For more than a decade, Deli Strummer was one of Baltimore's most active public speakers on the Holocaust. In schools, in churches and even on local television, she captivated audiences with harrowing descriptions of concentration camp life and narrow escapes from death.
But there is a problem: Her story is not completely true.
Now, citing a review by top Holocaust experts that exposed innumerable inaccuracies in Strummer's oft-told accounts, the influential Baltimore Jewish Council has removed the 78-year-old Towson woman from its list of recommended speakers on the Holocaust and has advised area schools to do the same.
FOR THE RECORD - An article about a Holocaust survivor in yesterday's editions of The Sun imprecisely characterized the actions of the Baltimore Jewish Council with regard to local schools. The council told school officials about concerns raised by the survivor's story and said the group could no longer stand behind it, but did not recommend specific action.
The Sun regrets the errors.
"We owe it to the memory of the six million slaughtered and the survivors that their stories be represented as accurately as possible," said Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, the community relations and political arm of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.
"This is an attempt at getting to the truth, at making sure we give no ammunition to the deniers of the Holocaust, and making sure that children are given the historical truth."
Strummer acknowledges making minor errors but remains adamant about the truthfulness of her account.
The experts who reviewed Strummer's story and relevant historical records say she probably was a captive of the Nazis. Lawrence L. Langer, an expert in Holocaust testimony, said, "My hunch is 95 percent that she is Adele Aufrichtig," the woman she says she is, who was deported from Vienna in 1943.
But dozens of details in the account are impossible or highly unlikely, he said.
"I've seen interviews with people who embellished their stories," he said. "But nothing like this. I've never encountered anyone who invented stories. You don't need to."
Strummer, in an emotional interview this week, acknowledged "innocent errors, inconsistencies" in the dates she has given in her accounts, but insisted that her mistakes are relatively inconsequential and easy to correct in future talks.
Her story, she said, "poured out of me. I didn't think about timing. ... All I wanted was to tell the world, please don't let this happen again."
The heart of her story - surviving beatings, torture and starvation at the hands of the Nazis - is true, she says. Its essential elements are corroborated by a woman who lived through the Holocaust with her, Nita Adler, who said in an interview that Strummer saved her life.
Strummer considers it her mission to keep talking about her experience.
"God saved me. He saved me out of a hellish, hellish time," she said, her English thick with the accent of her native Vienna. "I speak from my heart. I speak from my experience. I use this for hope and peace."
Jewish Council officials say they are perplexed by the question of why someone might embellish one of the greatest horrors of human history. Abramson said there is no indication of a financial motive, adding that she often contributed her honoraria to the Jewish Council.
The conflict over Strummer's account, which has been kept under wraps since it began six months ago, presents a thorny problem for the council, which has supported her speaking activities for at least 12 years.
During that time, Strummer has told her story to thousands of people in the Baltimore area and beyond through a self-published book, in interviews with newspapers such as The Sun, in videotaped interviews for two renowned Holocaust libraries and in two documentaries.
Three years ago, she waved an American flag while riding in a red convertible in Towson's Fourth of July parade, where she was honored as a community "champion." The most recent documentary, aired last November on WMAR-TV, raised questions which triggered the council's review.
While stressing that the matter remains under investigation, officials in the Baltimore Jewish Council recently outlined the errors that led them to take action:
*Strummer originally said she spent 4 1/2 years in concentration and death camps, beginning in 1941 when she was taken from Vienna to Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia and ending with her liberation from Mauthausen in Austria in 1945.
She now acknowledges that she probably spent roughly two years in captivity, the bulk of it in Theresienstadt, a huge 18th-century fortress that the Nazis converted into a Jewish ghetto. From there, many Jews were sent to concentration camps.
The discrepancy came about, Strummer said, because she originally miscalculated the year she was deported from Vienna. She thought it was 1941, not the actual 1943. She says she still isn't completely certain of the dates.
*Strummer has said in the past that she spent nine months in Auschwitz, perhaps the most lethal Nazi camp. Experts who reviewed records concluded that if she was in Auschwitz, it was for no more than eight days. Strummer now says she was probably in Auschwitz for about three weeks.