Publisher Defends Holocaust Memoirs
By ALEXANDER G. HIGGINS Associated Press Writer
GENEVA (AP) -- A best-selling memoir of a young boy's survival in a Nazi concentration camp has come under attack, critics charging that the account is phony and its author spent the war in the relative safety of Switzerland. Since Binjamin Wilkomirski's "Fragments" was published in German in 1994, the book has won awards from Jewish organizations in a number of countries. It has been translated into 12 languages.
But questions have increasingly been raised about whether the autobiography is a true personal account.
Standing behind its book, publisher Suhrkamp Verlag of Frankfurt, Germany, on Tuesday demanded that challengers provide written proof of their allegations. The book relates the first years of Wilkomirski's life from 1939 to 1948. Wilkomirski writes that at age 3 or 4, he saw his father, a Latvian Jew, beaten to death while imprisoned in a concentration camp in Poland.
He says the details of his early years were revealed through therapy. Daniel Ganzfried, a Swiss author who has taken a leading role in questioning the authenticity, said Tuesday he felt "the book is getting thinner and thinner." Several newspapers have recently raised questions about the memoir's authenticity, including The New York Times, The Boston Globe, the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche and the French daily Le Monde. Ganzfried said the scrutiny has prompted Wilkomirski to withdraw his assertion that Swiss authorities had falsified his birth and other records.
"He's taking back all factual details that one can research," Ganzfried said. "I feel I've been proved right." The Associated Press left a message on the author's answering machine, but the call was not immediately returned. His agent in Zurich also refused to comment. Thomas Sparr, chief of Suhrkamp Verlag's Jewish division, said his firm had carefully checked doubts that had been raised about the book.
"Of course, in this situation we need documents, witness statements, proof, that Wilkomirski was in Switzerland between 1941 and 1946," Sparr told AP. Suhrkamp said such accounts by child survivors of the Holocaust have been challenged before. But Ganzfried says Wilkomirski has always been Swiss, living in neutral Switzerland from his birth in 1941 until the end of the war and since then, and that he never was a concentration camp inmate.
He suggested that Wilomirski wasn't Jewish and was born Bruno Grosjean in 1941 to an unmarried Swiss Protestant woman and later adopted by a couple named Doessekker. Ganzfried said the family lived in Zurich and the boy entered school in 1947.
Ganzfried, whose own father survived Auschwitz, has written a novel about the Holocaust. He said what he would like to see is for "Fragments" to be withdrawn and reissued as a novel.
[ Earlier story ]
Copyright 1998 The Associated Press.
|I'm getting e-mail from survivors now saying, "What else are they going to do to us? Now they're making up stories about us."|
Truth of Holocaust Book Questioned
NEW YORK (AP) -- The author of an award-winning memoir of surviving Nazi concentration camps claims he was a Latvian Jew born in 1939, but his story is coming under increasing doubt, according to published reports.
The book by Binjamin Wilkomirski, "Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood," first published in 1995, was lauded by Jewish groups and won the National Jewish Book Award in the United States and the Jewish Quarterly Literary Prize in Britain.
It was translated into more than a dozen languages. While the publishers maintain they believe the author is a Latvian Jew who survived the Holocaust, his identity is being questioned. "I read this book as a remarkable novel and was surprised when Wilkomirski said it was a memoir," retired Simmons College professor Lawrence Langer, an authority on the Holocaust, told The Boston Globe. "This is now a scandal of large proportions. I'm getting e-mail from survivors now saying, 'What else are they going to do to us? Now they're making up stories about us."'
The Globe published a story on Wilkomirski last month. In the book, Wilkomirski recalls seeing his father beaten to death and being imprisoned at age 3 or 4 in a concentration camp in Poland, eventually spending time in two camps. He says the details of his early years were revealed through therapy. But Swiss legal records identify Wilkomirski as the son of an unwed Swiss Protestant woman and say he was adopted by a middle-class Zurich couple.
They indicate he was born in 1941, two years later than is stated in the original German edition of the book, "Fragments: A Childhood 1939 to 1948." The book itself noted some of the contradictions in the record, with Wilkomirski telling readers in an "afterword" that the birth date of 1941 in the Swiss records "has nothing to do with either the history of this century or my personal history."
Wilkomirski claimed that a third person, who is now dead, had altered and switched legal records. More questions were raised over the summer by Swiss author Daniel Ganzfried, who was commissioned to write a profile of Wilkomirski. He found that records show Wilkomirski attending first grade in Zurich in 1947 even though Wilkomirski says he didn't arrive in Switzerland until the following year. He also says he found a 1946 photo of Wilkomirski in the garden of his adoptive parents. Publishers of the book still support the account given by the author, who has become a recluse. Asked for comment by The New York Times, which published a story on the controversy today, Wilkomirski wrote in an e-mail: "My health is in rather poor condition. I am very weak and it takes me a lot of strength to answer questions, which cannot be answered in only a few sentences."
Some historians have said the book should have been published as fiction because of doubts about the author's background. Deborah Dwork, director of the Center for Holocaust Studies at Clark University, said she has doubts about the book because children age 3 or 4 only rarely survived the camps.
She said she had met Wilkomirski and thinks he truly believes the story he tells. But she said that until he can show that the Swiss documents are inaccurate, "I do not accept 'Fragments' as historically accurate." AP-NY-11-03-98 1327EST