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Posted Wednesday, December 30, 1998

A Fraud? Or just a "Reconstruction"?

 The Sunday Age
Melbourne, Australia, November 8, 1998

'An impossible but true story of the Holocaust'

Impossible? Probably. True? The jury is out


book   Martin Daly     >>>Two earlier stories on this scandal [] 1 . . . [] 2


A highly acclaimed book on the Holocaust may be a fraud and the work of a Gentile


HOLOCAUST survivors sometimes have difficulty believing in miracles but for many victims of Nazi oppression Binjamin Wilkomirski was one of them.

He wrote a chilling account of survival that few who came out of extermination camps thought possible and later won praise worldwide for his work as wrenching memoir, created from fragmented memories of a terrified child.

Floris Kalman who runs a Holocaust child survivor group in Melbourne read his book and was fascinated by the "very moving and terrible" account of a child so accustomed to murder, starvation and terror that he considered it normal.

Documentary makers, journalists, psychologists and historians sought out the author of a 155-page Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood, that ranked him among the towering figures of Holocaust literature, Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi.

Translated into 12 languages, the book was praised by The New York Times for its "poetic visions". Neue Züricher Zeitung referred to it as "carrying the weight of an entire century" and The Sunday Age described it as an "impossible but true story of the Holocaust".

The reason for such lavish praise was that Wilkomirski, a well-known classical musician in Switzerland, was aged three or four when he was taken to Majdanek extermination camp in Poland and, without the protection of parents in a camp where children that age were killed almost on arrival, he survived to tell the world of the horror through a child's eyes.

Wilkomirski was hailed by exponents of psychotherapy when it was revealed the fragments of memory people told him to forget, were carefully and painfully pieced together to produce a unique child's truth told often as would the child, but with the powerful literary expressiveness of the adult.

The book won the National Jewish Book Award in the United States, the Jewish Quarterly Literary Prize in Britain for nonfiction and the Prix Memoire de la Shoah in France and was placed on The New York Times list of notable books for 1997.

Two documentaries were made on the life of the author, who also gave oral evidence to Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation that is documenting survivors' history worldwide. The book, The New York Times noted, became the biggest Swiss literary success since Heidi.

Wilkomirski travelled widely, talking of his experiences as readers were stunned by the simple but graphic words of the Latvian Jewish child who described witnessing his father's murder in Riga by Latvian auxiliaries and how his mother and brothers disappeared in the Nazi genocide against the Jews.

Now, there are strong claims Wilkomirski's work is a fraud. Increasing evidence appears to show that he was not in an extermination camp, he is not who he claims to be and that he was not even born a Jew, but one of what Professor Colin Tatz, director of the Centre for Comparative Genocide Studies at Macquarie University, describes as a genre that appropriates other people's histories: a genre, says Professor Tatz, that Jews do not need when it comes to the Holocaust.

The initial dilemma for some on an issue that has become a raging controversy was that a four-year-old could not possibly remember events of more than 50 years ago, particularly to describe them as graphically as does Wilkomirski on the death of his father.

"...Suddenly he face clenches, he turns away, he lifts his head high and opens his mouth wide as if he's going to scream out," Wilkomirski writes. "...all I see is the line of his jaw and his hat falling backward off his head. No sound comes out of his mouth, but a big stream of something black shoots out of his neck as the transport squashed him with a big crack against the house."

There are powerful accounts in the book of bloodied rats crawling from bodies in the camps, of a woman, possibly his mother, giving him her last scrap of hardened bread and of babies who chewed their fingers to the bone before dying - all presented by Wilkomirski in the name of a truth he says he had been told to forget.

If Wilkomirski's history is false, then the most acclaimed book on the Holocaust in recent times presents a story that did not happen, giving Holocaust deniers a ready-made case to support their groundless claims that some events in the concentration and extermination camps have been made up.

There were concerns from the early stages about Wilkomirski that should, in retrospect, have signalled resounding alarms. The suggestion is that, as fact sells better than fiction, the Wilkomirski work was too good an opportunity to let slip, despite the doubts.

Months before the German edition was published by Suhrkamp Verlag in 1995, a Swiss newspaper journalist, Hanno Helbling, told the publisher that friends of Wilkomirski had said the manuscript was fiction. The publisher replied they were satisfied with its authenticity.

The accolades rolled in. The book was hailed as a masterpiece and Wilkomirski was happy to talk about the child survivors of the Holocaust who had been forced to forget about what happened to the degree some did not believe it had happened at all.

But Swiss author Daniel Ganzfried, the son of a Holocaust survivor who had been commissioned to write a profile of the author, noted in tape recordings of Wilkomirski that the author has claimed he had not been adopted, when there was evidence to the contrary. Then in an interview, the author told him he had been circumcised, while Wilkomirski's ex-wife and girlfriend said that was not the case.

"In one film, he claimed to have lived in Switzerland only from 1948, and he describes all these scenes after the war," Ganzfried told The New York Times. "Then I found in the local school files of Zürich that he had attended first grade in April 1947. I found a picture of him in the summer of 1946 in the garden of his adoptive parents from a photo book of his relatives."

In an epilogue to some editions of the book, the author says he spent his childhood after the war in Switzerland. He had been given a new name, Bruno Doessekker, to help erase his past and was adopted. His publisher is quoted by various media saying that only with psychotherapy and the passage of time did Bruno Doessekker recover the memories of his true self, the extermination camp survivor, Binjamin Wilkomirski.

The scenario could be acceptable in the context of such memoir, if it were true. Ganzfried says it is not. He says Wilkomirski did not spend any of his childhood in Eastern Europe but grew up in Biel and Zurich, Switzerland, that he was the son of an unmarried Protestant mother, Yvonne Grosjean, and that he was then adopted by the middle-class Doessekker family. In short, Ganzfried claims Bruno Doessekker imagines himself to have been a Riga Jew in the camp and adopted the persona of a Binjamin Wilkomirski, not the other way around.

More doubts about the author's claims come from his former lawyer, Rolf Sandberg, who has asked for verification of Wilkomirski's story by the publisher before publication. "I told them I don't doubt what his memory had to say," Mr. Sandberg told The New York Times. "But I had to leave it to them what to make of this whole story. I could only say I have these documents and they prove he is the son of Ms. Grosjean."

Wilkomirski has been elusive since the story broke and his published responses appear to be taken largely from an afterword in the book that had been inserted, reportedly at the request of the publisher, to explain apparent discrepancies.

But in a faxed response to questions from the French daily Le Monde, the author said that "in due time" he would answer in detail and would present documents to support his case. He implied those who questioned his work were "first generation" historians of the Holocaust "for whom the children of the Shoah had never been explicit subjects for research".

Wilkomirski said a response now was not possible because of his health. He said his critic, Ganzfried, as the son of a Holocaust survivor "has been psychologically affected by a difficult by a difficult childhood. I think he needs ersatz (a substitute) for a father that he can destroy and make responsible for his distress."

The author described the controversy as "tiresome" and said it had to be seen in the context of a "painful confrontation between historians and witnesses of genocide" as the survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust die.

"The authenticity of the traces and testimonies left by the victims are regularly subject to dispute. In the past the Anne Frank diary had the same experience. Long and regularly suspected to be a ... fake by Otto, the father of Anne Frank, this manuscript had to await long and expensive expert evaluation for it to be once more considered, in 1986, to be an autobiographical book written between 1942 and 1944," he told Le Monde.

In the afterword to his book, Wilkomirski explains he grew up at a time society did not want to listen, or perhaps was incapable of listening to children, and that he had been told repeatedly that the fragments of memory about his past did not happen. This was done to make him "erase my past and make me keep quiet".

But the inner voice persisted, telling him he was someone else and that he had, in fact, lived another, terrible life. he contacted historians, psychologists and survivors.

"Countless conversations with specialists and historians have helped me to clarify many previously inexplicable shreds of memory, to identify places and people, and to find them again and to make a possible, more or less logical chronology out of it", writes Wilkomirski.

He says that after the war, he was given "a new identity, another name, another date and place of birth". His birth certificate stating he was born on 12 February 1941. "has nothing to do with either the history of this century or my personal history. I have now taken legal steps to have this imposed identity annulled," he writes.

There is considerable support for psychotherapy in helping people recall incidents buried in the deepest reaches of the mind, as Wilkomirski claims happened in his case. But many camp survivors doubt his story because they have never heard of a child so young surviving an extermination camp when it was not protected by parents. Wilkomirski claims he was protected by women in the camp. His book says he was in two camps and says he was part of a medical experiment. He does not name the second camp in the book but media reports say it was Auschwitz.

An estimated 1.5 million Jewish children were murdered in the Holocaust. Children even walked out of Auschwitz, but they had been kept alive for medical experiments. Otherwise, survival among children was rare and survival among very young children without protection from parents or others in an extermination is, according to Floris Kalman, "a miracle ... one in 1.5 million".

Sam Goodchild, of Caulfield, who survived Majdanek, Auschwitz and Buchenwald, has not read Wilkomirski's book but he doubts it is true. Goodchild was 17 when sent to the camps. He does not recall a barrack for children at Majdanek. "In Auschwitz you had a chance if you could work. In Majdanek, you did not have a chance. You got beaten to death," he says.

There is a conviction among those who have met or know Wilkomirski that he believes what he has written but that he is reliving the accounts of others and, through psychotherapy, he has been led to believe his imaginings are true. Or perhaps he is suffering Munchausen syndrome, where a person takes on a whole false identity.

"It (Munchausen) is very rare and does not discredit the type of person or experience that is portrayed, that is why they are so believable," says Dr. Paul Vincent, from the department of adult psychiatry at Monash Medical Centre and expert in childhood trauma.

Dr. Vincent, a child survivor and president of Child Survivors of the Holocaust, reviewed Wilkomirski's book for the Holocaust Centre's magazine and concluded: "Wilkomirski shows us how to listen to a child traumatised to extremes... It is worth reading this book."

 © 1998. Reprinted from The Sunday Age, Melbourne
The above news item is reproduced without editing other than typographical

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