Mistaken identities

An Aids sufferer whose symptoms were fake. A Holocaust victim who was never in a death camp. What dr

It is only a small book, but everyone who has read Fragments agrees that it makes a big impact. First published here in 1996, it was widely and favourably reviewed, variously described as "morally important" and "profoundly moving". It has won awards and acclaim worldwide. Fragments is the exquisite though harrowing account of a childhood ripped apart by the Holocaust. The author, Binjamin Wilkomirski, was two or three years old when he was brutally separated from his family in Riga. He was taken to Majdanek concentration camp, where he witnessed, endured and somehow survived the most terrifying ordeals. After the war, he ended up in an orphanage in Switzerland and was eventually adopted by a Swiss couple, who showed no understanding of what he had been through. They demanded that he stifle all knowledge of his former life.

Wilkomirski recounts his horrific experiences in a fluid, shifting narrative related as if through the child's eyes. The "fragments" of the title refer not only to Wilkomirski's memories but also to the scraps of an identity that he must tentatively extract from the wreckage of his childhood in order to create a sense of who he is.

Since the publication of his memoirs, Wilkomirski has become a celebrity on the Holocaust circuit, speaking the world over on behalf of child survivors. Recently, however, the question of who Binjamin Wilkomirski actually is has become the subject of controversy. In the most recent issue of Granta magazine, the writer Elena Lappin claims in a meticulous investigation that Wilkomirski, in both person and name, is an invention. He is not from Latvia. He was never anywhere near a Polish death camp. He is not even Jewish.

In fact he spent his entire childhood and youth within the neutral borders of Switzerland. He was born Bruno Grosjean in 1941 in Biel; his mother was unmarried and poor, and her son was placed in care as a baby. In 1945 he was fostered by a wealthy Swiss couple from Zurich, who later officially adopted him. When they died in 1986, they left him a significant inheritance.

Lappin is not the first person to uncover the "truth" about Wilkomirski. A Swiss Jew, Daniel Ganzfried, revealed the existence of Bruno Grosjean in 1998. It was after reading his expose in a Swiss magazine that Lappin decided to explore the story herself. "Truth is something I revere in any context and this is a deeply dishonest act," she tells me. "Here is someone who has invented an identity for himself out of other people's heritage." Lappin explains that she wasn't interested in making a case for or against Holocaust victims. "But I wanted to know what would make a man claim to be a Holocaust victim when he wasn't."

Ten years ago I found myself grappling with a similar question. In the summer of 1989 I was approached by a mainstream London publisher to ghost-write the story of a young woman called Leilah. She was neither a drug user nor promiscuous, but her boyfriend was bisexual and she had been diagnosed as HIV-positive. At that time Aids had just hit the consciousness of the general public, and the heterosexual western world was reeling. Publishers were eager for books on the subject, and this publisher was no exception. Leilah seemed the perfect candidate.

Over the next three months, we met every week. Leilah was distressed and frightened; her moods swung from manic excitement to near-catatonic gloom. Her personal life was in turmoil: she often slept on people's floors and moved house four times in as many weeks. She was sometimes vague about details that I thought were important, but it seemed indecent to press her too hard. Although the publishers were keen to portray the 19-year-old Leilah as an average teenager, her background was anything but average. She was the daughter of Palestinian Muslims, and her family had moved to London in the 1970s after her father was killed by a bomb in Beirut. Her mother had died of cancer soon afterwards, and she had been brought up by an older brother and his wife. Leilah certainly had been suffering for a long time before she became HIV-positive. Counselling, she told me, was one of "the best things about being positive", because it was helping her to understand her past.

I felt sympathy for Leilah, but I didn't warm to her. I often wondered about her mental stability. Her commitment to the book, however, was impressive. Unreliable in other ways, she unfailingly kept our appointments, arriving punctually or even early. She often brought along supplementary material: letters from her sister, a poem from a friend, a supportive note from a nurse. She talked about a diary she was keeping, which she wanted incorporated into the manuscript. Occasionally I had qualms about the entire project, wondering if the publishers and I were guilty of exploiting her suffering. As it turned out, she was exploiting us.

We met for the last time in October. As we parted, she gave me the diary. On the train home, I opened it with a sense of curiosity and apprehension. Why the apprehension I don't know, but I was hardly prepared for what I found. The diary was empty. She had not written a single word. I remember turning the blank pages in disbelief. Not one word. What did it mean? By that stage, I didn't want to know what it might mean.

Three more weeks and the manuscript was complete. The publishers were thrilled. Then two days later I heard from the editor. She'd just had a call from the director of one of the organisations that Leilah had joined, to say that in her view Leilah was " not for real". The publishers needed to see Leilah's letter of diagnosis. I had never seen such a letter; neither, it turned out, had they. From that point on, Leilah's story unravelled faster than a badly knit jumper. In retrospect it seemed surprising that it had held together for so long. The inconsistencies still looked like symptoms of distress, but not in the way any of us had thought.

Under pressure, Leilah went to ground. A week later she appeared again, fencing furiously, firing off angry letters about trust and betrayal. Eventually she produced a letter from her consultant, an obvious forgery.

Leilah's deception left me shocked, angry and humiliated. How could she have done such a thing? How could she have abused the trust of so many people? And why? Why would anyone want to pretend to be HIV-positive?

The more I reflected on Leilah's deception, the more it intrigued me. While the literal truth of her story was non-existent, the symbolic truth of it was not hard to see. Culturally an outsider, she had found for herself a community of outsiders. A victim of male sexuality, she had found a community of victims. Bereft of at least one parent, she had found a community in which to grieve, one in which everyone had to live with death. She craved attention, and she'd got it. Other people's "facts" fitted her "truth". For Leilah it had taken only a small step to believe that her truth was fact.

The same could be said of Binjamin Wilkomirski. Lappin's investigation thoughtfully substantiates the evidence against his being who he says he is; but does it get any closer to the "truth" about him? Israel Gutman, a leading historian and survivor of the Holocaust, while doubting the veracity of Wilkomirski's story, nevertheless told Lappin: "He is someone who lives this story very deeply in his soul. The pain is authentic."

Leilah also lived her story deeply. She suffered from night sweats, oral thrush, swollen glands and chest infections. She lost weight, missed periods, underwent blood tests and examinations. She received counselling from the London Lighthouse and joined several support groups. All the while, she was shoring up her fantasy life with hard facts. She immersed herself in gay literature and culture. She insinuated herself into the lives of several homosexual men who were dying from Aids, sat at their hospital bedsides, attended their funerals and embraced their grieving relatives.

Wilkomirski was similarly well-endowed with information: he had a private library of some 2,000 books on the Holocaust, which he'd been amassing for years before he went public with his own Holocaust story.

Dishonesty is a spectrum of behaviour and we are all perched somewhere upon it. What makes Binjamin Wilkomirski and Leilah so intriguing is not just the deception they practised on others, but the deception they practised on themselves. At some level, some of the time, Leilah believed she was HIV-positive. At no time did she ever admit to inventing her story. Wilkomirski, too, according to Lappin, didn't just want other people to think he was a Holocaust survivor; he desperately wanted to believe it himself. Despite all the evidence that now stands against him, Wilkomirski's position remains that "whoever Bruno Grosjean may have been, he, Wilkomirski, was and is not him".

The psychiatrist Anthony Storr writes about self-delusion on this scale in Feet of Clay, his study of gurus. As Storr points out, delusional systems have a positive function. "They make sense of a chaos within, and also preserve the subject's self-esteem. They are a creative solution to the subject's problems, albeit a creative solution which does not stand up to critical examination." When delusions surface in physical symptoms, the condition is called Munchausen's syndrome. Sufferers of Munchausen's are so convinced and convincing that they will repeatedly endure surgery for medical conditions that cannot be cured because they do not exist. On one occasion, Leilah said, "Maybe they'll test me again in ten years' time and I won't be HIV-positive any more." At the time, I thought she was expressing a fantasy, not a way out of one.

There's no business like Shoah business, wrote one critic of Martin Amis's novel Time's Arrow. And certainly feelings about truth and lies, fact and fiction, run higher in this context than any other. These ambiguities spiral tightly around Fragments. "It's only a fraud if you call it non- fiction," the American publisher told Lappin. "Maybe it's not true - then he's a better writer."

Peter Straus at Picador, the London publisher, adopts a similar line. "It is still a worthy addition to the body of Holocaust literature," he tells me. "It's full of veracity. You can still read it and be moved by it. Memoir is not non-fiction, it's memoir." Picador has no plans to withdraw the book, nor at this stage to remove "memoir" from the cover. As a precaution, however, a foreword for the next edition has been commissioned from a Swiss historian.

But for some the expose of another sham Holocaust memoir will only confirm the view that all fictional accounts of the Holocaust are suspect, undermining the value of authentic testimonies and, at worst, leading to Holocaust denial. Elena Lappin believes that somewhere within Fragments is buried another story, with historical importance of its own. "This is not a Holocaust story; it's a Swiss story," she says. "It is about a man trying to break out of the stifling society that he grew up in."

Dr Jonathan Steinberg, reader in modern history at Cambridge University and an authority on wartime Switzerland, considers this a plausible theory. "Swiss society at that time was very bourgeois, very conventional, very materialistic, closed." In addition, Steinberg points out that identity is a sensitive issue for the Swiss. "There is a big question about who you are if you're Swiss. There is no obvious national identity. You write in one language, speak in another. If you speak German too well, you're a poser, if you don't speak it well enough, you're uneducated. All the great modern literature from Switzerland is about issues of identity."

People such as Wilkomirski and Leilah force us to confront important questions, one of which is about the publishing industry and its responsibilities to readers. Equally significant and discomforting is what these two cases reveal about the attractions of victimhood. Or rather, the attraction of certain forms of victimhood. Lappin's expose of Wilkomirski makes us think about the most fundamental social contract we have, namely trust. From the politically charged, globally problematic matter of ethnicity to the identity of people we meet in our daily lives (like that nice builder from Gloucester, for example), we trust that people are who they say they are - a form of trust that we take utterly for granted most of the time.

So are people such as Wilkomirski and Leilah individuals whose sense of self has been so damaged that they deserve our profoundest sympathy? Or are they unscrupulous exploiters who do violence to those unwittingly enmeshed in their fantasies? Leilah abused the trust of people working with Aids sufferers, as well as of people dying of the disease. How much sympathy does that deserve? If Lappin is right, Wilkomirski has aped anguish that millions of others endured in reality. If his story is an invention, particularly if it is a conscious invention, as Lappin believes, it becomes not just morally dubious, but deeply repugnant.

This article first appeared in the 28 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Buy your home and kill a job