|“A Holocaust museum is built in Washington. Sixty-five million people watch ‘Schindler’s List.’ The German president apologizes to Israel. Then what can you say about these guys who say the Holocaust never happened? They’re a fringe movement of charlatans.” Michael Berenbaum
Wilkomirski and What it Means
Prof. Arthur Butz
The story of the impostor “Binjamin Wilkomirski” has been generally well known for almost two years, but new revelations were coming out as late as last fall. I think there are some aspects of it that deserve added stress and contemplation. There is more here than the tale of a con man being nabbed.
In 1996 a book appeared, authored by Binjamin Wilkomirski, entitled Fragments: Memories of a Childhood 1939-1948. It had been published the previous year, in its original German. In this book the author related that he was born a Jew in Latvia and was separated from his parents at age three, was sent to German concentration camps, to Majdanek, then Auschwitz, where he endured a living hell. Liberated at the end of the war, he was adopted by a Swiss family named Dössekker, from which he took the name Bruno Dössekker. His memoirs, which immediately won wide acclaim, were promoted by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and won the National Jewish Book Award for 1996. In France his book won the Prix Mémoirs de la Shoah, and in Britain the Jewish Quarterly literary prize.
Eventually his tale was supported by a woman named Laura Grabowski, who said she was also a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz and remembered Wilkomirski: “He’s my Binji, that’s all I know” she said.33 She had her own tale of suffering at Auschwitz at the hands of Josef Mengele and other Germans, and the scars to prove it. Wilkomirski and Grabowski went on lecture and concert tours individually and together.
Raul Hilberg appears to have been an early skeptic. Swiss Jewish journalist Daniel Ganzfried heard rumors that Wilkomirski’s story was not true. He investigated and determined that the Latvian Jew “Binjamin Wilkomirski” was actually a Swiss gentile, born on February 12, 1941, to an unwed Swiss mother named Yvonne Berthe Grosjean, and later adopted by the Dössekker family. He was never incarcerated at Auschwitz. Ganzfried’s expose was published in the Swiss weekly Weltwoche during August and September 1998. Wilkomirski subsequently refused to submit to a DNA comparison with Max Grosjean, Yvonne’s brother.34
Laura Grabowski was exposed as a fraud in October 1999 by the Christian magazine Cornerstone. Her real name was Laurel Rose Willson, born to Christian parents on August 14, 1941, in Washington state, and of course she was never incarcerated at Auschwitz. She had earlier written books under the name Lauren Stratford, claiming she had suffered ritual satanic abuse, citing the same scars which she later claimed were inflicted by Mengele. (The scars were apparently self-inflicted.) As such she appeared on talk shows such as Oprah to relate her ordeals. When she decided that she would also be Laura Grabowski, she transposed the stories of ritual satanic abuse to the new setting Auschwitz.35
An important observation is that the downfalls of Dössekker and Willson did not come about because their claimed experiences were determined to be phony. Though Ganzfried and others thought there was something fishy about Wilkomirski’s story in itself, for example, his claim that as a lone Jewish child, four years old, he was able to survive the “Holocaust,” they were nailed on the issue of identity. They are gentiles who were not in a German concentration camp during World War II; they only visited them years later.
They are contrasted for example to Elie Wiesel, who cannot be discredited on the basis of identity, since he is a Jew who was actually interned at Auschwitz. Against Wiesel’s concoctions society has yet to develop an effective defense, by listening to revisionists instead of its current leaders. Wilkomirski’s Fragments is no more or less plausible, in itself, than Wiesel’s Night. For example, Wiesel admitted in Chapter 5 that, when the Germans evacuated Auschwitz, he had the option of staying at the hospital, with his father registered as a patient, to await the Soviets. He chose rather to join the evacuation, taking his father with him, on a predictably difficult journey to another German concentration camp. That is as implausible as anything in Wilkomirski’s book if one is to believe Wiesel’s tale of the horrors inflicted by the Germans at Auschwitz. His story also has the claim, common among the “eye witnesses,” that the crematories at Auschwitz belched fumes from the chimneys (Ch. 3). Crematories do not operate that way, and such flames are not seen on any of the aerial photos of the camp. His claim to have seen piles of children being burned by the Germans at Auschwitz is lifted from the Talmud, with the Romans replaced by the Germans.36 I could go on and on about Wiesel’s absurdities, but I won’t. I recommend reading Faurisson’s 1993 leaflet about him.37 My point right now is that Wilkomirski was discredited only on the basis of identity. We can also observe that the Wilkomirski book shows that the filthy imagination that was required to create Elie Wiesel’s Night is not unique to Jews.
What I now want to focus on is the amazing obstinacy of many people in supporting these two, especially Wilkomirski, long after they had been exposed. After Ganzfried published his expose “he received several complaints from Jews who said that, even if Mr. Wilkomirski turns out not to be a survivor, Mr. Ganzfried is feeding the fires of those who deny the Holocaust.” Deborah Lipstadt, who used Wilkomirski’s book in her course at Emory University, said that if Wilkomirski is a phony it “might complicate matters somewhat. But [the book] is still powerful” as a novel.38
There was no attempt to rescind his National Jewish Book Award. Norman Finkelstein has discussed this phenomenon recently, recalling Elie Wiesel’s earlier obstinate loyalty to Jerzy Kosinsky long after his 1965 “basic Holocaust text,” The Painted Bird, was exposed as a fraud. (Kosinsky committed suicide in 1991, perhaps because his fraud had been exposed a few years before by Polish journalist Johanna Siedlecka.) Finkelstein noted that Yisrael Gutman, a director of the Yad Vashem center in Jerusalem, has said it isn’t important that the Wilkomirski yarn is a fraud: “Wilkomirski has written a story which he has experienced deeply; that’s for sure... he is not a fake. He is someone who lives this story very deeply in his soul. The pain is authentic.39 Another Yad Vashem official who defended the Wilkomirski book when the controversy erupted was Lea Balint.40 Bear in mind that Yad Vashem holds itself to be the central and official repository of “survivor” accounts.
Willson had her devoted friend and supporter in Jennifer Rosenberg, who ran the Holocaust web site www.holocaust.about.com as a counterweight to revisionist web sites. Grabowski-Willson befriended Rosenberg and helped her run the site. On her site Rosenberg related that, before she visited Auschwitz, Laura Grabowski gave her a pair of pink sandals to leave at the crematorium in memory of her childhood friend, Anna, who Laura said died there.
Rosenberg maintained her friendship with Laura for at least five months after Laura was exposed as a fraud, claiming that the imposture was unimportant and not being sure what to do about the posted story of the pink shoes.41
“Whether I can say this is true or not true, I would have to do my own research” Ms. Rosenberg says, and adds that she is too busy to do so. Of Laura, whom she still considers a friend, she says, “She’s a very sincere and sweet person.”
“If it isn’t real, and if Anna isn’t real, there are so many young children and babies who went through that... It really was a metaphor for the children. For Laura, it was for Anna. I did it for the children. When I did it I was obviously doing it for Anna, but seeing it there, it was also for all the children, the loss of life, what they should have had, could have had.”
“I don’t want to be involved in this... My main goal is to educate people on the Holocaust.” Ms. Rosenberg says she expends significant energy deleting messages with links to the sites of Holocaust deniers such as Mr. Irving and otherwise blocking correspondents who undermine the historical record. Postings to the bulletin board are not pre-screened, so sometimes a denier’s comments show up before she can remove them. To keep them away entirely, Ms. Rosenberg says, “I would have to have a 24-hour shift.”
Laura Grabowski knew that censoring the discussion would amount to more than a full time job (so) she said she volunteered to help Ms. Rosenberg monitor the discussion late at night, since she had insomnia. Ms. Rosenberg taught her how.
I think Rosenberg’s position is that “to educate people on the Holocaust” consists in suppressing revisionist views, and not being concerned about those views and stories that sound more or less like the usual yarns. Impostors and con-artists such as Wilkomirski and Grabowski are thus not seen as people “who undermine the historical record,” even after exposure. As for the web site, its url has been changed to http://history1900s.about.com. On 21 April I took the “Holocaust” link there and used the site’s search function to try to find mention of the pink shoes or Laura Grabowski but I couldn’t. I assume that mention of them has been deleted, and Rosenberg has finally lost her friend.
The most significant of all these obstinate friends is, I believe, the American Orthopsychiatric Association (the “Ortho”), an organization of psychiatrists who specialize in various forms of abuse and persecution, especially of children. In March 1999, about six months after Ganzfried’s expose, the Ortho announced that at its April 10 meeting it would honor Binjamin Wilkomirski with its Max A. Hayman award “to celebrate work done to increase our understanding of genocide and the Holocaust.” Naturally there was great controversy on the appropriateness of this award, both inside and outside the Ortho. Wilkomirski had the support of psychiatry professor Dori Laub, a scholar long associated with Yale’s Holocaust-testimony video archive. Laub argued that the award “re-establishes the priority of human experience and memory” over the written documentation preferred by historians, though the award leaves open the question of the authenticity of Wilkomirski’s account. There is no doubt that Wilkomirski’s work was “being taken seriously among therapists who treat Holocaust survivors,” and in fact Wilkomirski has worked “with Israeli psychiatrist Elitsur Bernstein in developing ‘an interdisciplinary therapy’ to treat such child survivors”; a paper by Wilkomirski and Bernstein was well received at a 1998 Holocaust conference at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. Ortho member Harvey Peskin, identified as “a Holocaust scholar and psychotherapist,” argued that Wilkomirski’s account can be accepted as true because it is “consistent with the memories of other child survivors and with the historical record.” Though Peskin conceded that Wilkomirski could be a phony he argued, and I think I am summarizing him right on this, that denunciation or rejection of Wilkomirski could discourage real Holocaust survivors from coming forward, and would be hurtful to them in any case. He wrote “such disparagement of witness gives comfort to a new revisionism that no longer attacks the truth of the Holocaust itself but only individual claims of survival” and Wilkomirski [is] then not only disbelieved, but [his] cause cannot be left standing:... to urge the child survivor’s recovery of forfeited personal identity through raveling a daunting trail of unforfeited Holocaust memory.42
Wilkomirski accepted the award at the April 10 meeting, to the standing applause of the attendees, the gist of whose reactions being that his memoirs are essentially true. Lea Balint of the Yad Vashem, an enthusiastic supporter from the beginning and faithful to the end, e-mailed Wilkomirski that “You deserve this award.”43 I apologize for repeating that Yad Vashem holds itself to be the central and official repository of “survivor” accounts, but the point is important, in view of the crucial role such testimonies play in supporting the legend. This was not the first time Yad Vashem got mud in its eye for publicly backing a phony, as it vouched for the witnesses who in 1987 testified in Israel to John Demjanjuk operating a gas chamber at Treblinka. Demjanjuk was later proved to have not been at Treblinka, and released in l993.44
Cynthia Ozick, a New York writer who has authored an anti-revisionist Holocaust play, The Shawl, which was not well received by critics,45 reacted to the award by declaring “If Mr. Wilkomirski is indeed a fabricator then to laud him is to take a stand – politically – on the side of those who insist that the Holocaust is a fabrication.”46 There is a partial truth in this. I accept the core of the analysis of the psychiatrists who supported the award, in the sense of agreeing that Wilkomirski’s account does indeed sound a lot like those of the “survivors” who have testified to atrocious German cruelties in the camps, though I would prefer to turn that around: the accounts of those survivors sound a lot like Wilkomirski’s. Because of the Ortho award, you now have that evaluation from a group of professional psychiatrists. Where that leaves the Holocaust peddlers, whose foundation is the accounts of “eye witnesses,” is obvious.
That is the first lesson to draw from the Wilkomirski episode that goes beyond a “tale of a con man being nabbed.” The second lesson relates to a question that I raised at the Adelaide conference in 1998. The immediate occasion was some remarks about Deborah Lipstadt that had been made earlier.47
Earlier today we heard of a concern from their camp that I have heard many times before. This time it was expressed by Deborah Lipstadt: the “survivors” are now dying off at such an alarming rate that it will soon be difficult to confound the revisionists. Such a view can only be advanced in hysteria, because of what it tacitly admits. No sane person would fear that, because all those alive at the time of the US Civil War are now dead, it will be difficult to confound those who might deny it happened. The defenders of the hoax have quite lost their grip on historical reality, and on what it means for something to happen in real time and real space.
Lipstadt has many times expressed the view of which I spoke.48 As there have been others, an example being Deborah Dwork, co-author with Van Pelt of a book on the history of Auschwitz and head of the Holocaust studies program at Clark University in Massachusetts.49 A related view was expressed by Berenbaum; his argument, that the Holocaust obviously happened, appeals only to well known events of the 90s. I classify these as related views because they imagine the “Holocaust” as something that exists more substantially in the present rather than the past. The Wilkomirski episode forces my thoughts to return to this point. Does our dispute with the defenders of the entrenched legend arise not over what happened, but over what it means for something to “happen”? Is the dispute metaphysical rather than historical? Or is it neither?
My question is urgently practical. If I must try to express in comprehensible terms the metaphysical principle suggested by Lipstadt and many of the defenders of Wilkomirski and Grabowski, I would say it is the idea that “happen” means something like “said, with emotion and apparent conviction, to happen,” or perhaps “believed fervently to have happened,” though both of these descriptions necessarily fall short, as I cannot empathize with the mentality involved. This interpretation is reinforced by the religious function played by the “Holocaust,” which many have observed. Religious faith is self-validating, impervious to reason, and regards proposals to scientifically validate its claims as profane in all senses of the word.
In the recent film about Fred Leuchter, the Jew Van Pelt expresses offense that, by entering the ruins of a crematorium at Auschwitz, Leuchter had transgressed on “the holy of holies.” That expression has a specific historical and liturgical meaning in Judaism as the “Kodesh Kadashim,” being the most sacred chamber housing the Ark of the Covenant in, while the Jews were wandering, the Tabernacle, and later in the Temple, and which only the high priest could enter.50 It is in that sense that one must interpret Elie Wiesel’s remark “Let the gas chambers remain closed to prying eyes, and to imagination.”51 The Temple and the Ark no longer exist; some act as though the ruins at Auschwitz can substitute. In any case, no revisionist would qualify as the high priest.
That might be considered a neat explanation of our differences with the promoters of the legend, but after some consideration I can’t accept it, at least not in its simplicity. For one thing, it is not simple. That I have given an interpretation in terms of religious myth may only seem to make the matter more familiar, but I think it has really made it more elusive. It is understood, of course, that I am not speaking here of the historical problems; I am only trying to understand our adversaries.
The complication is that we think of religion as universal and other worldly. Judaism, by contrast, is a tribal religion of this world, in which contention with gentiles is a major ingredient, both in practice and in myth (for example, their “cheerfully reported genocidal wars,” as Wilson puts it52). As Kevin MacDonald writes, Judaism is among other things “a group evolutionary (and) reproductive strategy that facilitates resource competition by Jews with the gentile host society.”53 We have nothing in our religious experiences that begins to resemble those of a Jew in relation to Judaism. I believe that, excluding from consideration some idiots, their idea of what it means for something to happen is about the same as ours, but there is a paucity of evidence for what they want to claim happened. As shown by the Laqueur book, the facts of the past do not support them, and they will avoid Laqueur’s path henceforth. However they do possess the present, politically. That is emphatically expressed in the Berenbaum outburst that opened this paper [“A Holocaust museum is built...”]. A cold calculation shows that a strong weapon in promoting the legend is bawling “survivors” who will not be challenged because to do so would only increase the hurt to them.54 Kosinsky and Wilkomirski may be frauds but, hey, we don’t want people to develop a habit of reading such writings critically. That concern simmered, not very well hidden, in the defense of the Ortho award to Wilkomirski. People may even start wondering about Elie Wiesel, as did Alfred Kazin, who accused Wiesel, Primo Levi and Jerzy Kosinsky “of ‘making a fortune off the Holocaust’ and inventing atrocities.”55 They may even start wondering about those Auschwitz alleged eye witness testimonies, and the Auschwitz legend doesn’t have much else.
A variation on the “survivor” is the person who claims to have lost relatives. Usually the right answer to their challenge “What happened to them?” is “I don’t know.” That should end the exchange. In rare cases it may be possible, over time, to nail a liar. The case of Leo Loafer in Dallas comes to mind, but even in that case the nailing could not have been accomplished in a verbal exchange between strangers.56
In many circumstances it is better to possess the present than the past, but the whole point of history is the past. That is what revisionists talk about.
Now I will close by rendering my simple opinion on the Wilkomirski controversy: both sides were right, and the revisionists are right as well. To see how this can be possible, consider in analogy the revisionist assessment of a not very hypothetical debate on whether or not Hitler knew of an extermination program, a controversy that David Irving started in 1977 with his Hitler’s War. One side says the evidence shows that Hitler did not know. The other side argues that events on the scale of the “Holocaust” would have to have become known by Hitler. The two sides can’t possibly agree because they are both right and know it. Only the revisionist can explain why there is no contradiction in saying both are right, but only provided it is understood that the revisionist is right.
If I may return to Laqueur, a similar seeming contradiction arose as a paradox, because the same man held what appeared to him to be two contradictory opinions: mass exterminations at Auschwitz were a “terrible secret,” and mass exterminations at Auschwitz could not have been kept secret. Only the revisionist sees that there is no contradiction. Laqueur is right on both counts, but of course given his preconceptions he was unable to resolve the contradiction and left the subject. Again, the revisionist resolves the seeming contradiction.
Consider the dispute over the wartime role of Pope Pius XII. One side says he did nothing against the “Holocaust.” The other side says he gave as much help as reasonably possible to the Jews. The dispute is illusory. Both sides are right, as is the revisionist, but only the revisionist has the key. There was no Holocaust for the Pope to act against.
Holocaust revisionism hovered constantly, usually in the background but there nevertheless, in the Wilkomirski controversy. Both sides were right, and of course the revisionists are right, with the new twist that the accusations hurled by the two sides explicitly accuse the other of helping the revisionists. One side says Wilkomirski is a phony; the other says his account emphatically sounds like those that have been accepted as authentic. The dispute is illusory. Both sides are right and so is the revisionist. All accounts comparable to Wilkomirski’s are phony. One side says Wilkomirski is an impostor, and defense of him helps the revisionists. The other side says that, even if Wilkomirski is an impostor, rejection of him stains and discourages survivor testimony generally, giving rise “to a new revisionism”; for reasons I have explained that also helps the old revisionism. Both sides are right; the revisionist case is advanced however one reacts to Wilkomirski’s fall after his brief dance in the ghoulish spotlight of Holocaustomania adulation.
Part of an address delivered on May 27, 2000 at the 13th IHR Conference in Irvine, California. Reproduced from The Journal of Historical Review, 19/6, November/December 2000.