great-grandfather, who was murdered with his wife and four daughters (only the the fifth daughter survived, the author's grandmother).
Her stories about this woman also read like fiction. She repeatedly writes of the grandmother's heroic resistance to the constraints of Jewish tradition. The worst part, though, are her made-up stories about the annual summer garden parties for Holocaust survivors at her grandmother's house. She wrote about how, as a little girl, she had been made to stuff the envelops with the invitations ("Dear Auschwitzers") and send them out. And on that sadly beautiful day at the "Auschwitzer" party, she wrote that she always had to wear a skirt, which she loathed. The only compensation, she intimated, was the wonderful cake and the moving stories of survivors.
Readers Find Inconsistencies
Ultimately, attentive readers began noticing the inconsistencies. Historian Gabriele Bergner from the town of Teltow near Berlin, an expert in international genealogical research, was one of the first to develop suspicions. She soon formed a small team of researchers, including a lawyer, a genealogist and an archivist, who exchanged e-mails about each of Marie Sophie Hingst's latest fantasy postings.
Hingst immediately fended off a first attempt to confront her at the beginning of last year, writing on her blog of nebulous "attacks" and "conspiracy theories" directed against her. Another attempt was undertaken in December, this time in the comments section, where an anonymous reader mentioned the fabrications in Yad Vashem. Her reaction was conspicuously aggressive. "Do you not make yourself sick when you spew such outrageous slander?" she asked. Hingst refused to be stopped.
In December 2018, Gabriele Bergner contacted DER SPIEGEL. In the meantime, a second narrative strand had come under the scrutiny of the researchers, with Hingst having claimed that, at the tender age of 19, she had founded a hospital together with a friend in a New Delhi slum. Hingst claimed she had not only treated patients there, without any medical training, but had also provided sex education for young Indian men.
She didn't provide any details about the exact place or time, and neither did she post any photos that might have proven the small hospital's existence. What is known is that Hingst indeed traveled to New Delhi in 2015, spending three months there to attend a summertime seminar on Franz Kafka. It was only afterward that she wrote about how she founded the clinic in 2007.
But the details about the project in India were as contradictory as the ones about her Jewish family. In one instance, she wrote that she had founded her own clinic in the "slum" Okhla, which is really a district in southern Delhi. In another, she wrote that she worked in an already existing hospital. In yet another, she wrote that she had only operated a "slum support scheme" in Delhi, a kind of social welfare project.
A Fabricated Article
Hingst seemingly began to feel invincible. Who, after all, was going to prove that none of this ever happened? After she reported in her blog in January 2017 that she had also applied her experiences in providing sex education for Indian men to young refugees "in a small German town," even the media began taking notice.
Before long, ZEIT ONLINE published a long article by Hingst, for which she was allowed to use the Jewish-sounding pen name "Sophie Roznblatt." In it, she shared adventurous episodes from her educational work with the young Syrians, whom she claimed to have taught how to appropriately interact with the opposite sex.
ZEIT ONLINE readers expressed "doubts about the authenticity of the article" in comments. But the editors didn't share them, noting that the author had "responded to all the readers' questions" and suggesting that anyone who wanted to know more could get in touch directly with the author with any "polite questions."
After being contacted by DER SPIEGEL, ZEIT ONLINE has since reviewed the article and posted a notice stating it now has reason to doubt the story's veracity. "We have reviewed the piece and have come to the belief that we have been deceived by the author," ZEIT ONLINE wrote on its website. The editors stated that large parts of the article may have been fabricated. "The fact-checking prior to publication was clearly far from sufficient."
But other media didn't shy away from the story, either. In an interview with the public radio station Deutschlandfunk Nova, for example, she appeared under the slightly altered pseudonym "Marie-Sophie Roznblatt." Contacted by DER SPIEGEL last week, Deutschlandradio said there had been no reason at the time to "doubt the credibility of the story." But, "in hindsight, that may have been negligent." The station's website has since taken down the story, saying it could not keep it posted in good conscience.
At some point, the alleged sex education project faded from the headlines, with Hingst only coming back into the public eye again this spring following the publication of her book with images of sandwiches designed to look like famous works of art. Several publications ran positive reports about the unusual idea. This DER SPIEGEL reporter also also contacted Hingst.
In keeping with the newly released book's theme, she suggested the planned photo shoot for the story take place in Dublin's National Gallery. Two weeks ago, on a Thursday, a face-to-face interview then took place in the café of the venerable Merrion Hotel in Dublin, located near the National Gallery.
Hingst had been provided with a list of questions for the interview in advance and asked that queries about her Jewish family history be excluded. When those questions were asked anyway, she reacted angrily at first, demanding to know how the reporter could be cheeky enought to interfere into her life. She said that no matter what the documents might say, she knew the truth. Eventually, though, she grew more cautious. She said she was only sharing what her Jewish grandmother had told her and that she would now have to look into it. After an hour, she left the room angrily without saying goodbye.
That must have been the moment when Marie Sophie Hingst realized that her parallel world could no longer hold up. It's a perilous situation for Hingst -- not only for her self-image, which seemed to have almost completely melded with her fictitious identity, but also for her integrity and, of course, for her job as a project manager at an international technology company in Dublin, which she began last August.
But it also raises questions: How could she have gone as far as she did without a member of her true family stepping in to try to stop her? Did they simply not realize that she had developed a fictitious alter-ego on the internet?
A friend named "C." appears repeatedly in the blog. She is even credited on the site with having lent Hingst the money to purchase an X-ray machine for the slum hospital. Although Hingst left every question about her family unanswered at the Merrion Hotel, she made a few remarks that indicated that her friend "C." is actually her mother.
Twenty-four hours later, on Friday, May 24, her mother was informed by telephone. She heard for the first time about the forms submitted to Yad Vashem, about the hospital in India and about the sex education for refugees. She didn't want anything she said in the conversation to be published in DER SPIEGEL.
'A Considerable Amount of Artistic Freedom'
A few minutes later, Marie Sophie Hingst called. Her voice sounded thin and meek, quite different than it had been one day earlier in Dublin. She said she had to apologize, that she had made mistakes and that much of what she had said had been false. She also apologized for her behavior at the hotel the day before.
On May 26, a Munich-based lawyer representing Hingst issued a press release stating that she allows herself a "considerable amount of artistic freedom" on her blog. "This is literature, not journalism or history." A similar statement later appeared on her blog.
It was one last move to retain some degree of decency. Rather than acknowledging that her blog was full of lies, the statement from the lawyer simply makes a new aesthetic claim. Until that point, she had aggressively contradicted critics who questioned the blog's authenticity. Now, though, the fabrications were declared to be fiction.
Through her lawyer, she also claimed that, "at no time," did she "spread untruths in articles with real life data about her own family history." She said she had given Yad Vashem a "list of 22 individuals from the estate of her grandmother," but that she had not vetted them personally. A "list," mind you. The fact is that she filled the 22 forms out herself -- and was now trying to scapegoat her deceased Protestant grandmother.
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The only remaining question is how Yad Vashem will deal with the fake Pages of Testimony she submitted. At the beginning of last week, the mayor of Stralsund informed the Foreign Ministry in Berlin of the "misrepresentation" in the victim forms and asked it to officially inform the Yad Vashem Memorial.
It was probably enough to have the archivists in Jerusalem shaking their heads: The Germans already murdered 6 million Jews. And now they wanted to invent another 22 victims?
Editor's Note: Following the publication of this story in German on Friday, Marie Sophie Hingst was stripped of her "Blogger of the Year" award in response to the revelations in this story. Hingst's blog has also been taken offline. On Wednesday, Yad Vashem announced it would remove the documents submitted by Hingst from its Pages of Testimony.