More Holocaust Lies
The tale of the man who called himself Binjamin Wilkomirski is as extraordinary as it is disturbing. It began with his memoir called "Fragments," in which he presented himself as a Jewish Holocaust survivor who had been subjected to Dr. Josef Mengele's horrendous medical experiments as a child. Wilkomirski described his terrible experiences at Majdanek, a concentration camp in German-occupied Poland, and at Auschwitz, including seeing his father beaten to death.
"Fragments," published in Switzerland in 1995, was almost immediately acclaimed a masterpiece, and it soon became an international bestseller. Wilkomirski won the National Jewish Book Award for autobiography, the Prix Memoire de la Shoah in France and the Jewish Quarterly Literary Prize in Britain. He even received a cash award from the American Orthopsychiatric Association. As his fame grew, Wilkomirski received standing ovations throughout America, at lectures organized by the U.S. Holocaust Museum. Newspapers cited him as an authority on the Holocaust. Some compared him to Primo Levi. Historians assigned "Fragments" to their students.
And then he was exposed. The author of the harrowing Holocaust memoir turned out to be an impostor. He was a gentile who had spent the war in a comfortable Protestant home in Switzerland.
Blake Eskin's "A Life in Pieces" (Norton, 251 pages, $25.95) is a conscientious account of the "Fragments" hoax. By setting the story out in detail, Mr. Eskin has given us a chance to revisit this disturbing episode in our recent cultural history and to ponder how and why it happened -- not that the answers are easy to come by.
Amazingly, the first public doubts about "Fragments" (aired as late as March 1998) came not from some esteemed professor at one of the conferences that Wilkomirski regularly addressed but from a reader who posted a review on Amazon.com. Michael Mills, a junior Australian government bureaucrat living in Canberra, found certain dates in "Fragments" to be wrong and noted that some of Wilkomirski's "memories" of Majdanek appeared remarkably similar to testimony already published by child survivors of Buchenwald. (Mr. Mills, it alarmingly turned out, was a Holocaust revisionist who had caught out the experts.) Other skeptics emerged.
The first comprehensive case against Wilkomirski was put together by Daniel Ganzfried, an Israeli-born Swiss writer whose own father was a genuine Auschwitz survivor. Mr. Ganzfried delved deep into Wilkomirski's past, going through his school records, tracking down his former girlfriends and even finding family photographs of the "Holocaust survivor" from as far back as 1946, taken in Switzerland, when Wilkomirski claimed to be still in Poland.
As Mr. Ganzfried discovered, Binjamin Wilkomirski wasn't his name at all: It was Bruno Grosjean, born to a single mother, a Christian, and brought up by his wealthy adoptive family, the Doessekkers, near Zurich. Bruno Doessekker, as those around "Wilkomirski" knew him before he published "Fragments," was a clarinetist from Zurich, born not in 1939 but on Feb. 12, 1941, in Biel, Switzerland. Mr. Ganzfried showed that the adult Doessekker was fully aware of his real childhood circumstances -- indeed, he had fought for and secured a share of his birth mother's estate in 1981.
"Wilkomirski" dismissed Mr. Ganzfried's claims and said that he was the victim of an "anti-Semitic plot" involving Swiss government officials. But other investigative reporters followed in Mr. Ganzfried's footsteps, unearthing yet more damning evidence of the deception. Mr. Doessekker now faces fraud charges in Switzerland.
With such material it is not surprising that "A Life in Pieces" is an absorbing book. Mr. Eskin tells the story well, at times giving it the pace and excitement of a detective story. He is also adept at describing the intrigues that have marred the work of child Holocaust survivor groups, which too often dissolve into quarrels over tactics and feuds over the nature of victimhood.
The book has some weaknesses, however. In particular, Mr. Eskin fails to come to any conclusions about Mr. Doessekker's motives. Is he the mastermind behind a "coldly planned fraud," as Mr. Ganzfried believes, or is he simply a deranged man who actually believes the myths he has constructed for himself?
And then there is the troubling question of just how those who believed him came to be so easily fooled. Why were so many researchers, publishers, editors, agents, scholars and critics taken in? You would think, given the intensity of historical interest in the Holocaust, that someone might have spotted the fraud early on.
It would be interesting, for example, to know how Holocaust historians such as Daniel Goldhagen, who so lavishly praised the book, now feel. And what does the director of the U.S. Holocaust Museum think of his having made "Wilkomirski" a guest of honor at a $150-per-plate luncheon at New York's Hotel Carlyle? Mr. Eskin might have insisted on asking such questions of a host of people who should have known better. It is a pity that he didn't.
He does, however, choose to write at length on the history of his own family, which has been living in the U.S. for at least four generations. The ostensible reason is that his great-great-grandfather was called Wilkomirski, and at one stage it seemed that the bogus Binjamin might be a distant relative. In the event, of course, the supposed connection turned out to be a red herring. It seems as if this chimera distracted him, at times, from the main story.
Mr. Gross, who has worked as a journalist in Israel for the past six years, is a co-author of "Out of Tune: David Helfgott and the Myth of Shine" (Warner Books).