were so many researchers,
publishers, editors, agents,
scholars and critics taken
exposed the Holocaust Liar
New York, February 5, 2002
Horrors, Phony Claims
By TOM GROSS
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
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
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
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"
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
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
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,
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
"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
It would be interesting, for example,
to know how Holocaust historians such as
Daniel Goldhagen, who so
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
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
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
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).