The New York Times, October 14, 1999
FRANKFURT -- For more than a year the publishers of a slender 155-page memoir of a young Latvian Jewish orphan's early life of struggle in two concentration camps stood firm against accusations that the memories of terror were nothing more than vivid fantasies.
But Wednesday the German publisher, Suhrkamp Verlag, which had once vigorously defended the author, Binjamin Wilkomirksi, announced with expressions of pity that it was withdrawing from stores all hardcover copies of the book, "Fragments." It was acting on information in a historian's 100-page confidential report that had recently been presented to it that con cluded that Wilkomirski had not been a Jewish orphan but a Swiss-born child named Bruno Doessekker.
The announcement, in which the publisher continued to refer to the author as Binjamin Wilkomirski, was made in a brief statement in what amounts to the public square of international publishing, the annual Frankfurt Book Fair, which draws more than 6,000 exhibitors annually. And it is likely that the Suhrkamp announcement will have a ripple effect since many of the other publishers of the book around the world had relied on the well-respected German publisher to vouch for Wilkomirski.
Wilkomirski did not respond to messages left for him at his home in Switzerland. But two people with knowledge of the report said that when he was confronted with its findings, he stood up and declared defiantly, "I am Binjamin Wilkomirski."
The frail, reclusive author has been immersed in an international controversy since a Swiss writer, Daniel Ganzfried, first raised doubts publicly last year about whether Wilkomirski was actually Jewish or even old enough to have witnessed the terrors of two concentration camps in Poland. The author described watching rats rummaging among the corpses and starving babies sucking their fingers to the bone.
In translations, the book's simple, searing language has reaped a number of honors like the National Jewish Book Award in the United States and the Prix Mémoire de la Shoah in France. Wilkomirski also toured the United States to deliver lectures in major cities sponsored by the Umited States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
But as the nagging doubts about his identity increased, Wilkomirski's Swiss agent, Eva Koralnik, decided to hire a Swiss historian, Stefan Mächler, to investigate the author's murky past. Mächler's preliminary report, six months in the making, includes new information from documents, which indicate that Wilkomirski was living in Switzerland and never left the country during the war years, a period when, he has said, he was struggling to survive in the camps of Majdnek and Auschwitz. A Swiss television station also reported this week that the historian had tracked down the author's living natural father.
A final report is still scheduled to be issued, Suhrkamp said, but there was enough troubling information to prompt the publisher to pull several hundred hardcover copies in circulation in German bookstores and to banish the title from the back list of its Jewish-interest publishing imprint, Jüdischer Verlag. Suhrkamp will continue to sell paperback versions until the final report comes out sometime in the next three weeks and the company makes what it says will be its ultimate conclusion.
"We are very disappointed to make this decision," said Nadine Meyer, the editor of Jüdischer. "We are sad about it and we feel sorry about it, but also have a responsiblity as a publisher."
Heide Grasnick, a spokeswoman for Suhrkamp, said the company did not condemn Wilkomirksi but rather felt sympathy for the author, who was raised by his adoptive parents in Switzerland and spent decades searching for his identity.
While awaiting a response from Wilkomirski, Ms. Grasnick said, the company decided to move right away to withdraw books published by Jüdischer because it now seemed inappropiate for a Jewish publishing imprint to be circulating the book.
"It's a problem," Ms. Grasnick said. "What do you do when you have an author who maintains that this is his identity and still believes it and there are these documents?" She added: "I feel pity for him because I know him personally. He's not a happy person."
In his book, first published in 1995, Wilkomirski portrayed himself as an orphaned young Latvian Jew despite Swiss legal records that indicated that he was born in Biel, Switzerland, in 1941 to an unmarried Swiss woman who was Christian, Yvonne Grosjean. He was later adopted by middle-class parents, the Doessekkers.
Publishers said that the report was the result of a rare formal contract among Wilkomirski; his literary agent, Ms. Koralnik, and Mächler, who struck an agreement to look at all of Wilkomirski's documentation. Mächler was given power of attorney to request private government documents.
As part of that contract, Wilkomirski has the right to review the report and to respond within the next 20 days, Ms. Grasnick of Suhrkamp said.
Ms. Koralnik started sharing the report with the book's various publishers this week. "It's the only way we can do this to bring an end to this matter," Ms. Koralnik said of her decision to commission a report. "So we decided that we owed something to the reader, to the publisher and everybody who read the book."
She declined to describe her own reaction to the report, but said, 'I think that the fact that the book was withdrawn speaks for itself."
Carol Janeway, Wilkomirski's American editor and translator for Schocken Books, an imprint of Alfred A. Knopf, said she had r eceived a copy of the preliminary report on Tuesday but would probably not take any action until after reading it. When doubts about the book were raised, Ms. Janeway defended it last November as "remarkable testimony" and said the publisher was not about to "vet every manuscript and every author on an adversarial basis."
Leon Stabinsky, the president of the California Association of Holocaust Survivors, said that Suhrkamp should have taken this latest step a long time ago because it had fielded early allegations from a former Swiss newspaper editor that the book was a work of fiction.
But the view was far from unanimous even among Holocaust survivors. Stabinsky formed his own group after splitting off from the Holocaust Child Survivors Group of Los Angeles, in part because of feuding over whether the book's author was telling the truth.
See A Holocaust Memoir in Doubt ( NYT, Nov. 3, 1998) and J ulie Salamon Reviews 'Fragments' ( NYT, January 12, 1997)
The New York Times, October 14, 1999.
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