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 memoir—an 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 Minutes has 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 authenticity—and 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.
But when Ganzfried published his findings in the Swiss newspaper Weltwoche, Wilkomirski hedged, telling a reporter, “It was always the free choice of the reader to read my book as literature or to take it as a personal document. Nobody has to believe me.” That said, the author went into seclusion. Suhrkamp Verlag washed its hands of any discrepancies between the “Binjamin Wilkomirski” of Fragments and the “Bruno Grosjean” of the adoption papers.
Ganzfried has not released copies of the adoption papers to which he gained access. But, as he pointed out in an interview, the records are confidential, and Wilkomirski is the only one with the power to release the actual documents to the public. To Ganzfried’s knowledge, neither Wilkomirski’s agent nor his German publisher asked the author to do so. After the charges were published last summer, Ganzfried says, “Samuelson could have taken the lead” by asking Wilkomirski to release the papers.
Of all the writers to have sized up Wilkomirski, The New Yorker‘s Philip Gourevitch takes the most postmodern approach, focusing on the process by which a bad piece of literature came to be hailed a Holocaust classic. (He sees Fragments as a 1990s twist on Jerzy Kosinski’s novel The Painted Bird, another Holocaust account that was accepted, and acclaimed, as autobiography, before it was exposed as something less than the truth.) “What I find amazing here,” says Gourevitch, “is that some miserable Swiss gentile was totally ahead of the zeitgeist by deciding that to be a Holocaust victim is a desirable, bankable, covetable identity.”
But Gourevitch doesn’t think the act was intentional; he calls Fragments a “chronicle of a delusion.” And if one accepts, for the sake of argument, that Wilkomirski is crazy, then questions about identity and motive are irrelevant. But that analysis skirts the most burning issue in this case: a missing DNA sample.
Indeed, Wilkomirski scholars are now at the same pass Ken Starr reached last summer, when he had the blue dress in sight and all that was left was to coerce the prez into donating a blood sample. Only, in this case, the blue dress is an old man named Max Grosjean, brother of the deceased Swiss woman who is believed to have been Wilkomirski’s mother. Grosjean is said to be willing to give blood for a match-up—but Wilkomirski is not. (As the author of Fragments told The New Yorker, “What would it prove?”)
Gourevitch says he finds the idea of using genetic testing to resolve a cultural quandary a bit “perverse.” But, when pressed, he admits that the DNA test “would be a way of closing the case. Then you would have a scientific confirmation of what appears to be a watertight Swiss record that appears to correspond to all the documentary sources outside of [the author’s] brain. The only reason we have to doubt that he is Bruno Grosjean is that he claims he isn’t.”
So why are the publishers stonewalling? Lappin says they’re “deeply embarrassed” and Gourevitch concurs: “When it comes to the way Wilkomirski’s publishers have handled this, there’s been a lot of buck-passing, evasion, and the wish that this would just go away.” Ganzfried calls the publishers’ position “dishonest and hypocritical, especially for people who claim to be concerned about the Holocaust….They thought they could sit out the case, just let the controversy run, and sell the book even better.”
The buck now stops with the author’s literary agent, Eva Koralnik. Koralnik told The New Yorker that she has begged Wilkomirski to take the DNA test. As a last resort, she has commissioned a Swiss historian named Stefan Mächler to investigate. Of course, it’s hard to see how an investigator paid by someone with a financial stake in the matter could reach an objective conclusion, but Ganzfried thinks Mächler is capable. He hopes the historian will be given “full and unconditional” access, not only to the adoption records, but also to the files of the publishers and the agent, to determine whether they were complicit in any way. “If he has some guts and he really is an independent historian,” says Ganzfried, “he will force them to show him their files, or else give back his contract.”
If Mächler fails, there is one last hope. Blake Eskin, a Jewish Forward editor who first broke the story in the U.S., is now writing a book about the Wilkomirski case for Norton. At press time, Eskin was in Latvia, researching his own roots in a family named Wilkomirski.