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By Zachary D. Roberts
To hear his critics tell it, the Swiss man known as Binjamin Wilkomirski is as outrageous a liar as Stephen Glass, the New Republic writer who was fired for making up stories last year. Or maybe worse. Wilkomirski is accused of pretending to be a Holocaust survivor, in order to market a childhood memoiran identity so maudlin and grandiose that it stops critics dead in their tracks. Ich bin ein victim, says the author. If you accuse me of lying, you hurt me again.
Wilkomirski's memoir was brought out by the German publisher Suhrkamp Verlag in 1995 and then by Random House in 1996, under the name Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood. It was deemed "extraordinary" by The New York Times, awarded prizes by the Jewish Quarterly and the Jewish Book Council and hailed as a classic.
Little did the culture class know that, in three short years, the business of deconstructing Fragments would become a cottage industry unto itself, resparking the debate over whether a memoir must be strictly factual. Since August, when the first cry of fakery was published in a Swiss newspaper, everyone from Slate to Commentary to 60 Minuteshas weighed in (calling the author, respectively, a dud, "insane," and a "compulsive liar"). This month, The New Yorker and Granta have published long pieces corroborating the original charge: Fragments is a work of fiction; its author a rank imposter.
And what should Random House executives do, in the face of mounting evidence that they've been duped? Arguably, the man who should take the lead is Arthur Samuelson, editorial director of Schocken Books, the Random House imprint that has published some 50,000 copies of Fragments in English. Schocken has a stake in Jewish history: the small press was founded in Germany in the 1930s, with the aim of preserving Jewish literature at a time when Nazis were running Jews out of society like rats. As Samuelson once explained, "Schocken gave them a sense of identity by saying, 'This is what it means to be a Jew and you can be proud of it."'
Samuelson seems to be a proud man; he told Granta's Elena Lappin that he wants to know the truth about Fragments. If that's the case, he could start by reading the new issue of Granta, in which Lappin makes the strongest case yet that Wilkomirski is not telling the truth. She gives special weight to numerous discrepancies in his historical account and to his stubborn refusal to release evidence that could negate his claim to be a Latvian Jew. (In reality, it seems, he was born a Swiss Protestant.)
"What I'd like to know," Lappin told Press Clips, "is, having read what I've written, is Samuelson convinced, and does he want to do anything about it?"
As of press time, Samuelson declined to comment on the stories in Granta and The New Yorker. Perhaps he hasn't read them. And why should he? In previous interviews, he has cited legalistic arguments to explain Random House's passive posture: it's not the publisher's responsibility to corroborate an author's claims; they relied on the German publisher to determine the book's authenticityand it's impossible to corroborate this kind of memoir, anyway.
Then there is Wilkomirski, who believes his own story and is "emotionally fragile" to boot, according to Knopf director of foreign rights Carol Brown Janeway, who bought world English rights to Fragments and translated it herself. Janeway told The New Yorker, "If we abandoned him, and he did something to himself, and then the accusations proved false, where would we be?"
The weirdness began in 1994, shortly after Steven Spielberg produced an entertaining Holocaust movie for gentiles. That's when Wilkomirski began sending around a memoir recounting how he was deported from Latvia as a toddler and sent to the concentration camps, from which he later escaped to Switzerland. He was signed by Eva Koralnik, of the Liepman literary agency in Zurich, who sold the manuscript to Suhrkamp Verlag, where it was edited by Judaica expert Thomas Sparr.
Before publishing Fragments, Sparr received a letter from a Swiss newspaper editor, alerting him to the fact that friends of Wilkomirski believed the book to be a work of fiction. To refute the skeptics, Sparr consulted with several Holocaust experts, who said they believed the book based on specific details. And so the book was released as a memoir, with an afterword by the writer, vaguely informing readers that he had "taken legal steps" to annul an identity that had been imposed on him as a child.
Skip to 1998, when the Swiss writer Daniel Ganzfried was asked to write a profile of Wilkomirski. In the course of his research, he gained access to some adoption papers that indicate the author of Fragments is not a Latvian Jew, but a Swiss goy with no marketable story to tell.
According to Ganzfried's research, Wilkomirski was born Bruno Grosjean, the illegitimate son of a working-class woman named Yvonne Grosjean. Bruno Grosjean was later taken into custody by state authorities and adopted by a Zurich doctor named Kurt Dössecker, who changed his child's name to Bruno Dössecker. The author of Fragments does not dispute that he went by the name Bruno Dössecker until some time in the 1980s, when he started "remembering" his childhood in therapy and changed his name to Binjamin Wilkomirski. Though he has never been able to explain how it happened, the Fragments author seems to think he was born "Binjamin Wilkomirski" and that the legal identity of "Bruno Grosjean" was foisted on him when he arrived in Switzerland.