In the course of researching the story that follows I talked to Steven Spielberg, who made the film Schindler’s List. Like the novel, Schindler’s Ark, on which it is based, the film used fictional devices, invented scenes and dialogue, to dramatize fact. The film was such a popular success that it would be fair to say that many millions of people throughout the world received their primary instruction on the Holocaust through it. Spielberg diverted much of the profits from the film into another of his creations, the Shoah Foundation, which would record and videotape the memories of the Holocaust’s real survivors—people as themselves and not played by actors, delivering their witness accounts to camera, the only script their own. The Shoah Foundation has done remarkable work. In Spielberg’s words: ‘We have collected more than 50,000 testimonies in thirty-one languages across fifty-seven countries. That’s more than fourteen years of material [in playing time], enough videotape to circumnavigate the globe.’
The question I wanted to ask Spielberg was an uncomfortable one: would this great archive serve the future as a reliable source of history? ‘Absolutely,’ said Spielberg. ‘Through this material, long after they are gone, survivors can speak to future generations.’ It provided, he said, ‘an unparalleled means of understanding the experience of the victim . . . They can teach us about the Holocaust in an educationally compelling and emotionally moving way.’
To break our trust in these memories would be a cruel thing; to question their veracity, equally cruel.
I look at the picture reproduced on the opposite page—that nice-looking, sensitive boy—and wonder, not for the first time, where he thinks he has come from and who he thinks he is.
More than half a century ago, soon after the end of the Second World War, a young boy became the foster child of Dr Kurt and Mrs Martha Dössekker. The Dössekkers were wealthy, German-speaking Swiss citizens who lived in a villa in Zürichberg, the most affluent quarter of Zurich. Dr Dössekker was a well-known dermatologist; his father, Dr Walter Dössekker, had been the country’s first specialist in radiology. The couple had no children of their own and no prospect of having any; Mrs Dössekker was nearly fifty, her husband several years older. They had high hopes for their foster son. Perhaps he would become a successful physician and perpetuate the family’s name and reputation.
The child arrived, according to all the available documentation, with the name of Bruno Grosjean. He was born in the Swiss town of Biel, and had been taken into care by the town authorities, since his mother was poor and he was illegitimate. The Dössekkers stuck with his Christian name, but in 1947, the year he started school, they changed his last name to Dössekker.
Bruno Dössekker was in some ways a disappointment to his adoptive parents. At school, he took more interest in the arts than in sciences. At university in Geneva, he abandoned a course in medicine and turned instead to history and music. It was music that eventually gave him a living. He became a clarinet player and teacher, and, more extraordinarily, also a clarinet builder, assembling the instruments from scratch in his own workshop.
In 1964, when he was twenty-three, Bruno married a Zurich girl, Annette, from a titled Swiss family, and they had three children, two boys and a girl. But the clarinet proved a hard way to make money and Bruno found it difficult to support his family. The marriage became strained and he and his wife separated. In 1981 he fell seriously ill and had several operations. A year later, he met his new partner, Verena, an opera singer who taught music at the same high school as Bruno near Zurich. Together, they moved to a large farmhouse in the country and slowly Bruno began to regain his health.
It was around this time that he began to write down scenes from his early childhood. These were not scenes from a Christian childhood in Switzerland, but from a Jewish childhood spent in the most terrible time and place to be Jewish in modern history. He remembered being a Jewish child in Poland during the Second World War, and he remembered the horrors he had endured, separated from his parents at the age of three, in the Nazi concentration camps.
He could recall these experiences with such extreme emotional clarity that, encouraged by his partner, he eventually turned them into a book. The book quickly found an agent, the agent found a publisher, and then many publishers. It appeared first in Germany in 1995, and soon after in another dozen countries. The book was widely praised and won literary awards. Publishers and critics talked of it as a ‘classic’ of Holocaust literature. Its author appeared in several documentary films and began to address conferences and seminars on the Holocaust. In the English translation, its title is Fragments, subtitle Memories of a Childhood, 1939-1948.
Fragments told the powerful story of how the author was separated from his parents during the massacre of Jews in Riga, how he escaped by boat to Poland, how he was taken to Majdanek concentration camp, and then to another camp, possibly Auschwitz; how at the end of the war he was taken to a Jewish orphanage in Cracow, and then, when he was aged about seven, to Switzerland; and how his adoptive parents and Swiss society in general had repressed these memories by refusing to acknowledge them.
Both his adoptive parents died in 1986, which, given the book’s unsympathetic portrayal of them, might have been just as well. In any case, Bruno Dössekker was no longer the author’s name. Some years before, in the 1980s, he had begun to call himself Binjamin Wilkomirski as part of his reclaimed identity, and Binjamin Wilkomirski was how he appeared on the title page. The name ‘Dössekker’ appeared nowhere in the book. By 1998, an Internet search could yield thousands of references to Binjamin Wilkomirski, and not one to Bruno Dössekker.
I first met Binjamin Wilkomirski in the spring of 1997, when he came to London to receive the Jewish Quarterly Prize for non-fiction. I was editor of that magazine at the time, and when I met Wilkomirski at the awards ceremony, I thought: Here, for the first time in my life, I see a writer who actually is his book. But he hardly seemed old enough or strong enough to have survived the Holocaust. He had a slight body and a soft face which was framed by prominent sideburns and a halo of light-brown curls. He was dressed in a rather theatrical shirt and vest, vaguely reminiscent of Eastern European folklore.
Verena, his partner, accompanied him. She looked taller and stronger; Wilkomirski looked as if he might collapse without her physical support. I tried to congratulate him and to talk a little about Fragments, but he managed only a weak smile. When he did speak, he wept. He was visibly moved by everyone’s response to what he had written. In fact, he seemed as moved by the reaction to his book as others had been by the book itself.
Not since Anne Frank’s diaries had a child’s view of the Holocaust touched so many readers. Fragments is a slim book, about 150 pages. I had read it as the terrifyingly stark testimony of a man whose identity had been shattered even before he had a chance to become a child. ‘I have no mother tongue, nor a father tongue either,’ the book begins. ‘My language has its roots in the Yiddish of my eldest brother, Mordechai, overlaid with the Babel-babble of an assortment of children’s barracks in the Nazis’ death camps in Poland. It was a small vocabulary; it reduced itself to the bare essentials required to say and to understand whatever would ensure survival. At some point during this time, speech left me altogether and it was a long time before I found it again.’
I hadn’t been a judge for the prize, but I never doubted that Wilkomirski’s book deserved it. As one of a small number of child survivors of the Holocaust, he had written from a rare perspective. It’s as if the little girl in the red dress in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List had survived the extermination camps and written about her experience.
The original German version, published by the Frankfurt house, Suhrkamp Verlag, had been quickly followed by translations in English (Schocken Books in the US, Picador in Britain), French (Calmann-Lévy), Italian (Mondadori), Dutch (Bert Bakker) and Hebrew (Yediot Aharonot in Israel), among others. Critics called the book ‘morally important’, ‘fine art’, ‘brave’ and ‘profoundly moving’. According to Daniel Goldhagen, the author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners, ‘Even those conversant with the literature of the Holocaust will be educated by this arresting book. All will be deeply moved.’ The novelist Paul Bailey, in the London Daily Telegraph, wrote: ‘I had to read it slowly, taking silent walks between chapters, so raw and powerful are the feelings it contains and inspires . . . The bravery of this undertaking cannot be exaggerated, nor the sense of human dignity it leaves with the reader.’ In America, Binjamin Wilkomirski won the National Jewish Book Award in the autobiography/memoir category from a shortlist which included Elie Wiesel and Alfred Kazin. It seemed that no one—no prize judge, publisher, critic, scholar or reader—was troubled by the author’s two-page afterword in which he shyly introduced the idea to his readers that Binjamin Wilkomirski was not his only identity.
Like many child survivors of the Holocaust, he wrote, he had received a new identity, ‘another name, another date and place of birth’. But it was merely a piece of paper—’a makeshift summary, no actual birth certificate’—which gave the date of his birth as 12 February 1941. ‘But this date 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 went on: ‘Legally accredited truth is one thing—the truth of a life another. Years of research, many journeys back to the places where I remember things happened, and countless conversations with specialists and historians have helped me to clarify many previously inexplicable shreds of memory . . .’
A year passed after our first meeting, and then we met again at a dinner given by Wilkomirski’s London publisher during his British publicity tour. Again, he was with Verena, but this time he did not seem quite so frail or melancholy. Clearly, the international success of Fragments—now in paperback—had made him more confident. I can’t recall much of our conversation that evening, only that it was pleasant and relaxed, and that he told us how important it was for him to find a good patisserie and a good antiques shop in every city he visits.
Looking back, I can’t say that my feeling towards his book could be defined as ‘suspicion’—I too had read the afterword without a qualm; but I was struck by how well constructed it seemed, that it wasn’t fragmented enough, despite its author’s claim that he had not imposed an adult perspective on his child’s view. Also, he had used an image which was out of place in a Jewish book. ‘I rode him like King David on his snow-white horse,’ he wrote of an incident with a camp guard who sat Wilkomirski briefly on his shoulders. Where did that come from? Jews didn’t ride horses, that was a Roman thing; and a white one? Not a Jewish image at all. (The Messiah is supposed to arrive on a white donkey—but that’s another story). But these were small things.
The idea that the book could be a confection, that Wilkomirski had been nowhere near the Holocaust, did not occur to me (and seems to have occurred to very few others) until a Swiss weekly, Weltwoche, published two pieces in August and September 1998, by Daniel Ganzfried, a young Swiss Jew and, like Wilkomirski, the author of a book set during the Holocaust. Ganzfried denounced Fragments as a work of fiction. He wrote that Wilkomirski’s true biography would exclude the possibility of his ever having been in a concentration camp, ‘except as a tourist’. The facts of his birth and early life, according to Ganzfried, went like this:
Born Bruno Grosjean 12 February 1941, in Biel, an industrial town in Kanton Bern, Switzerland; mother Yvonne Berthe Grosjean, unmarried; placed in the care of the Biel welfare authority; taken by the Dössekkers as their foster son from a children’s home in Adelboden, and brought to Zurich sometime in 1945; adopted by them in 1957; registered as starting primary school in Zurich, 1947.
Ganzfried supplied some documentary evidence for this childhood spent in peaceful, neutral Switzerland—so far removed from Wilkomirski’s memories of death camps in Poland—and his exposé was picked up by the international media. Taken at its face value, it seemed to reveal Wilkomirski as a fantasist and his book as a lie. But Wilkomirski’s several publishers did not drop the book from their lists; apparently, they were not convinced. As for Wilkomirski, he refused to respond to his accuser, other than to say in an interview soon after Ganzfried’s pieces appeared, that his readers had always had the option to understand his book as either fact or fiction. He then withdrew from public life, on his doctor’s advice; no more interviews, no more lectures on the publishing and Holocaust circuits, a time for seclusion.
Still, I wondered if he would see me. We had met before, I was hardly an enemy. In fact—a confession—whether or not his book was a lie, I felt sympathy for him. He had seemed so fragile, and why invent such a terrible childhood? His faxed reply to my request was filled with rage against journalists: ‘They twist everything I say and what they write or say afterwards is the opposite of what I meant!’ But he agreed that we could talk. He would pick me up at Weinfelden station, about an hour’s train ride from Zurich, and from there drive to his farmhouse.
The early morning train from Zurich moved through hills and fields which were white with snow. In my compartment, a stern old lady stared at me disapprovingly and reprimanded me for putting my feet up on the opposite seat. Young soldiers with heavy-looking guns filled most of the rest of the carriage, solemnly and silently staring out of the windows. The cliché of Switzerland, I thought: white, clean, unruffled, and, in a quite literal way, defensive (even a hundred years ago, Franz Kafka noted the surprising—to him—sight of the Swiss military).
I thought about Wilkomirski. Either he had been born in this country or he hadn’t, in which case Fragments was a lie—his early lives were mutually exclusive. But ‘lie’ might be too strong a word, meant for courts of law. Writing has milder terms. In writing, there is fiction and non-fiction. These seem clear divisions, but as any writer knows the boundary can be blurred, and nowhere more so than in this literary form ‘the memoir’. Trying to evoke the past the memoirist needs to recreate it, and in doing so he may be tempted to invent—a detail here and there, a scene, a piece of dialogue. In any case, did it matter so much whether Fragments was fact or fiction? Wasn’t it enough that its prose was so moving and powerful that it made hundreds of thousands of readers think about and perhaps ‘feel’—if not understand—the Holocaust?
On the train, I decided that these defences would not do. If Wilkomirski had made it up, his pretence as a genuine survivor, his public speeches in the name of all child survivors, his book’s role in the historical record, his claims to be a witness—all these needed to be denounced. If care with the truth does not matter here, then it can matter nowhere. Then again, if Binjamin Wilkomirski had not, as a small boy, lost his entire family to the Nazis; if he had not witnessed unimaginable suffering and survived; if, inside this man, was not the little boy who remembered such horrors that he had to forget them before he could remember them again—then another question of truth arose: what had happened to him, who was he?
When I walked from the platform I saw him across the tiny station parking lot. He stood leaning against his car, looking slightly lost or abstracted. His distinctive head of curls seemed even bigger than before—but this turned out to be an illusion: he was just much thinner than I had remembered him. As I approached him, I realized that I had kept only a blurred picture of him in my memory. Now I saw a face I would no longer describe as soft. It was a busy, attractive face.
He barely smiled as we shook hands. I worried about his nervous state, but he was a determined, confident driver, negotiating the icy roads at higher speed than I thought necessary. He talked in a low voice in slightly Yiddish-sounding German about the friendliness of his village, and about how fortunate he and Verena had felt when they found their house. ‘When we saw it, it was love at first sight,’ he said, and finally smiled.
I had imagined a lonely farmhouse in the countryside, but it stood, majestically, on a main road in the centre of the village. I liked it; it was inviting, unpretentious, full of books, papers, photos, paintings. There was a profusion of rather touristy Jewish memorabilia. Verena greeted me warmly, remembering our meeting a year before in London. She, too, looked much thinner now, and I thought of her sustaining presence everywhere he went—all his journeys, interviews, parties, public events. I knew that she had a handicapped son, and that her life had not been easy, even before she met Wilkomirski. In one of the documentary films made about her husband, she says: ‘I call him Bruno. “Binjamin” has something diminutive about it, you know, like being the youngest son, and I don’t want to see him in that way. In spite of all the suffering, life has moved on, even his life.’
It was ten in the morning. We sat down in the living room and had tea and Swiss pastries, and soon the room filled with cigarette smoke; my hosts were committed smokers. We started talking, and didn’t finish till almost six in the evening. Wilkomirski didn’t want me to use my tape recorder or my camera. ‘There have been too many pictures of him already,’ Verena said. ‘Every little article comes with a huge portrait of Bruno. It’s ridiculous!’
I wondered if I could see his Holocaust library, a personal archive of papers, books (two thousand of them), films and photographs which Daniel Ganzfried had mentioned in his pieces and which has featured in the documentary films. Wilkomirski shook his head: ‘I don’t have the strength for all that at the moment. Maybe I’ll go back to it when I’m better, but now . . . I’m very weak.’ His voice was a young boy’s soprano, a little on the feeble side. It occurred to me that it was much easier to tell the story of a traumatic childhood in that delivery, rather than in adult baritone. It was a child’s voice—and it was asking for gentle, considerate treatment.
I said that I’d like the interview to begin with his life in the present and then work backwards—a reverse chronology that would, I hoped, prevent his repeating the same story he had told so many times before, and perhaps reveal a little more.
Wilkomirski seemed to like the idea. After a few remarks about the viciousness of the press, he relaxed a little and began to talk about his life and work as a musician. He teaches music at three high schools, and has a workshop where he builds his clarinets. He said he tailored them to a player’s anatomy and sometimes their physical handicap. ‘I once spent a year putting together a clarinet for a man who was missing a finger. It took me a year and a half to build a special flute for a woman who had cerebral palsy, to make it possible for her to accompany a choir in her home. Her flute contained a tiny mechanism, like a watch.’
Then, although he wouldn’t show me the archive, he talked about what it meant to him. He had sophisticated equipment. With the help of a computer technician, he examined documents and photographs which related to children who had been given new identities. ‘I have been in contact with many people who are in that situation, from several countries. I try to help them. We have a scanner, which helps us with the analysis of facial features in old photos, and to determine whether a document is genuine or not.’
Where did all these documents come from?
‘I actually bought many of them, some of them through “dark”, possibly not entirely legal channels . . .’ He mentioned the Nuremberg trials, and three large boxes of papers that he’d received from the daughter of one of the prosecutors.
‘I also read the depositions taken as part of Nazi trials, and I always look for anything to do with children,’ he said.
Didn’t he use the research facilities at universities?
‘I don’t trust Swiss universities,’ he said.
‘Last time we saw each other you seemed very happy.’
‘Happy . . . that would be the wrong word, but I was pleased that my book had helped people, and that I was receiving so much moral support. I felt that I could come out of my hiding place, and really be myself. For the first time in my life, I felt liberated.’
He fell silent for a moment.
‘Now I feel like I’m back in the camps.’
The Holocaust had entered our conversation and now didn’t leave it, though we were in the middle of discussing his adult life. He avoided trains, he said, because he could not forget those trains. (I apologized for praising the comfort and efficiency of Swiss trains, on our way here in his car, and was rewarded with a benevolent smile.) ‘When I was married to my ex-wife and had to commute to Geneva for a while, I pretended to take a train, because she wanted me to, but secretly, I always took the car.’
He had a mortal fear of insects. ‘It’s quite terrible,’ Verena interjected, ‘every little bug is a problem. I understand it, but it’s really too much! And—can I tell about the feet?’ She looked at Wilkomirski, who nodded.
‘Bruno moves his feet constantly during his sleep. It’s a habit he’s had since the camps, to keep the rats away at night.’
‘Yes,’ Wilkomirski said, ‘if you keep moving them, like this’—he demonstrated a waving motion with his feet—’the rats stay away.’
When he talked about the camps, he trembled and cried—a heap of uncontrollable, painful emotions. Sometimes, he couldn’t speak and needed to wait quite a while before he caught his breath again. The worst crisis occurred when Verena left us alone for a couple of hours to go shopping. I thought he would have a major breakdown, right there in front of me—and I was afraid. What would I do? Would I be blamed?
But he collected himself after a time and we switched to a less sensitive topic: Switzerland.
‘In this country, everything and everyone has to be proper, quiet, bourgeois. Everything must be kept simple, no complicated concepts—otherwise, you are treated with suspicion. That is how I was brought up, and I played along I guess. But in 1981, when I recovered from my illness, which had almost killed me, I said to myself: “I am sick of leading this pretend-Swiss life. Enough of all that.” And I decided to be myself, which meant going back to the beginning—my own beginning.’
Ten difficult years followed. He continued to be ill: a disease of the blood cells. He had several serious operations. He lost contact with his children, although one of them, his son Jann, became close to him again, as a teenager. ‘I was presented to them as “an idiot”, who was too lazy to work, and would soon die anyway.’
It was Verena—after he met her in 1982—who suggested a connection between his recurring physical illness and his mental anguish. ‘She was the first person who was willing to listen to me, really listen.’ He began telling her what he remembered. Between the early 1980s and 1990 she had heard about two-thirds of the memories which would eventually become his book. She advised him to start writing them down.
Verena said: ‘I wanted to lead a normal life, and did not always want to adjust to his fears. He had terrible nightmares.’ She recommended a therapist, who was a friend of hers.
Wilkomirski said: ‘The idea of the therapy was for me to learn to speak about my past without fear or panic. It also helped me to clarify certain details of my memories.’
I turned to Verena: ‘Did you always believe him?’
‘Not always. I had my doubts. But the more I listened, the more I was convinced, because his stories were always consistent. And his research, when he travelled to the places in Eastern Europe where he thought his memories belonged, finally confirmed so many things—I have no doubt that he is telling the truth about himself. I checked the papers as well.’
I asked Verena what it was like to live with a man whose past was so traumatic, and so much a part of his present. Did she feel lonely?
‘It is a very lonely situation. But he gives me support, as well.’
Wilkomirski added: ‘It is good to be able to share all this sadness with someone.’
Remembering those young soldiers on the train, I asked him whether he had done military service. I knew that in Germany the children of Holocaust survivors—or young survivors themselves—were automatically exempt from military duty.
‘I was drafted, at the age of twenty-seven, for a short while,’ he said; but it had not worked out:
‘One day I arrived in the army barracks in Basle. The building, with its barred windows, confused and frightened me. I was late for a meal, most soldiers had already finished eating. They laughed at me, in a vicious, mocking sort of way. There was a tin soup bowl, but it was quickly taken away. I went looking for some food, and found a storage room with massive quantities of bread, enough to feed hundreds of soldiers. I stuffed all my pockets with the bread, and hid as much of it as I could under my mattress. The next day, a high officer came to give us a lecture, and I fainted. They had to call a military doctor.’
The story reminded me of something. In Fragments, Wilkomirski sees cheese rinds left on the table of his Swiss orphanage—unimaginable waste for a survivor of the camps—and stuffs them into his pockets. I pointed out the similarity to Wilkomirski.
‘Yes,’ he nodded. He made no other comment.
Before he drove me to the train, he took me to the barn and showed me his music room and workshop, where, to my surprise, he agreed to pose for a picture. On the train back to Zurich, my head throbbed from all the talk and smoke. We had covered his life—if it was his life—from his sketchily remembered childhood in Latvia and Poland to his adolescence and adulthood in Zurich.
I believed him. Whenever he talked about the camps, I believed him. His anguish was so genuine. It was impossible that someone could fabricate such suffering simply to justify the claim of a book. I returned to my hotel exhausted and convinced that I had been in the presence of a witness to some of the worst horrors of this century’s history.
A few days later after a second meeting with Wilkomirski, this time at his other home, an apartment in Zurich, I attended a discussion, also in Zurich, which had been organized by the Swiss branch of the writers’ international organization, PEN. This took the form of a ‘tribunal’ on the Wilkomirski affair in which Wilkomirski more or less took on the role of ‘the accused’. Only Wilkomirski wasn’t there—he couldn’t be persuaded to appear and face his critics. So instead, in the warm hall of the Neumarkt theatre, its floor scattered with real autumn leaves, we made do with the prosecution minus the defence, and some discussion of literary theory. Actors read excerpts from reviews, interviews, letters and legal documents. A sedate group of specialists in German literature tried to set up Wilkomirski’s text as the springboard for a debate about the relationship between literary language and truth. But the audience didn’t have much patience for these abstractions, nor did they seem particularly interested in discussing Switzerland’s role in the Second World War. They wanted the juice: they wanted to talk about the man who wasn’t there. Only one member of the audience seemed anxious to defend the absent author: he stood up and shouted ‘Herr Wilkomirski really is ill.’ Repeatedly, his book was referred to as ‘Holocaust kitsch’.
At the centre of the debate was Wilkomirski’s accuser, Daniel Ganzfried, a prematurely white-haired man of about forty, wearing jeans and a white shirt. If there was any passion in this gathering, it surfaced only after Ganzfried made an angry declaration: ‘When an author writes about Auschwitz, people don’t question the quality of his work. Where did Mr Wilkomirski steal his Holocaust images from?’ The audience applauded, but I was torn between endorsing the crucial importance of this question, and resenting Mr Ganzfried for raising it in this hostile forum. I still felt sorry for Wilkomirski and still found it hard to believe his anguish was fake.
But then there is Ganzfried’s evidence as published in Weltwoche and easily substantiated by the Swiss authorities. According to certificates in the archives of Biel (Kanton Bern), Binjamin Wilkomirski/Brano Dössekker was born Bruno Grosjean in Biel on 12 February 1941, and placed with his future adoptive parents, the Dössekkers, on 13 October 1945, and finally adopted by them legally on 4 October 1957. The ‘makeshift summary’ which Wilkomirski refers to in his afterword is one of these documents. Wilkomirski is right—it is ‘no birth certificate’ in the sense that it wasn’t issued at the time of his birth and omits information (the father’s name, for example) normally found on birth certificates. It is headed Abgekürzter Geburtsschein or ‘summarized birth certificate’. But it hardly looks ‘makeshift’; it contains the names of his mother and his adoptive parents and his place and time of birth, the coat of arms of Kanton Bern, the stamp and signature of Biel’s registrar.
Obviously, it was important to meet Ganzfried. I arranged an interview, but he cancelled at the last minute. He was busy, he said, but would talk to me later on the phone. In the meantime I read his book on the Holocaust—a novel—and wondered about his pieces in Weltwoche. Their tone was not quite that of judicious, investigative journalism; they seemed suffused with contempt. Already I had heard gossip—Zurich may be a city but it has a small-town society—that Ganzfried had attacked Wilkomirski out of jealousy. Their books on the Holocaust were published in the same year, but it was Fragments that achieved international acclaim.
Daniel Ganzfried was born in 1958 in Israel, where his father, a Hungarian Jew and Auschwitz survivor, met his Swiss mother on a kibbutz. Their marriage was not a success and Daniel grew up with his grandparents in Bern. As an adult, he has earned his living in several ways—bookselling, driving taxis and trucks. The idea for his novel came when he and his father spent their first time alone together, in New York. When we talked on the phone, Ganzfried said: ‘We were up on the Empire State building, and I asked my father: “Don’t you feel that you have wasted your life?” To my enormous surprise, he said not at all, and started telling me all about his life, how full it had been. And I had always thought of him as a victim of Auschwitz, and only that. Now I saw that I had a real father who had lived, really lived, not just suffered.’
Later, in Switzerland, Ganzfried recorded seventy hours of his father’s testimony about his life, before and during the war. This material became the basis for his novel. Ganzfried said: ‘I know how easy it is to fictionalize real facts; I wrote about the Holocaust as the son of a survivor, but people often thought that I had really been there. That’s why I found it so easy to see through Wilkomirski’s writing. I didn’t like his obsession with brutality, and the confusion between a child’s view and that of a grown man. When it comes to Auschwitz, it is essential to tell the truth. I thought about my father, and other survivors: what does this kind of book do to them?’
How did Ganzfried come to write about Wilkomirski? In this innocent way. A magazine called Passages (published by the Swiss cultural foundation, Pro Helvetia) was putting together an issue devoted to the idea of ‘creativity’, which in the words of the magazine’s editor, Michael Guggenheimer, would feature ‘creative people who excelled in an area which was different from their daily job’. Wilkomirski as musician-cum-writer was an ideal subject and Ganzfried seemed an ideal interviewer; they had the Holocaust as their bond. Guggenheimer offered Ganzfried the job. Ganzfried interviewed Wilkomirski, and then told Passages that, as he saw it, his account did not seem credible.
He said to me: ‘Wilkomirski talked to me about Mengele; he said that his adoptive father wanted to use him for medical experiments. He cried a lot—and always at the right moment. When I asked whether he was circumcised—which is a natural question to ask of a Jewish man—he said yes. At first I thought he was maybe just confused, but when I received a letter from his lawyer forbidding me to look into his official papers, I was pretty convinced that something was not right.’
His story began to turn into a piece of detective-work. The research needed money. Weltwoche, which is Switzerland’s leading cultural weekly, stepped in as joint funder. Then, when the piece was finished, Passages turned it down, because, according to Guggenheimer: ‘We had been looking for a sophisticated portrait of the writer Wilkomirski, not a character assassination.’
The people at Weltwoche, on the other hand, were delighted. Ludwig Hasler, the paper’s literary editor who worked closely with Ganzfried on the piece, said: ‘I am not in favour of an emotional approach to the Holocaust. It does not help to respond to it with sadness and mourning. The only way to deal with the Holocaust is to study it, rationally . . . I despise every sort of exploitation of the Holocaust, which is exactly what Wilkomirski has done.’
The paper feels that publication was more than justified. The consequence for Ganzfried, however, has not been so happy. ‘I thought I would publish all the facts, and that would be that. Instead I’m realizing that my article has started a strangely philosophical discussion. So I have now decided to learn something from Mr Wilkomirski—to keep silent, as much as possible . . . As a writer, I have learned a lot from this dreadful experience.’
Ganzfried’s demolition of Wilkomirski relied on more than the archives. He had also discovered that Yvonne Grosjean’s brother (Bruno’s uncle) was still alive; that Bruno’s natural father had paid towards the cost of his son’s care until he was legally adopted in 1957; and that Yvonne Grosjean had later got married, though not to Bruno’s father, and had no more children. Ganzfried even went so far as to ask Annie Singer, a former girlfriend of Wilkomirski, and his former wife, Annette, about whether or not he was circumcised. Both said that he was not.
None of this changed Wilkomirski’s position, which was (and is) that whoever Bruno Grosjean may have been, he, Wilkomirski, was and is not him. He thinks that the Dössekkers must have used Bruno Grosjean’s papers in place of his own, possibly non-existent ones. He believes that such cases of false identities were quite common in post-war Switzerland and other countries, and speaks of a ‘conspiracy’ between ‘the Swiss authorities and private individuals’. He has no evidence to support his claims, ‘except for my memories’. There is at least one serious problem with his identity-swap hypothesis, however. Binjamin Wilkomirski/Bruno Dössekker accepted a small inheritance from the person his papers describe as his natural mother, Yvonne Grosjean, after she died in 1981.
‘My so-called natural mother,’ he said, when I put this to him. ‘I was critically ill at the time, about to undergo a serious operation. I was barely able to support my family. Out of the blue, I received a phone call from a lawyer, informing me that I was to inherit a modest sum of money from my so-called mother. Of course, I told him that I did not accept her as my mother, but the lawyer told me not to worry about it. So I agreed to take the money, after insisting on sharing it with two other persons. It wasn’t much, but it actually saved me at that difficult moment in my life.’
Wilkomirski could not show me any documents or legal letters about his inheritance: ‘It happened too long ago.’ Some time later during this investigation, in Israel, I found an interview with him published in October 1998, in the newspaper Yediot Aharonot, in which he declared that he would now pass on some of the money to Yvonne’s surviving brother, Max Grosjean (until Ganzfried’s article a month or so before he hadn’t known of his existence).
Following this up, in a later e-mail to Wilkomirski from London, I got a furious answer in German to my question about whether he had in fact fulfilled his intention to ‘repay’ Max Grosjean some of his sister’s bequest. His reply burst into capital letters. ‘I HAVE NOT RECEIVED ANY ILLEGAL MONIES. I HAVE, LEGALLY SPEAKING, NOTHING TO “REPAY”!!!!! Even if the “brother” had been known at the time, HE WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN LEGALLY ENTITLED to receive the inheritance! The officials had made it clear that the inheritance had to go where indicated in the papers. Mr Grosjean would have been entitled to receive it only if I and the corresponding documents had never existed.’ He went on to say that he had been considering handing the money over to Mr Grosjean, NOT for legal reasons, but for moral reasons, as compensation for the way Ganzfried had invaded his privacy in the media.
That seemed an elaborate way of saying no, he had not given money to Yvonne’s brother. But there was a phrase in his e-mail that struck me: ‘if I had never existed’ in this context seemed to allow the possibility in his own mind that Bruno Grosjean and Bruno Dössekker/Binjamin Wilkomirski might be one and the same person. I didn’t pursue it. I knew by this stage that Wilkomirski could offer an explanation for every appearance of ‘Bruno Grosjean’ in his life. Again, whoever Bruno Grosjean was, he was only someone whose name and papers Wilkomirski was given, to hide his East European Jewish identity. No external evidence can puncture this approach, though (as I was to discover) much of it can be marshalled against the memories contained in his book. His explanations and denials began to remind me of the two-head theory attributed to the linguist, Paul Postal. It is used to describe an utterly arbitrary and unverifiable hypothesis, and goes something like this: Every person in the world has two heads, one of which is permanently invisible.
So what, in this two-headed world, became of the ‘real’ Bruno Grosjean? Wilkomirski told me that the Dössekkers took in another child before him. He remembers discovering a storage room full of old toys in their house, which was quickly emptied when he mentioned it to his adoptive mother. The toys, he believes, may have belonged to the real Bruno, whose name and papers Wilkomirski was then given as a young boy. Where did the real Bruno go? Wilkomirski remembers that when he was a teenager in Zurich he once met a boy of around the same age (‘His name was Rolf or something like that’) who told him that he was pleased to have escaped being raised by the Dössekkers, and that he was emigrating with his family to the United States.
The Dössekkers would know, of course, but they are dead. To judge from Fragments, Wilkomirski hated them as cold and unsympathetic despots, especially his adoptive father. But whatever the relations between them, and we have only Wilkomirski’s account of it, the Dössekkers’ desire, surely, was to make him and themselves happy.
We know from letters that there was opposition to the adoption from within the family, and that the Dössekkers ignored it. Letters dated 1946 and 1951 from Dr Dössekker’s father, the radiologist, are fiercely critical, especially of the decision to make Bruno the couples’ heir. ‘We [wrote the elder Dössekker, meaning he and his wife] cannot bear the thought that, once adopted, Bruno will become the sole legal heir, not only of your entire bequest but also of one half of our joint inheritance, and will thus, without having moved a finger, become a young millionaire.’
Nonetheless, Bruno Dössekker did inherit his adoptive parents’ estate when they died in 1986, five years after he inherited the much smaller legacy of Yvonne Grosjean. I do not know the sums, but we must assume that they helped fund his research into the Holocaust and the part he believes he played in it.
Binjamin Wilkomirski is too modest when he declares in the opening pages of Fragments: ‘I am not a poet or a writer.’ His memoir shows a great deal of skill. He writes: ‘I can only try to use words to draw as exactly as possible what happened, what I saw, exactly the way my child’s memory has held on to it; with no benefit of perspective or vanishing point.’ With this introduction, he has established the main character of his book—himself as a young child—whose narrative is not there to be checked for historical veracity. The child’s voice is both a shield and a weapon: the author can effectively hide behind its imprecision and its vulnerability, and, at the same time, disarm a potentially sceptical reader with its emotional power.
As non-fiction, it is a tricky book to précis. It does not begin at the beginning and end at the end like old-fashioned biography. It takes episodic jumps back and forth between countries and times: Poland to Switzerland, Switzerland back to Poland. Its tenses slip about. The English version has no helpful chapter titles. It contains very few place names and no dates. The years in its subtitle, 1939-1948, do not appear in the text. The first might be his date of birth or it might be the year his memories start. Its only photograph—of the author ‘aged about ten’—is also undated. Many people, including its publishers, have inferred ‘facts’ from its text which have been left unstated by the writer, or at most are suggestions. Of the city where the book begins: ‘It must have been Riga.’ Of a train’s destination: ‘I gather it has something to do with Lemberg (Lvov).’
With those caveats about its ‘facts’ and chronology, this is the story it seems to tell.
Binjamin is a Latvian Jewish boy born perhaps in 1938 or 1939. At the age of two or three, he witnesses the violent death of a man—’maybe my father’. (This description lost its tentativeness on most book jackets, which harden it into the statement that he saw his own father die.) During the massacre of Jews in Riga (November 1941), the boy hears frightened cries of ‘Achtung! Lettische Miliz!’ (‘Watch it: Latvian militia!’). The man who may have been his father is crushed to death by a vehicle against the wall of the building. Binjamin, who was sitting on the ground, remembers: ‘No sound comes out of his mouth, but a big stream of something black shoots out of his neck as the transport squashes him with a big crack against the house.’ The boy realizes that from now on, he is alone.
He then remembers watching a group of adults poring over what would appear to be a map, in a small, dark room. He escapes from Riga on a boat; arrives at a station in a foreign country; takes two train journeys; then, more clearly remembered, spends an indefinite period hiding in a farmhouse, ‘away somewhere amongst the Polish forests’, with several older boys whom he describes as his brothers. One day, he is punished for looking out of the window, and is locked in a cellar. While he is there, some sort of battle takes place, and when he finally manages to escape from the cellar, a day or more later, he finds himself all alone in the deserted farmhouse.
Eventually, a truck arrives, full of people, including some older children. There are also grown-ups in uniforms. Binjamin is discovered and told by a woman wearing an impressive grey uniform, a peaked cap and shiny black boots, that they will take him to ‘Majdan Lublin—Majdanek’. He is reassured, because he hopes to find his brothers in this place, but when he gets there, he is bitterly disappointed, for ‘Majdanek is no playground’. He finds himself in a big barracks ‘with a horde of other children’.
Binjamin’s memories of Majdanek camp are a series of terrifying tableaux. Rats crawl from the corpses of dead women, lice run over his face in ‘racing, ticklish streams’, tiny, starving babies chew their own fingers down to the bone. Binjamin is kicked in the back of his head by a guard’s black boot, and thrown head-first against a wall by another guard. He hears ‘the unmistakable sound of breaking skulls’ when babies are killed. At the consequent ‘red mess’ his stomach heaves with ‘horror and disgust’. He also feels guilt. A new boy has come to the barracks. He has diarrhoea. The slop bucket is full. On Binjamin’s advice, he relieves himself in his bunk. For this offence, he is taken by the guards and killed out of Binjamin’s view (‘We waited, motionless. Then there was a crack of bones, then hard footsteps and the sound of something being dragged . . .’).
One day a woman warden comes to the barracks door calling his name. ‘Binjamin! Is there a Binjamin here?’ She says she has come to take him to see his mother. He does not know what ‘mother’ means. ‘All I understood was that a mother, whether you had one or not, must be something that was worth fighting for, the way you fought over food.’ They go to a barrack which is full of sick and dying women. When he reaches the spot indicated by the warden, he can make out ‘the shape of a body under a grey cover. The cover moved. A woman’s head became visible, then two arms laying themselves slowly on top of the cover.’ He wonders whether this is his mother: ‘One of the children had once said that if you have a mother, she belongs just to you! So this woman belonged to me, just me?’ She beckons him closer. Binjamin sees that she is crying, and that she is trying to put a ‘coarse and hard object’ in his hand. This turns out to be bread. He never sees his mother—if that is who she was—again.
Now, aged four or five, he is moved to another camp (unidentified in the text, but named as Auschwitz on most book jackets and sometimes by Wilkomirski in interviews) and taken from there when the war ends by a woman who seems to know him, and who eventually brings him to Cracow. They reach a synagogue in Miodowa Street, where the woman introduces him to a man in a long black coat and a big black hat as ‘the little Binjamin Wilkomirski’. The sudden acquisition of two names fills Binjamin with pride, and surprise. The man and his colleagues arrange for him to be placed in a Jewish orphanage in Cracow. After some time there, another woman, ‘Frau Grosz’, takes him to Switzerland (Binjamin remembers post-war pogroms in Cracow and an attack on the orphanage). Frau Grosz disappears once they reach Basle and Binjamin is then placed in a Swiss orphanage, from where he is adopted by an anonymous Swiss family, presumably the Dössekkers.
His new home has a central-heating furnace, ‘a huge, black monster’, in the basement. Mrs Dössekker (named only as ‘the lady’) demonstrates it to him one day by opening its cover and shovelling in some coal. ‘I could see the flames . . . So—my suspicions were right. I’ve fallen into a trap. The oven door is smaller than usual, but it’s big enough for children. I know, I’ve seen, they use children for heating too.’
In Switzerland, the Holocaust is taboo. His adoptive parents say that he must forget it, like a bad dream. Other people say he is making it up. Only when he reaches high school does he have his memories confirmed by the historical record. He sees a documentary about the liberation of a concentration camp by the Americans. Until then, he writes:
‘Nobody ever told me the war was over.
‘Nobody ever told me that the camp was over, finally, definitely over.’
Wilkomirski has repeatedly stressed that he never intended this story to be read by the wider public, that he had written it for himself, his closest friends and family, especially his children. However, he was persuaded to show the manuscript to Eva Koralnik, of the Zurich-based literary agency, Liepman AG. Koralnik is a well-known agent with distinguished clients, who lives and works in an elegant villa high up in the Zürichberg, the same area where Dössekker/ Wilkomirski grew up. There, when I met her, she told me a little of the manuscript’s history. It had come to her because she and Wilkomirski had friends in common: ‘And I heard of him as a musician—Zurich is a small town.’ But she also pointed out that Liepman AG was a natural destination for Wilkomirski’s book because of the agency’s record in Holocaust literature; Liepman AG represents Anne Frank’s estate and writers such as Norbert Elias and Ida Fink. ‘But mostly,’ Koralnik said, ‘we receive unpublishable, badly written memoirs—we have an archive full of those. We send them to Yad Vashem [the Holocaust memorial museum] in Israel.’
She received Wilkomirski’s manuscript in January 1994, and knew immediately that it could be published. ‘I was shattered by it, and very impressed by the fragmented nature of his text. In fact, I phoned him and asked—why are there so many dots? He said that he wrote down only what he remembered. And I wanted to know how he could have written such a painful memoir? Talking to his therapist had helped him do it, he told me.’
It never occurred to her, she said, to demand documentation of the author’s identity. ‘I have never asked any of my authors to prove their identity. And you know, after all, I myself came to Switzerland from Hungary in 1944, as a six-year-old child, with my baby sister. We were given some protective papers, but I don’t have a birth certificate to this day.’
It had taken Eva Koralnik six years to find a publisher for Ida Fink’s masterful stories about the Holocaust. By contrast, she had sold Wilkomirski’s memoir to Suhrkamp Verlag in Frankfurt by July 1994, no more than six months after it had reached her office.
Suhrkamp made plans to include Fragments (or Bruchstücke in German) in their spring list for 1995. But in February 1995 the publishing house received a letter from a Swiss journalist, Hanno Helbling. Did they know, Helbling asked, that their author Wilkomirski had been known for years in Zurich as Bruno Dössekker, a Swiss musician, not a Holocaust survivor, and that he was three years younger than his memoir claimed?
The publishers, alarmed enough to halt the printing of their book, got in touch with Wilkomirski and Koralnik. ‘I asked Mr Wilkomirski what this was all about,’ his agent told me. ‘And he said, oh no, now the complicated story with my papers will start all over again. And then he and his lawyer took care of it.’ (She added: ‘So Mr Ganzfried has not discovered anything new—we already knew that Mr Wilkomirski’s birth certificate was somehow incomplete.’) This is how the afterword came to be written and included in the book. According to Thomas Sparr, Wilkomirski’s editor at Suhrkamp: ‘After receiving Mr Helbling’s letter, we asked Mr Wilkomirski for legal documents proving his identity. He had, at the time, hired a lawyer, who then provided us with a birth certificate in the name of Bruno Dössekker, date of birth 12 February 1941. It was, as was explained to us, an incomplete version of a typical Swiss birth certificate, because he was an adopted child. The apparent discrepancy between that date and the year 1939, his actual or likely year of birth, was then clarified by Mr Wilkomirski in his afterword.’
But what did Wilkomirski mean when he told Koralnik ‘oh, no, the complicated story of my papers will start all over again’? When had it happened before? When—to think of it another way—had Wilkomirski realized that an account of his early life existed which was different to the one which was inside, or may have been inside, his head? That, so far as the Swiss authorities were concerned, he had been born Bruno Grosjean in Biel? According to Wilkomirski he had known this since 1964, when, on the day before his wedding ceremony, he had been told by an official that his birth certificate wasn’t a standard one and discovered, for the first time, that ‘a Frau Grosjean’ was listed as his mother. He wrote to me in an e-mail: ‘I had never heard that name until that moment, never read it, it had never been mentioned to me that I had been provided with a “mother”!’ After that—between then and 1981, when he inherited her money—he said he had made an attempt to discover more about Frau Grosjean. He had travelled to Biel, ‘my so-called birthplace’, and had what he considered to be a sinister encounter with an official who refused to give him any information, saying that ‘it would hurt or involve too many people’.
And of course the official’s refusal would make sense. The rights of the adopted to know their original identities—their biological parents and their social circumstances—is a relatively new idea. Wilkomirski, however, has always chosen a different interpretation. In his afterword, he writes that he was one of ‘several hundred children who survived the Shoah, . . . lacking any certain information about their origins, with all traces carefully erased, furnished with false names and often with false papers too. They grew up with a pseudo-identity which in Eastern Europe protected them from discrimination, and in Western Europe, from being sent back east as stateless persons. As a child, I also received a new identity, another name, another date and place of birth . . .’
This is not impossible. A number of Jewish children survived the Second World War in Eastern Europe, hiding with Christian families, or in convents and monasteries. After the war, some of them could not, or did not wish to, find their way back to their origins; others managed to do so with varying degrees of success. In the course of researching this story, I got to know several people of Wilkomirski’s age or older with origins in Eastern Europe who have changed their names (or had their names changed for them), sometimes more than once. And it is also true that in Switzerland children have had their identities changed for other reasons, not connected to the Second World War or Jewishness. From the 1920s until the 1970s, a welfare organization called Pro Juventute campaigned to have children of Swiss Roma (Gypsies) removed from the country’s roads and streets, which sometimes meant that these children, known as ‘Kinder der Landstrasse’ or highway children, were forcibly separated from their parents and given new names.
Wilkomirski did not refer to the fate of Swiss Roma children in his afterword, but he did (as indeed did his lawyer, Rolf Sandberg) mention them to me, as a demonstration of what the Swiss state was once capable of; how it could at least acquiesce in the matter of forged identity. The combination—a secretive state with dubious wartime sympathies, a child victim of the Holocaust in its midst—is plausible and when I talked to Thomas Sparr at Suhrkamp he was happy to take it into account, before offering his own hypothesis: ‘Maybe he met young Jewish survivors in his orphanage in Switzerland, and somehow absorbed or was influenced by their stories.’
Sparr said that late in 1998. In 1994, however, he believed Wilkomirski’s explanation (‘His book had to be true; we would not have published it as fiction.’). The afterword was added and publication went ahead. I asked Sparr if he now thought he should have done more checking, perhaps of the text rather than the author’s credentials. He himself, as an editor at Jüdischer Verlag (the Suhrkamp imprint specializing in serious Judaica, which published Fragments), is a scholar of Jewish literature and history. Sparr said that he and his colleagues had approached, first and foremost, one other person for her historical authority: Lea Balint, the director of an organization called The Bureau of Children Without Identity, which is located in Israel and has a formal association with The Ghetto Fighters’ Kibbutz and its museum. Balint, herself born in Poland, confirmed that there was no doubt whatsoever that Wilkomirski had been a child at the Cracow orphanage, because he had remembered people and details which he could not have known otherwise. Also, Julius Lowinger, a survivor who had been at the same orphanage as a fifteen-year-old boy, and who now lives in Israel, could confirm that Wilkomirski’s description of the playground next to the orphanage was correct (and needed to have been written by someone who had been there, because the playground no longer existed). And so the editors at Suhrkamp were satisfied, even though Lea Balint was perhaps not the most neutral authority, having already helped Wilkomirski establish the identity he claimed had been lost.
Lea Balint was keen to speak to me—’anything to help Bruno’—and served tea and a generous helping of first-class chocolates. Her large villa in Jerusalem faces the hill which is topped by the Yad Vashem memorial. She is Wilkomirski’s most outspoken defender, and has an absolute faith in the truth of his story. She is portly and energetic and refers tenderly to the adults who lost their identities in childhood as ‘my children’. She herself spent the war under an assumed name in a Polish convent; whatever her qualities as a scholar, her emotional involvement and compassion are beyond doubt. She keeps her database—long lists of children, mostly orphans, who were found in Poland after the war—in her basement and restricts access ‘only to those who are entitled to see it’. (An odd restriction, given that the same information is publicly available in other archives, including the original lists in Poland.)
Balint showed me how the database works. She matches the name of a child on one list with a different name but perhaps similar information (date and/or place of birth, parents’ names and so on) on another. Clues are yielded. Identities take shape. Her methods have had only limited success, but with every success story Balint feels almost as though she has saved a life. It is exciting; she is excited by it.
She met Wilkomirski in October 1993, four months before he delivered his manuscript. He was introduced to her as ‘Bruno’, the name she still calls him, at a conference of child survivors in Israel. All of them had been together in an orphanage in Lodz after the war. Balint said: ‘I went there to look for my children without identity. A bearded man went up on the stage, with another man who looked like a boy, with curly hair, looking completely lost, not knowing a word of Hebrew. The bearded man said: “This is my friend Bruno Wilkomirski, does anyone identify him, does anyone know who he is?” Then he mentioned Cracow.’
‘I approached both men afterwards and explained that they were in the wrong place, because these people were from Lodz, not Cracow, but that I could try to help them.’
At their first meeting, Wilkomirski told Lea Balint what he remembered: street names in Cracow, an orphanage there, a few other details. ‘He also told me the name of a woman that he remembered from this orphanage.’
‘A girl, older than him, who looked after him for a while. Later, we found her name in the lists.’
‘Where is she now?’
‘I cannot say, because she cannot talk about the past. That is her right. But I wish—we are talking about a person’s life here—I mean, it would really help Bruno if she could confirm his memories.’
‘Did she remember him?’
‘No, she did not remember him.’
Not for the first time during my interviews, I felt like an over-intrusive prosecutor. Here, with Lea Balint, I was reminded of a play by Ida Fink called The Table about the trial of a Nazi officer. The characters are a young prosecutor, and four witnesses. The questioning of the witnesses by the prosecutor centres, in an excessively pedantic and often cruel way, on the issue of whether there was or was not a certain table in the square where the selection of Jews for ‘work or death’ took place. Each witness has a different way of remembering what happened on that winter’s day, depending on their character, age and perspective at the time; each witness has a different way of recalling the table in question—one is sure that it was very large, another is convinced that it was tiny, yet another can’t remember it at all. All agree that so many people were shot on that day that the colour of the snow was red. As far as the prosecutor is concerned, this is not conclusive evidence; no one actually saw the officer shoot anyone. And so it seems that a conviction will not be possible. The truth—symbolized by the table—proves to be an elusive concept.
Lea Balint, on the other hand, was so convinced by Wilkomirski’s scant memories of Cracow that she invited him to join an Israeli television crew, which was researching material for a film about children with lost identities. Balint herself collaborated closely with the research, and travelled to Poland for the shooting. Vered Berman, the Israeli director, was interested in Wilkomirski’s story, and it was agreed that it would be a good idea for him to come along for the filming and to meet other survivors, in the hope that this might help him discover his origins. ‘He never told us that he had already written his book, or anything about it,’ said Vered Berman.
Wilkomirski was not the ‘star’ of Berman’s film. (That role belonged to an Israeli woman, Erela Goldschmidt, who was filmed being reunited with a Polish Christian family which had sheltered her as a child during the war.) But his appearance as a visibly tormented man, searching for his identity in the streets of modern Cracow, attracted some attention when the film, Wanda’s Lists, was broadcast on Israeli TV in November 1994. In addition to shots of Wilkomirski identifying a building which he believed had been his orphanage (it wasn’t), there was amateur video footage (not taken by the film crew) showing him in the Majdanek concentration camp, recognizing the scene of his memories.
Balint told me that Wilkomirski was able to find the real ‘Frau Grosz’, the woman who took him from Cracow to Switzerland, after the film was shown: ‘We were contacted by a woman from New York, who said that she had been at the same orphanage, and that her mother, who was no longer alive, had often been there. Her maiden name—and her mother’s last name—was Gross.’
This information has often been cited by Wilkomirski, by Lea Balint, and by Suhrkamp in defence of the book’s authenticity. But when I telephoned the woman in New York she told me a less simple version of the story. Mrs Sara Geneslaw was nine years old when she was in the Cracow orphanage. She said that, yes, Wilkomirski’s description of ‘Frau Grosz’ in his book had reminded her of her mother: ‘She would have been likely to talk gently to a child, to explain things to him. But I also told him that it would have been utterly impossible for her to leave Poland and travel to Switzerland at the time, for family and other reasons. Nevertheless, he asked me to send him a photo of my mother, which I did—one from the late 1940s. When he received it, he phoned me. He was very excited, and said that he definitely recognized her. He also asked for my permission to keep the photo of my mother beside his bed.’
But Berman’s film had another and much more dramatic consequence. A woman who watched the film was struck by Wilkomirski’s resemblance to members of her husband’s family and alerted her former brother-in-law, Yaakov Maroco, a Polish Jew who had lost his first wife and two-year-old son in Majdanek. The boy who had perished in Majdanek was also called Binjamin.
Yaakov Maroco was cautious at first, but eventually rejoiced and got ready to welcome Binjamin Wilkomirski into his large family as his long-lost son. They wrote warm letters to each other. Then, before they met, they agreed to have DNA tests which would establish their relationship beyond doubt. In a second television film, also made by Berman, Maroco is to be seen nervously awaiting the doctor’s verdict. It was negative. The results of the test were absolutely clear: there was no way that he and Wilkomirski could be a biological father and son.
Maroco was disappointed, but did not give up. Being an orthodox Jew, he consulted his rabbis, who said that despite the DNA results he could continue to think of Wilkomirski as his own son. And so, when Wilkomirski landed at Ben-Gurion airport on 18 April 1995 he was greeted by film crews, reporters and sympathetic spectators, all come to witness the reunion of father and son. Their emotional embrace was a touching sight—reported in the international press—as though love and mutual affection could defy science. Wilkomirski went on to meet all the members of Maroco’s extended Hasidic family, and was filmed at family dinners, studying the Torah with his ‘father’, holding babies.
When I was in Israel—in November 1998—Maroco’s widow told me that her husband was well aware that Wilkomirski was not his real son. Wilkomirski confirmed this: he said he simply felt very comfortable with the old man, and was grateful for the warm welcome, and the feeling of having acquired an instant large family.
Other evidence, however, suggests that this isn’t the case—that even after the DNA tests Wilkomirski wanted badly to believe that he had found his father. A volume of autobiography which Maroco published before he died contains an affectionate letter from Wilkomirski to Maroco dated 12 February 1995—before they had met. Wilkomirski expresses his joy at receiving a phone call from Maroco, and says: ‘I have lived for over fifty years without parents, and now—can it be that I have found you, my father? Has “He” performed a miracle? And think about it: today is February 12th, the anniversary of my arrival in Switzerland [my italics], and this day has been made into my official birthday. Is this not a gift?’
He goes on: ‘I don’t really care about the results of scientific blood tests—there are too many connections . . . You were also in Majdanek. I have lists of more than a thousand children in Poland, who survived in camps or in hiding, and the name Benjamin does not appear even once. Maybe it was not such a common name in Poland at that time. It is therefore unlikely that there were two different Benjamins in Majdanek in 1943. Also, some things you told Elitsur match my own memories! . . .’
There are several statements to consider in this letter. First, Wilkomirski says that his ‘official’ birthday records the day and month he entered Switzerland; in fact it is Bruno Grosjean’s birthdate in Biel. Second, in his eagerness to have Maroco as a father he seems willing to deny the record of his memory as presented in his own book. Maroco lived in Poland; Wilkomirski thinks he grew up in Latvia. Wilkomirski thinks he saw his father killed (the blurb on his book jacket has no doubts about it); and Maroco of course was alive.
As to the Benjamin/Binjamin difference . . . it is hardly worth bothering over. At one point during my sessions with Wilkomirski, I said to him rather impatiently: ‘You’ve invested so much time in trying to trace a boy called Binjamin Wilkomirski—lists of war orphans, people who may have known him—but you must be aware that this is a name you made up.’
To my great surprise, he nodded, and mentioned one or two other names which might have been his. One of them, I remember for no particular reason, was Andrzej.
How did Bruno Dössekker become Binjamin Wilkomirski? What was the process? Perhaps the most important witness to—some might say, agent of—the transformation is Dr Elitsur Bernstein, who is the mysterious ‘bearded man’ who came on stage with Wilkomirski at the Lodz survivors’ meeting in Lea Balint’s account. For many years, Bernstein has accompanied Wilkomirski in the latter’s search for his Jewish roots. He believes Wilkomirski’s story to be true; he privately supported him during his breakdown after Ganzfried’s pieces were published (‘good but vicious’ according to Bernstein); but, unlike Lea Balint, he has not put himself forward in Wilkomirski’s public defence. He is a psychologist by profession. Some people referred to him as Wilkomirski’s éminence grise.
I was curious to see him in person. We met in a stylish Tel Aviv café (his choice), the sort where there is a bell on each table which you can press to call a waitress. He is a large and imposing man; imagining him next to Wilkomirski I thought of a basketball player posed against a jockey. He was courteous if formal. He remembered dates. He had the air of a once-religious man who hadn’t quite managed to adjust to the secular world. He said he was the ‘black sheep’ in an orthodox family. His father, he told me, studied at a yeshiva (Jewish religious school) in a place called Wilkomir, in Lithuania. In August and September 1941, nearly 6,000 Jews were massacred in Wilkomir (now Ukmerge), the town’s entire Jewish population.
This brought us to—’Bruno,’ he said with a quick smile, ‘I always call him Bruno. It drives him crazy, but I can’t change it—I met him as Bruno, so I can’t suddenly start calling him Binjamin. I am talking to you as a friend of Bruno, not of Binjamin.
‘I had been living—studying, working—in Switzerland since the early 1960s, but it was only in October 1979 that I met Bruno, when he was recommended to me as a clarinet teacher. He taught in his studio in Zurich. As far as I knew, he was a Swiss man, no Jewish connections whatsoever. After the third lesson, I asked him about an oil painting of an old Jew with a beard on his wall. He said, “Why are you asking?”
‘”Because,” I said, “maybe I know who he is.” He was curious, of course, so I told him that the man was the last rabbi of Wilkomir before the Holocaust.’
To which Bruno, according to Bernstein, replied: ‘My name could be Wilkomirski.’
An amazing exchange; but that, according to Bernstein, was the last time they discussed the name until he saw the first pages of the manuscript of Fragments.
The clarinet lessons continued, with interruptions when Bruno was ill and in hospital. Bernstein returned to Israel. In 1984, Bruno and his new partner, Verena, visited him there. ‘She asked me, out of the blue, whether I believed Bruno’s story. I said, “What story?” Apparently, at the beginning of their relationship, Verena had been warned by some of Bruno’s family that he pretends to be Jewish.’
‘So what did you say?’
‘I said, he always behaves like a Jew, when he talks about things to do with Jews, especially Swiss anti-Semitism. That’s all I knew at the time.’
But soon, there would be more. ‘When Bruno told me, in 1984 or ’85, that he had terrible nightmares, about concentration camps, I suggested therapy—not with me, of course, as I am his friend. Please bear this in mind—I am speaking to you as his friend, not as his therapist.’
‘Bruno resisted the idea of therapy. But, suddenly, he became interested in the Arab-Israeli conflict, started writing about it, in fact produced a booklet to go with an optional course on the subject—he taught it to students at the same high school he taught music.’
(Later, I obtained a copy from a former pupil of Wilkomirski’s. Produced in 1989, by ‘BDW Archives’ (Bruno Dössekker Wilkomirski), it carries the title Topics about the History of Palestine and the Middle East Conflict, and contains anti-Semitic excerpts from the Koran, anti-Semitic cartoons from the Arab press, a chapter on ‘The Collaboration between Islam and Fascism after World War II’ and a chapter entitled: ‘Caution: The Media’. It ends with a quote he attributes to Himmler—though it is usually credited to Goebbels: ‘The bigger and more monstrous the lie, the bigger the chance that it will be believed, for it will become unimaginable that anyone would have dared to invent a lie of such proportions.’)
In the meantime, his nightmares continued. ‘It got worse,’ Bernstein said. ‘He couldn’t sleep and couldn’t be touched, especially on the back. If he was touched by accident, he would shiver. Then, one night, in the beginning of the 1990s, he had a particularly bad nightmare. He dreamed that he was asleep; he hears a terrible noise, runs to the window, and sees people being burned. At this point, I said that he must start therapy, because he is obviously having dreams about something that is a part of him. Finally, he agreed.’
The issue of therapy is controversial in Wilkomirski’s story. Some reports (and book jackets, in some editions) have referred to it as ‘recovered memory’, some have mentioned hypnosis. Wilkomirski and Bernstein deny both. Wilkomirski has always stressed that his memories are not ‘recovered’, that he has had them since his early childhood. The difference the therapy had made was that he began to write down what he remembered. The therapist had also taught him some ‘concentration exercises’, to help him remember in greater detail.
Bernstein said: ‘One day, I started getting these faxes from him, at two or three in the morning, fifteen or twenty pages. The first one was the story about the mother and the bread. The last one was about the new boy. He wanted to know what I thought of it.’
‘Can you remember how he asked you, exactly?’
‘Yes. He asked, in German, “Kann das so gewesen sein?” Could it have been so? He said, “These are my memories, is there any logic in it? Am I allowed to write this? Would I be considered a murderer, because of the death of the new boy?”‘
(This is a sensitive issue with Wilkomirski. He told me that he had asked Yaakov Maroco to take him to see a rabbi about it, and was extremely relieved when the rabbi told him that ‘a child cannot be blamed for a crime, because he has not yet learned the commandments, and does not yet know what is right and what is wrong.’)
How did Mr Bernstein answer these questions? ‘I told him that I didn’t know, that I wasn’t there. I said the same thing to his agent, Eva Koralnik, after she had read the manuscript. Personally, I was against the idea of publishing it. This should have remained a private matter. But he wanted to see those pages in print, “to give support to other child survivors”, and Verena encouraged him.’
In 1993, the year before Wilkomirski delivered his manuscript, he and Bernstein travelled to Majdanek, Auschwitz, Cracow, and Riga. One of Dr Bernstein’s sons videotaped Wilkomirski during the tour (which is how Berman’s documentary and other films came to include footage of him in those places). Bernstein said: ‘Before we went to Majdanek, Bruno prepared detailed maps of the camp, from his memory. They were different from the maps in history books. When we got there, his maps turned out to be the correct ones, in all details and angles. In Riga, we came upon a house which he recognized as the house where the events he remembers took place. Later, we were told that this house had been a part of the Riga ghetto, just for two months. We also consulted with historians and other experts. One, in Riga, confirmed Bruno’s memory of his escape on a ship. Another, in Cracow, looked at the maps he drew and told us that he must have been in Auschwitz, and in Majdanek, that there could be no mistake.’
By this stage, the association between Wilkomirski and Bernstein had become professional. They were working together in what Bernstein said was an ‘interdisciplinary approach’ as a historian and psychologist to help survivors (not just Wilkomirski) retrace their memories and find their identities. They wrote and presented a paper on the subject at several conferences. The paper mentions ‘about fifty similar cases’, but Wilkomirski’s is the only one cited as an example. He is, in this way, both the researching ‘historian’ and the survivor/client. Later, when I enquired about the other fifty cases, I was told by Dr Bernstein, repeatedly, that, after what happened to Mr Wilkomirski, not one was willing to come forward.
It is not entirely wrong of Wilkomirski to describe himself as a historian. He studied history at university after he dropped medicine, though he never completed his thesis on Jewish emigration between the two world wars, and history has remained his hobby and his interest. The ‘Holocaust archive’ in his farmhouse attests to years of private collecting that long pre-dated the publication of Fragments; after its publication he took on a much more public and authoritative role as a speaker and lecturer. In a Swiss documentary film on Wilkomirski (Fremd Geboren—Born a Stranger, 1997), he is seen lecturing students at Ostrava University in the Czech Republic. There, he speaks furiously about the fact that in all the Holocaust material he has studied, there is hardly anything about children. He makes this point often. He made it to me when we met. ‘I was reading all those books about the Holocaust—and I kept wondering: where am I in all of this?’ Then he corrected himself: ‘I mean, where are the children?’
I took his question to some of the leading Holocaust historians: to Yehuda Bauer and Israel Gutman in Jerusalem, and to Raul Hilberg in Vermont. Bauer and Hilberg, especially, had come under fire from Wilkomirski for their negative response to his book. Yehuda Bauer, for instance, had been interviewed for a Swiss documentary and said that there were no children in Auschwitz.
When I met him at Yad Vashem, he smiled and declared: ‘To begin with, I haven’t read the book, so I have nothing to say about it.’ He does, however, believe in the importance of witness accounts, not least those of children. ‘Documents were often created to hide, rather than reveal, crucial data. They don’t always tell the full story. Today, children’s testimonies can add important information.’
He gave me the name of a woman who was in Majdanek as a child—though she was there for only a short while and after the period Wilkomirski’s account would most likely place him there. How about children in Auschwitz? ‘Perhaps, when the gassing was stopped in the second week of November 1944, there is a possibility that a handful survived.’
Israel Gutman has his office next door to Bauer’s in the same building at Yad Vashem. He, too, began by saying that he wasn’t prepared to judge the veracity of Wilkomirski’s story, though, unlike Bauer, he had actually read it. ‘But I think that in any case this is a very interesting and important phenomenon. And it proves that the power, the essence of what occurred in the Holocaust, to this day does not leave people alone.’
Was it likely to be true, given the historical record?
‘Look . . . we know that during the Holocaust extraordinary things happened, which did not correspond to the general rules. This does not mean that I think that his story is true. It has to be checked very thoroughly, but—I don’t think it’s that important. Wilkomirski has written a story which he has experienced deeply, that’s for sure. So that, even if he is not Jewish, the fact that he was so deeply affected by the Holocaust is of huge importance.’
Gutman himself survived the Warsaw Ghetto, Majdanek, Auschwitz and Mauthausen. He never talks about it. But I have to ask him—as he was in Majdanek himself—whether there were children’s barracks there, as Wilkomirski describes.
‘I was in Majdanek.’ He paused. ‘Not at that time. Majdanek went through different phases. So that I cannot answer you with one-hundred per cent certainty. And I also cannot say—and this is a big question—whether a child can remember. I don’t know whether one should look at everything he said under a microscope, and start checking whether it could have happened the way it is written. He is not a fake. He is someone who lives this story very deeply in his soul. The pain is authentic.’
I said: ‘Wilkomirski claims that established Holocaust historians like yourself do not take children’s testimonies into account.’
‘He is right, not necessarily about witness accounts in general, but about children. It’s true, and it is a painful point that the children’s fate has somehow gotten lost in the main and big body of work that was done in this area. Also because so very few children survived. How many children survived? A tiny percentage! Those that did were hurt by this response. Somewhere in this whole narrative the children’s story got lost, to a large degree.’
His voice became even quieter. ‘Look . . . I know what it was like to be a child in that huge suffering. There was always the question—how could it be? How could people be so inhuman? The world turned upside down, all the values and principles on which the world was based fell apart. The ones who were the least able to understand this were the children. Also because they were completely deprived of the childhood experience; instead they came into an environment where they were neglected, hungry, their life was very, very hard. If the Germans gave the Jews some leeway, it was because they needed them to work. The child did not have any of that.’
‘How old were you at the time?’
‘I wasn’t a child. When the war broke out, I was sixteen. I was a young man, and in Poland at this age I had to act as a man. This is why I think I am sensitive to this topic, not only as a historian, but also personally.’
Was it possible that there were women and children in Majdanek?
‘A short period before the liberation of Majdanek, at the end, yes.’
‘Is there a chance that a small child would have been transferred to Auschwitz?’
There is a long, heavy pause. ‘A child, from Majdanek to Auschwitz . . . I came from Majdanek to Auschwitz. I know what it means.’ A long silence. ‘I came from Majdanek to Auschwitz.’
I said: ‘I cannot imagine it, and I cannot imagine how he could have survived, all alone.’
‘It’s a problem. You don’t know what it was, a concentration camp. A concentration camp is a place where the number of people had to be precise, in the morning and in the evening, and everybody had to be counted at roll call. If the roll call wasn’t exact, you could stand all night in the cold, until they found the person somewhere in a barrack, or someone fell. But it was also forbidden to have one extra. The problem is not just how he survived or managed day to day—the problem is: how did he breathe?’
Raul Hilberg, the author of the definitive Holocaust study, The Destruction of the European Jews, was rather less forgiving when I met him in Frankfurt. He met Wilkomirski at a conference at Notre Dame University, Indiana, in April 1998, and asked whether his book was fiction. Hilberg recalled: ‘He pointed out indignantly that it said “memoir” on the jacket. When he gave his lecture at the conference, he basically recounted the contents of the book, adding details, such as his recent journey to Riga, where he found the house he lived in and talked to a local Jewish historian, Mr Vestermanis, who confirmed his memories.’
Raul Hilberg himself does not read novels; he is also ‘against counterfactual material in fiction’, and has a nose for what he describes as ‘hearsay represented as observation’. He is sceptical about oral witness accounts. ‘I found that a great percentage of the mistakes I discovered in my own work could be attributed to testimonies.’
Hilberg migrated from Vienna to the United States in 1938. In the American army, he was used to interrogate German prisoners. ‘People can make up any stories about themselves, I’ve seen them do it.’ For example: ‘You don’t know me; if I told you that I am not Jewish, but a German POW who stayed in Canada after the war, learned English and became interested in researching the Holocaust for some personal reason, wouldn’t you have to believe me?’
When Hilberg was asked by the German weekly Die Zeit to evaluate the historical validity of Fragments, he read both the English translation and the German original, and came to the conclusion that there were many points which he considered impossible. ‘I came across passages detailing incidents that seemed to me highly improbable or completely impossible. The description of partisan bands and German tanks in Poland was clearly an invention. The German woman who finds the boy in the farmhouse is wearing the kind of uniform which Aufseherinnen [female guards] wore only inside the camps; they never left the premises. In his book the woman says “Majdanek”. Actually, the Germans always called the camp Lublin. If he played there right outside Feld 5 (Sector 5) and an SS guard hurled him against a concrete wall, he must have been at the crematorium, again an altogether improbable situation. Presumably, he was then moved to Auschwitz, but there is no record known to me of Jewish children being transferred there from Majdanek. Finally, in Switzerland, he eats cheese rinds as though he came upon unexpected food in a concentration camp. By then, however, at least two years must have passed after his liberation.’
Then Hilberg added some questions of his own—not of the text but of how the text came to be published. ‘As you can imagine, I was not the only one who wondered about the stories in the book. Not all sceptics are Holocaust specialists: one is interested in memory, another in the Eastern Front. The question then is: How did this book pass as a memoir in several publishing houses? How could it have brought Mr Wilkomirski invitations to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as well as recognized universities? How come we have no decent quality control when it comes to evaluating Holocaust material for publication? If Wilkomirski’s publishers had asked me beforehand, I would have saved them the embarrassment. If you get rid of all the inaccuracies, what remains?’
These are good questions. No publisher had the book scrutinized by a historian—Daniel Goldhagen read it but not (it would seem) to test its truth. Perhaps the publishers felt that the book was more likely to be appreciated for its literary and moral qualities, which certainly proved to be the case. Gary Mokotoff, a member of the board of the Jewish Book Council in the United States, told me that, though Fragments had won his council’s prize for memoir, it would never have won in the Holocaust category. Why not? ‘The facts did not add up. As a Jewish genealogist and student of the Holocaust, I knew that the book was historical fiction. It reminded me of Martin Gray’s book [For Those I Loved], which was also a Holocaust memoir that was exposed as fiction. It worried me, because today you will find references to that book only on revisionist websites. These kinds of pseudo-memoirs may do real damage to survivors, by rendering each Holocaust memoir suspect.’
Gary Mokotoff wrote to the president of the Jewish Book Council detailing his concerns about Fragments three days after it won its award. His letter went completely unnoticed.
But then, in the words of Wilkomirski’s American publisher, Arthur Samuelson of Schocken Books (an imprint of Alfred Knopf/Random House), Fragments ‘is a pretty cool book’. Samuelson has compared it to the work of Primo Levi. To me, he said: ‘I admire it for its simplicity, humanity, lack of artifice. It made me look differently at my own child . . . I turn down Holocaust memoirs every day. This one is different.’ When he had to explain Fragments quickly and effectively to book salesmen, he brought up the scene from Schindler’s List, where a child is hiding alone in the toilet. ‘They got it right away.’
What if it turned out not to be true?
‘It’s only a fraud if you call it non-fiction. I would then reissue it, in the fiction category. Maybe it’s not true—then he’s a better writer!’
Samuelson said he wanted to know the truth. ‘So far, I have seen only allegations, but no proof. If you could show me a person who would say he’d played soccer with Bruno Dössekker/Binjamin Wilkomirski in a Swiss kindergarten, I would be convinced. On the whole, we relied on the German publisher’s research.’
The book was translated from German into English by Carol Brown Janeway, a senior New York editor and the director of foreign rights at Knopf. Janeway had been shown the German manuscript of Fragments by Eva Koralnik and was immediately struck, she said, by its ‘directness, its simplicity, the quietness of the voice, and the child’s-eye view of the unbearable—how you see the world when this horror is all you know, and you have to find your way within it.’ On behalf of Knopf she bought world English rights and took on the translation herself—something of an honour for the author because of Janeway’s reputation (she also translated an even greater success, The Reader by Bernhard Schlink).
I asked if questions about the book’s veracity troubled her. Janeway said it was ‘ultimately impossible’ for publishers to guarantee the truthfulness of their authors—that was why publishers’ contracts contained a clause which, in some non-fiction work, required the author to warrant that the facts contained in a manuscript were true. Janeway went on: ‘The relationship between publisher and author is one of trust—it isn’t an adversarial relationship. But that, I think, is not the point here. If the charges made concerning Mr Wilkomirski turn out to be correct, then what’s at issue are not empirical facts that can be checked, but spiritual facts that must be pondered. What would be required is soul-checking, and that’s an impossibility.’
What did her last remark mean? I had no idea; it seemed to me that non-mystical facts were the essence of the matter here and that, if Wilkomirski had broken another contract—that between an author and the reader’s trust—then his book should be reclassified as fiction or withdrawn. But then Janeway has a poetic touch with English. Her translation of Wilkomirski is, I would say, one of those instances which proves that a translated text can improve the original. The book reads much more fluently in English than in German; it flows, it acquires a kind of poetry. But there are some striking discrepancies between the German and English versions. I asked Janeway if Wilkomirski had approved them. Yes, she said: ‘Mr Wilkomirski was involved in reviewing every page of the translation. He requested the change of a person’s name, because she was still alive; I found the German chapter headings a little intrusive, and asked if we might omit them in the English version—he had no objection.’
Only later, after I turned to the English and German versions again, did I see quite how much freedom had sometimes been allowed. The most striking example comes when Binjamin, as a small boy in Switzerland, is caught begging for money during a school outing. The Swiss children tease him by chanting a nursery rhyme. In the German version: ‘Der Bettelbub, der Bettelbub, er hat noch immer nicht genug’; the beggar child, the beggar child, he still hasn’t got enough. In Janeway’s translation, this becomes: ‘Beggar kid, beggar kid, there’s never enough for the yid. Beggar kid, beggar kid.’ The children’s rhyme now rhymes ‘kid’ with ‘yid’, and in the process it has become anti-Semitic. The point here isn’t to protect Swiss children of fifty years ago against charges of anti-Semitism; the point is that the translation contradicts Wilkomirski’s account of perceptions of himself as a child in Switzerland; he has never claimed that he was known as a Jew at that time.
In other places, the English version helps to make the book more believable by simplifying Wilkomirski’s language so that the thoughts it contains seem more childlike. For example, when Binjamin finds himself at a railway station—possibly among Poles—he is surprised by the prettiness of women’s dresses and the general peacefulness of the scene. In English, he thinks: ‘This isn’t real peace. There’s something wrong—it’s only their peace!’ In the original German, he thinks: ‘Dies ist nicht ein echter Friede, ihm ist nicht zu trauen—es ist nur der Frieden der Sieger!’ or ‘This isn’t real peace, it cannot be trusted—it is only the peace of the conquerors!’ A sophisticated thought for a boy who could have been no more than three at the time; and an incongruity smoothed out in English.
I began to wonder about the support for Binjamin’s story. Did anyone in the West, other than Lea Balint and his friend, Elitsur Bernstein, still believe Wilkomirski? In Eastern Europe he seemed to have greater credibility. People there, according to Bernstein, had vouched for the details of his account. I called Margers Vestermanis in Riga, the man Wilkomirski said had confirmed parts of his story. Vestermanis is a well-known local Jewish historian and a Holocaust survivor. He said he vaguely remembered having a conversation some years ago ‘with an Israeli psychologist [Bernstein] and another very quiet man’. He said: ‘I was very busy, there were many people waiting to talk to me. They asked me some strange questions about whether a three-year-old child could experience such things. I didn’t have much patience for them.’
Vestermanis was certain that he could not have confirmed the authenticity of Wilkomirski’s memory of escaping on a boat. ‘It was impossible. The shore was a military zone, totally controlled. Even fishermen had difficulties accessing it.’ I reported this conversation to Wilkomirski, who got very angry. ‘But he even wrote it in his book! He wrote that sixty people were smuggled out of Riga by boat!’ Back to Vestermanis: ‘He is confusing things. I have written, in a small booklet about places of Jewish interest in Riga, about Janis Lipke, a Latvian man who did smuggle altogether fifty-six Jews out of Riga, of which fifty-one survived. But this took place over a long period of time, starting only in 1942—a year later than the period described by Wilkomirski.’
He confirmed a point made by Raul Hilberg: the child could not possibly have heard the cry ‘Watch it: Latvian Militia!’ because they were not called militia until the Soviets arrived. ‘Latvian Jews all spoke Yiddish, and they would have referred to those forces in Yiddish as bendeldike—the men with the green armbands.’ (He added: ‘But it’s a very powerful book. Wilkomirski captured perfectly how one never leaves the camps, even long after the war.’)
Next to Majdanek. No historian I talked to could say for certain that there were barracks with Jewish children in Majdanek; yet, in a German documentary film (Der Prozess—The Trial) about the trial of SS guards from Majdanek (which took place in Düsseldorf from 1975 to 1981), there are references to two barracks with about 200 Jewish children in Majdanek in the sector described by Wilkomirski (Feld 5). These children were killed in a special operation during the spring and summer of 1943. Any that may still have been there by 3 November 1943 would have perished during Operation Harvest Festival, which began on that day. About 45,000 Jews were massacred within thirty-six hours in the entire Majdanek-Lublin complex, which comprised several camps. In Majdanek alone, about 17,000 Jews were shot within eleven hours.
There may have been barracks with non-Jewish children—mostly Polish and Belorussian—with perhaps a few Jews mixed in. This would certainly match Wilkomirski’s memory of suddenly being with ‘other children who spoke languages he did not understand’. He also told an Israeli researcher that during this time it was difficult for him to go to the toilet because he did not want the others to see that he was circumcised. (However, when I asked Wilkomirski whether he was circumcised, he refused to say; later he wrote me a long note implying that many Jews did not have their sons circumcised during the war, out of concern for their safety—an argument which does hold if he was born in Riga in 1938 or 1939.)
Majdanek was liberated on 23 July 1944. But Binjamin had to be somewhere between that time and his period at the Cracow orphanage after the war. He finds himself in another camp, which may be Auschwitz-Birkenau. His own position on this is not clear: before the doubts raised by Raul Hilberg and others, he said to many people that he was in Auschwitz. For example in an interview with Anne Karpf in the Guardian (11 February 1998) he told her that ‘he now celebrates his birthday on January 22, for it was on this day that he emerged from Birkenau’. In a Swiss documentary, he is filmed with a woman of his own age who is an Auschwitz survivor. She says in the film: ‘It’s amazing to know that we were in the same place, he survived practically behind my back.’ Wilkomirski nods gravely.
The same woman, who does not want to be named, was the only survivor who was willing to provide me with a statement of support for Binjamin Wilkomirski: ‘I am sure Binjamin Wilkomirski is who he claims to be, and he was in Birkenau as a child. We both remember many of the same things, in the same way. Including a lot of things that only someone who was there at that time could know, and many things that would be remembered only by a small child.’ Still, she did not remember him.
When Wilkomirski takes the story in his book to Cracow, he moves into a very well-documented period, despite the confusion in Poland immediately after the war. He provides checkable details of the orphanage and the children it contained. I managed to trace and talk to several people who had lived in the orphanage during the period described in the book. They live today in Israel, Germany, the United States, France and Brazil. Not one of them, during our phone conversations, could remember a boy who matched Binjamin’s description. One of their carers, Pani Misia, mentioned by Wilkomirski in his book, is still alive. And yet, when Wilkomirski met her in 1994, she did not remember him either.
The orphanage was housed in a large 1930s building (which still stands) just off Augustianska Street in the Jewish quarter of Cracow, called Kazimierz. It was built before the war as a Jewish retirement home and turned into a brothel by the Germans. The orphanage moved to this building from Dluga Street, in another part of Cracow, in 1946. It catered for an influx of children who had spent the war in hiding, and it was very well run, registering each child’s origins, dates and place of birth, and parental names. The children were fed, clothed and schooled and sometimes taken on excursions to the theatre. They spent their summer holidays in summer camp in the countryside. They remember the orphanage with affection and gratitude; after their wartime experience, it was a haven of comfort and security. Unlike Binjamin, none of the people I spoke to remembered any need to beg or desire to escape.
Prior to the filming of Wanda’s Lists in Poland in 1994, Wilkomirski spent time with a group of people who had lived in the orphanage as children. Some of their meetings were filmed, though the footage was not included in the final edit. In the rushes, Wilkomirski can be seen with other people who are exchanging memories and information and looking at pictures of the orphanage. Elitsur Bernstein is there, too, translating for Wilkomirski.
At one point, Wilkomirski says in German that there was a garden next to the orphanage. Bernstein translates this into Hebrew as ‘gina’, which means a garden. Julius Lowinger then exclaims, excitedly, ‘yes, yes, there was’, at which point Wilkomirski gestures to show something like a climbing frame. Bernstein says to his friend, in German, ‘He is confirming your memory.’ It seems to have been deduced from this incident that Lowinger was agreeing with Wilkomirski about the presence of a playground with some sort of equipment; this was one of the proofs offered by Lea Balint in Jerusalem to Suhrkamp in Frankfurt. In chapter fifteen of Fragments, he wrote of how ‘many years later’ he recognized the ‘house on Augustianska Street with the big staircase and the exercise bars in the playground’.
Perhaps the phrase ‘many years later’ refers to his trip to Cracow with Bernstein in 1993, or perhaps to an earlier trip alone. Whatever the case, the facts as remembered by all the other former orphanage children I talked to were different. Nobody could recall any equipment, exercise bars or swings. All of them—including Pani Misia, the carer—said the ‘playground’ was simply a large stretch of grass where the children played ball games. One person did recall some exercise bars being erected, but not until the 1950s.
There is more, unfortunately. In the same rushes, Wilkomirski is inspecting a photograph of the entrance to the orphanage and asks: Was ist das? He is told that it is the orphanage building in Augustianska Street. But he does not recognize it, because (at that time) he had never seen it (he seems to have missed it during his trip to Cracow with Bernstein in 1993). Yet when I showed him the same picture four years later, he claimed to know the building well and, pointing out a modernist circular window near the door, said emotionally: ‘That’s the window I was so afraid of.’
Can nobody vouch for his presence there? In his book, Wilkomirski suggests that at least one person can.
We come, finally, to the case of the girl ‘Mila’ (or ‘Karola’ as she’s called in the German edition). He devotes an entire chapter to her. She was older than him and gave him ‘some sense of safety and peace’. They had met before–'[in] one of the many barracks probably, we weren’t sure anymore’. She had survived through being thrown with her mother, by mistake, on to a heap of dead bodies. Now, in the orphanage, they befriend each other as lonely survivors of the death camps. Her mother has vanished.
Many years later, in Switzerland as adults, Wilkomirski and ‘Mila’ meet each other again:
. . . we met quite by chance. She was working as a translator, and I’d become a musician.
Mila had managed to find her mother, and we went together to visit her—she was old by now—in a hospital. She died soon after that.
Mila and I saw each other regularly now—we often had long talks. We discussed the present, but what we really meant was our past . . .
We loved each other, and our love was fed by our sadness. But it was always accompanied by a fear of touching what actually bound us together.
So, inevitably, we lost each other again.
‘Mila’ was, most probably, a girl who appears in different records as Martha Fligner or Karola Fliegner, born in Lemberg (Lvov) in 1931. The later parts of her life story are consistent with Wilkomirski’s account. She now lives in Paris but spent some time in Switzerland, where her mother died.
Do I believe Wilkomirski knew her? Yes, certainly—in Zurich, when they were adults (Wilkomirski told me that they met in Zurich in the 1960s and then lost touch with each other until 1994). But when they were children in Cracow? That seems less likely. Establishing ‘Mila’s’ identity has its own difficulties, but similar details in the records and the accounts of people who knew her in the orphanage suggest that Martha Fligner and Karola Fliegner are the same person. In the Red Cross files and in a list published by the Jewish Agency she is recorded as present in Cracow in 1945 under the name Karola Fliegner, born Lemberg, 1931, mother alive and father dead. Then, at some point in 1946, she moves to the Augustianska orphanage under the name Martha Fligner (perhaps she adopted the first name when she was hidden by Christians in the Ukraine during the war). ‘Martha’ is how everyone there remembers her, and also the name under which a short biography of her appears (with her photograph) in a fund-raising booklet about the orphanage, published by the orphan rescue and relief fund of the United Galician Jews of America in 1947. Martha Fligner, born Lemberg, 1931, mother present in Poland, whereabouts of father unrecorded.
In 1994, Wilkomirski seemed certain that Martha/Karola and the woman he knew in Switzerland twenty years later were one and the same. In a fax to his friend Elitsur Bernstein on 8 July that year, he circles her name in the Red Cross records and writes that, according to these records, she has spent the war in hiding and not (as his book records) in a camp. He also says that she later married in France, was by now called Carole, that she worked as a translator of technical texts from Russian and Polish, and that he knew her son, Claude. In the fax, he continues: ‘Carole’s mother . . . lived in Zurich near the Triemli. When she fell ill (cancer) I often visited her with a rabbi Weiss. She must have died at the end of the 60s or the beginning of the 70s.’ (Rabbi Weiss has also died since.)
There are several problems with this. First, as Wilkomirski concedes in his private fax to Bernstein, Karola/Martha/Carole/Mila spent the war years in hiding and not in a camp. Second, she came to the orphanage only after the time Wilkomirski now implies he was there. Binjamin’s departure from Cracow with ‘Frau Grosz’ is undated in the book, like every other event, but it is connected to a pogrom which seems to threaten his safety. There were several attacks on Jews in post-war Poland, but where and when was the pogrom that could have prompted young Binjamin’s flight? At first, he suggested one in Kielce ‘in the summer of 1947’ (in fact, it occurred in July 1946) and his arrival in Switzerland the same year. Later, faced with documentary evidence that he started school in Zurich in April 1947, he did further research and ‘discovered’—as he said to me—a small pogrom in Cracow in the summer of 1945, which could explain his earlier departure from that city. And indeed Cracow’s Jewish quarter was attacked in August 1945. Nobody who was then at the orphanage, however, can remember this pogrom; the orphanage had still to relocate to Augustianska Street from its previous home in a non-Jewish part of the city and doesn’t seem to have been threatened (there is no evidence for Wilkomirski’s claim in an e-mail to me that the pogrom was ‘directed primarily at Jewish orphanages’). And if Binjamin left in 1945, how could he have formed a friendship with a girl who arrived in 1946?
Only ‘Mila’ can properly answer these questions, but despite several approaches from me she declined to be interviewed. She is, however, the woman whom Lea Balint referred to as the witness who could ‘really help Bruno if she could confirm his memories’. Sadly, according to Balint, she did not remember him at the Cracow orphanage.
So what role did ‘Mila’ play in the making of Wilkomirski’s book? I think this: she was just another stage in his exercise of imaginative reconstruction. Perhaps it was from her, when they were both adults in Zurich, that he first heard the story of the orphanage on Augustianska Street.
Wilkomirski wrote in his afterword: ‘Years of research, many journeys back to the places where I remember things happened, and countless conversations with specialists and historians have helped me to clarify many previously inexplicable shreds of memory . . .’ Novelists sometimes take a similar route. They have an idea for a character and a story in a certain place and time; and then, just to make sure no topographical or historical solecisms crop up in the narrative, they might travel to a city to check its street-life and spend a few days in the local library. Wilkomirski wasn’t dealing with a novel, he was dealing with his life; but I began to see how such a process (hugely amplified, a life’s work) could have led to the writing of Fragments.
Bruno Dössekker’s obsession with the Holocaust began long before he met Elitsur Bernstein. In Fragments, he mentions two teachers who inspired him—a maths teacher, who was Jewish, and a history teacher, who was committed to describing the truth about Nazism. According to Lukas Sarasin, another student at the same school, Bruno then was ‘a very happy adolescent, good-looking, popular with girls . . . his parents let him do whatever he wanted, he skied a lot, was interested in jazz and dancing’. But that seems to have been the public Bruno. His drawings and paintings from that time (he showed me examples) suggest a deeply troubled adolescence: a favourite is of a dark prison cell, which he pinned above his bed.
In Zurich, I met people who had known him in the 1960s and ’70s. Two musicians, Daniel Bosshard and Gertrud Voegeli, said they used to meet him almost every day in the same café. According to Voegeli he was ‘unusual, interesting, unhappily married with children’ and always had stories to tell. ‘He told us that he had been in the Warsaw Ghetto, and was saved from the Holocaust by a Swiss nanny, who brought him here. It was a very sad story, full of touching details. He also spoke about the famous Polish violinist, Wanda Wilkomirska, to whom he claimed he was related. Then he dropped that story. Sometimes he talked about being a Mossad agent. All these stories were still in the air in 1977 and 1978, when we lost touch as close friends.’
Bosshard, who is still close to Wilkomirski, remembered that he always said that he came from Poland, which he’d visited three or four times in the 1970s, looking for roots and connections. ‘He used to say that his adoptive parents wanted him as a medical experiment. He also went to Biel in the 1970s, to find out about his papers. When he came back, he mentioned the name Grosjean, and said he thought she might have been the person who had brought him to Switzerland from Poland.’
According to Birgit Littman, an art historian who knew Verena and Bruno in the early 1980s, one chapter of Fragments, the episode in which Binjamin meets his mother in Majdanek, had an earlier life as a film script. In 1983, she was given the script to read. ‘He wanted me to play the mother in the film.’ But Littman ‘did not find the story credible’ and refused. Their friendship ended. The film was never made. A dozen years later, however, she received a copy of Fragments in the mail, with a hostile letter from Verena saying that the book’s publication demonstrated the truth of Wilkomirski’s story and that if she continued to ‘spread lies’ about the author, his lawyer would act. In other words, that Wilkomirski had at last ‘proved’ his identity in the eyes of the world by having his story accepted for publication—that he was his book. (Wilkomirski does not recognize Littman’s account of the film project. ‘The film was not my idea, it was the project of two young students, twin brothers, who wanted to film the story of a man who builds his own clarinets. My memories served only as background, and I wrote none of the screenplay myself.’ However, one of those students, Rolando Colla, confirmed that the film was to have been called ‘Binjamin’ and included the scenes of the mother in the camp and hiding with his brothers in the farmhouse.)
The picture that emerges from these recollections (among others from people who knew him then) is of a man who thinks he may be Polish not Latvian, who may be related to a Polish violinist and not a Lithuanian town, but who has already, by 1980, made several trips to Eastern Europe. He has the rudiments of a story—his own story, episodic, a jumbled series of scenes from childhood—but he has yet to make it fully believable to others, and perhaps to himself. He needs to discover more detail, look further into the record, examine all possibilities.
Thinking of him as he must have been then, I thought of his memories of Majdanek camp. After Fragments was published, he recorded testimonies of his experience for the archives of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. These accounts more or less repeat the story of the book (though the account he gave in Washington on 26 September 1997 contains serious discrepancies with other accounts, including his communications to me). It is the extra detail of them that is interesting. In his Washington testimony, he speaks of the Majdanek concentration camp with great precision and knowledge. He even knows the full names of some female camp guards—though they were normally known to inmates only by their nicknames. When I asked him about this, he said: ‘We children knew the real names.’
I bear in mind Israel Gutman’s wisdom: ‘during the Holocaust extraordinary things happened, which did not correspond to the general rules’. But why would children rather than adult prisoners know a guard’s real name? What seems more likely is that the adult Wilkomirski has studied everything about Majdanek he can lay his hands on: documents, books, films. In fact, I suspect (proof is impossible) that his knowledge of Majdanek is at least partly based on the German documentary, Der Prozess, which contains detailed descriptions of the camp, powerful witness accounts by both guards and inmates, and, unusually, a harrowing section on the children who were there. Wilkomirski often refers to his memories as being film-like. They are, I believe, more than that: they are, I believe, derived from films. In the Swiss documentary about him, Fremd Geboren, he is shown watching concentration-camp scenes on his television screen. His face has the same suffering expression as when he talks about being there himself. Perhaps, in some sense, he is.
And now I consider the main evidence against him. The birth certificate that says he was originally Bruno Grosjean, born Biel, Switzerland, 12 February 1941; the records which show Bruno Grosjean’s adoption by the Dössekkers; the continual revision of his hypothesis; his acceptance of Yvonne Grosjean’s legacy as her natural son in 1981; the reluctance of his ‘afterword’ to say as much as it could; his absence from the memory of anyone who might have known him in Cracow; his willingness to prove his blood-relationship to Maroco by DNA testing, no matter the damage to the credibility of his published account; and, crucially, an unwillingness—as disclosed by Ganzfried and repeated to me—to submit to DNA tests which might prove his relationship to Yvonne Grosjean’s brother Max Grosjean. To take that one step might risk everything.
For all these reasons, I cannot believe that Fragments is anything other than fiction. And yet when I came back from his farmhouse that evening I was, as I said, convinced he was genuine. Anguish like his seemed impossible to fabricate. As Israel Gutman said in Jerusalem: ‘Wilkomirski has written a story which he has experienced deeply, that’s for sure.’
The question now, in Zurich again, is: What story and which anguish?
According to the archivist in Adelboden, Bruno Grosjean arrived in that Swiss resort as a four-year-old boy on 20 March 1945. He came from Biel, where he was under the guardianship of one Walter Stauffer, who these days would be described as a care-worker. Stauffer and two assistants looked after the welfare of hundreds of children; in Bruno’s case he seems to have acted with the authority in loco parentis from the boy’s birth in 1941 until his legal adoption in 1957, when Stauffer signed the adoption papers (he retired in the following year and died soon after). At Adelboden, Bruno stayed in a children’s home called Sonnhalde, which was turned into a pension in the 1950s. Sonnhalde was not an orphanage; it existed to give children a holiday in clean mountain air, and Bruno was probably sent to it for health reasons. (Two old ladies who live next door to the building remember that it had a playground, with swings.) Comments on Bruno’s papers suggest that he was originally meant to stay for only two months. In fact, according to the papers, he was registered there until 13 October the same year, when he was placed with the Dössekkers (their discussions with his guardian about his adoption began in June 1945).
Did any member of his family visit him during those months? It seems that they did.
In the late summer of 1998, after Wilkomirski discovered from Ganzfried that he had an ‘uncle’, he decided to go and see Max Grosjean in his home in Horgen, Kanton Zurich. Grosjean showed Wilkomirski and Verena pictures of his ‘mother’ and Bruno as a baby. No one present thought that they looked alike; Wilkomirski said that the photograph of Yvonne Grosjean did not in any way match his memory of his mother. Then Grosjean told Bruno/Binjamin a little of the family history. He had lost touch with his sister in the 1930s. Then, in 1940, she was involved in a car accident and he’d come to see her in hospital in Biel. While she was in hospital, it was discovered that she was pregnant. She was unmarried. She stayed in hospital until the birth, which had to be induced. She also received electric shock treatment to cure her partial paralysis. The uncle wanted to adopt Bruno, and sent his then fiancée—his present wife—to see him in Adelboden. She was shown Bruno in a group of other children, but was told that it was too late to adopt him. A ‘doctor’s family’ had already applied and been accepted as foster parents. Neither Max Grosjean nor his fiancée/wife had ever seen Bruno again.
Wilkomirski talked to me about all this with remarkable ease. For him, Bruno Grosjean is a completely separate person. But when I expressed an interest in contacting the ‘uncle’ myself, Wilkomirski said that it would not be a good idea to disturb him. Therefore, I did.
On the telephone, Max Grosjean and his wife were quite happy to talk about what they remembered. They told me that Yvonne was very pretty, but not very ‘reliable’; that she’d been hurt when a car had knocked her from her bicycle; that she didn’t get along with her future sister-in-law, and therefore didn’t want her brother to raise the child. After the birth and once she got better, she returned to her work in a watch factory in Biel.
The first four years of Bruno’s life are not at all clear. Before he reached Adelboden, he was in the legal care of the Biel authorities, but where he was—in an institution, with foster parents?—Max Grosjean could not remember or would not say. Illegitimacy was a stigma; his mother was poor. But there are two photographs of mother and son together and the mother did, Mrs Grosjean said, visit him in the home in Adelboden at least once. Of course, once the adoption was agreed, she was not allowed to know where Bruno would go.
Then he used a word that I’d first heard from Wilkomirski. He said that he and his sister had been Verdingkinder. He said it sadly, and hinted at suffering and physical abuse. Verdingkinder (roughly ‘earning children’) were the children of the poor, sometimes orphans, sometimes illegitimate, sometimes with parents too impoverished to keep them. The traditional solution was a primitive welfare system; the creation of a caste of children who provided free labour for peasant families, in exchange for shelter and food. In the last century, Verdingkinder were sometimes sold at auction, like farm animals; beatings and sexual abuse were often part of their childhood. The system was finally abolished in the 1950s—neither a proud nor much-examined part of Swiss social history—but not before it had separated Bruno’s mother and uncle when they were children; and, perhaps, made Bruno, as the illegitimate child of a Verdingkind, a natural candidate for separation from his mother, with or without her consent.
I am not a psychologist; the temptations and dangers of literary or any other kind of psychology for the amateur are well known. Still, the similarities between Fragments, the early life of Benjamin Wilkomirski, and what we know of the early life of the real Bruno Grosjean are too striking to resist: obscure origins in a social class that polite Swiss society would rather not discuss; a childhood swamped with loss and change; institutions which might easily seem like child-prisons; distant memories of motherhood. In the book, the mother-substitute, Frau Grosz. In life, his mother, Frau Grosjean. ‘I looked at her,’ writes Wilkomirski of Frau Grosz as they travel on the train from Poland to Basle. ‘She was staring at her hands and seemed to be a long way away. Something important, something that couldn’t be changed, was going to happen.’ Whether this is Grosz or Grosjean, Binjamin or Bruno, the destination is the same: adoption, the Dössekkers, a certain luxury but also coldness and formality in that villa up in the Zürichberg, overlooking a country where Binjamin/Bruno will begin to feel separate, and which he will come to dislike.
My second meeting with him in Switzerland wasn’t really an interview. I just wanted to get a feeling for what he was like if we talked about subjects other than himself or the Holocaust. We met at his Zurich apartment and talked about opera and his favourite writers, Rilke and Goethe (‘I love Faust’). He remembered rowing boats on the lake as a boy and, later, going as an adult back to his old home in Zürichberg to cook meals for the Dössekkers when they were old and frail. I may be wrong, but I sensed the agony of being Binjamin Wilkomirski had lifted for a while and that I was glimpsing Bruno Dössekker. I liked him. The Yiddish in his German had vanished.
To remove himself as far as possible from his native environment, he declared himself a Jew. If he sought a sense of community in Judaism, I doubt that he has found it—he practises a very solitary form. But to Bruno Dössekker, being a Jew was synonymous with the Holocaust. Swiss history has nothing remotely similar to offer, nothing so dramatic to survive, or to explain to a man where he came from, or how he is.