- A Holocaust survivor memoir that has received prestigious
literary awards and lavish praise has been exposed as a hoax.
- In Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood, Binjamin
Wilkomirski describes his ordeal as an infant in the Jewish ghetto of Riga
(Latvia), where his earliest memory is of seeing his father being killed.
Wilkomirski also tells how he survived the terrible rigors of wartime internment,
at the age of three or four, in the German-run concentration camps of Majdanek
- First published in German in 1995, Fragments has been
translated into twelve languages. In Switzerland, the country where Wilkomirski
lives, the book has been a major best-seller. Two documentary films and
numerous personal appearances by the author in schools throughout the country
have helped promote the memoir.
- The American edition was published by Schocken, an imprint
of Random House, which heavily promoted the book with teachers' study guides
and other supplementary materials.
- Jewish groups and major American newspapers have warmly
praised Fragments. The New York Times called it "stunning," and
the Los Angeles Times lauded it as a "classic first-hand account of
the Holocaust." It received the 1996 National Jewish Book Award for
Autobiography and Memoir, while in Britain it was awarded the Jewish Quarterly
Literary Prize, and in France the Prix Memoire de la Shoah.
- The US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC --
a federal government agency -- was so impressed that it sent Wilkomirski
on a six-city United States fund-raising tour last fall.
- This past summer, though, compelling evidence came to
light exposing Wilkomirski's memoir as an literary hoax.
- Although he claims to have been born in Latvia in 1939,
and to have arrived in Switzerland in 1947 or 1948, Swiss legal records
show that he was actually born in Switzerland in February 1941, the son
of an unwed woman, Yvette Grosjean. The infant was then adopted and raised
by the Doessekkers, a middle-class Zurich couple. Jewish author Daniel
Ganzfried, writing in the Swiss weekly Weltwoche, also reports that he
has found a 1946 photo of the young Bruno Doessekker (Wilkomirski) in the
garden of his adoptive parents.
- Comparisons have been drawn between Wilkomirski's Fragments
and The Painted Bird, the supposedly autobiographical "Holocaust memoir"
by prominent literary figure Jerzy Kosinksi that turned out to be fraudulent.
- Reaction by Jewish Holocaust scholars to the new revelations
has been instructive, because they seem more concerned about propagandistic
impact than about historical truth. Their primary regret seems merely to
be that the fraud has been detected, not that it was perpetrated.
- In an essay published in a major Canadian newspaper (Ottawa
Citizen, Nov. 18, 1998), Jewish writer Judith Shulevitz arrogantly argued
that it doesn't really matter much if Fragments is authentic. Her main
misgiving, apparently, is that the deceit was not more adroit: "I
can't help wishing Wilkomirksi-Doesseker [sic] had been more subtle in
his efforts at deception, and produced the magnificent fraud world literature
- Deborah Dwork, director of the Center for Holocaust Studies
at Clark University (Worcester, Mass.), and co-author of Auschwitz: 1270
to the Present (Yale Univ. Press, 1996), agrees that Fragments now appears
to be fraudulent. At the same time, though, she expressed sympathy for
Wilkomirski, saying that when she met him he appeared "to be a deeply
scarred man." Amazingly, Dwork does not blame him for the imposture,
"because she believes in his identity." Instead, she takes the
publishers to task for having "exploited" Wilkomirski. (New York
Times, Nov. 3, 1998).
- Deborah Lipstadt, author of the anti-revisionist polemic
Denying the Holocaust, has assigned Fragments in her Emory University class
on Holocaust memoirs. When confronted with evidence that it is a fraud,
she commented that the new revelations "might complicate matters somewhat,
but [the work] is still powerful."
- Daniel Ganzfried reports that Jews have complained to
him that even if Fragments is a fraud, his exposé is dangerously
aiding "those who deny the Holocaust."
- American Jewish writer Howard Weiss makes a similar point
in an essay published in the Chicago Jewish Star (Oct. 9-29, 1998):
- Presenting a fictional account of the Holocaust as factual
only provides ammunition to those who already deny that the horrors of
Nazism and the death camps ever even happened. If one account is untrue,
the deniers' reasoning goes, how can we be sure any survivors accounts
are true ... Perhaps no one was ready to question the authenticity of the
[Wilkomirski] account because just about anything concerning the Holocaust
- Wilkomirski himself has responded to the new revelations
by going into hiding, although he did issue a defiant statement describing
the climate of discussion about his memoir as a "poisonous" atmosphere
of "totalitarian judgment and criticism."