continued from Part II
Out of the Frying Pan, Into Another Frying Pan
In the summer of 1997 a new face appeared at a support group called the Child Holocaust Survivors Group of Los Angeles. Laura Grabowski didn’t share much about her background at first (she was even reluctant to identify her country of origin, Poland). She said she had kept her past a secret from everyone throughout her life and was fearful of revealing it, but over several months she told members of the group a few stories about her time as a child inmate of Auschwitz.
Her parents died during the war, so after Auschwitz was liberated in January 1945, 5-year-old Laura was sent to an orphanage in Krakow. In 1950 she was adopted by a couple from Washington state.
Soon, Laura was so close to her fellow survivors that she referred to them as her new family. (1)
There were many gaps in Laura’s story. She never gave her birth name or the names of her parents, never explained how she came to be adopted by foreigners, never spoke of her other family members. She did, however, describe the experiments at Auschwitz in some detail. She could remember the doctors giving the children candy. She remembered Mengele injecting chemicals into her eyes, rendering her temporarily blind. She remembered the procedure that left her unable to bear children. (1)
There was nothing in Laura’s story that indicated falsehood up to this point. Roughly 3000 Polish children and teens were incarcerated at Auschwitz, and 52 of the liberated inmates were children under the age of 8. (4) Mengele did attempt to change the colour of the iris by injecting dyes into children’s eyes, and experimented with sterilization.
But Laura’s Mengele stories were problematic. His subjects were mostly children with disabilities or unusual traits, and very few of them were allowed to live. As the above numbers show, most of the Polish children were murdered or died of disease. (5)
There were other not-so-subtle hints that Laura’s story was fabricated. She posted this to an online Holocaust survivor forum called H-HOLOCAUST: “For myself, the Holocaust is about individual suffering… And if some call themselves survivors who are not survivors in any sense of the word, does this upset the whole survivor movement? I think not.” (1)
Meanwhile, historian Jennifer Rosenberg set up an About.com page to share her Holocaust research. Shortly before she traveled to Auschwitz in 1998, she was contacted by Laura, a frequent visitor to the site who used the screen name Child Survivor. She asked Rosenberg to place a pair of pink sandals at the death camp to commemorate her friend Ana, a little girl who died there.
Rosenberg did so, and said Kaddish for Ana and others. As she wrote on her website, the tiny shoes were a poignant reminder of how young and innocent some of the victims had been, bringing the darkness of Auschwitz into sharp relief for her and other members of her tour group. (3)
Laura befriended another frequent visitor to Rosenberg’s website, Monika Muggli, and the two began an e-mail correspondence. Laura told Muggli she was desperately ill with a rare blood disorder. While she still could, she wanted to travel to Los Angeles in April 1998 to meet Binjamin Wilkomirski, a fellow child survivor of Auschwitz whose widely-acclaimed memoir, Fragments, had been published in 1995. (3)
Wilkomirski, born in 1941, had been just two or three years old when he entered the camps. His memories of that time were repressed until he entered psychotherapy as a middle-aged adult and began “recovering”. The memories he recovered were fragmentary and mysterious, so he wrote his memoir from the perspective of a young, confused child. Tanks became “big gray monsters”, and the inmates’ uniforms became pajamas. (2)
Laura and Wilkomirski had been corresponding since the previous year, and could recall meeting each other in Auschwitz and in a Krakow orphanage.
Their experiences had been stunningly similar. They were the same age. They had both been adopted by Christians after the war, and raised away from their countries of origin. They had both been victims of Mengele, and both suffered blood diseases they believed to be caused by the medical experiments. Binjamin could vividly recall Laura’s white-blonde hair (their heads had not been shaved, leading Binjamin to conclude they were probably unregistered inmates). They compared notes and realized they both had their coccyx bones broken by the camp doctors. They had so much to share.
Sadly, Laura’s California doctors said she must fly first-class to make sure she received the attention her fragile condition required, and she simply couldn’t afford the airfare to L.A.
Muggli promptly sent $1000 to her American friend. (3)
The meeting between two child survivors drew international media attention. The BBC recorded a concert held at a Beverly Hills synagogue on April 19 (Holocaust Remembrance Day), in which Mr. Wilkomirski played his clarinet and Laura Grabowski sang an original piece, “Ode to the Little Ones”. Incredibly, though they had met only briefly 50 years earlier, Binjamin recognized Laura on sight. He movingly described how he was sitting disconsolately in the mud, believing himself to be the last child in the camp, when white-haired Laura and her little friend Ana appeared hand-in-hand.
Laura admitted she didn’t remember Binjamin right away, but eventually realized he was the boy known as “Andrzej”. She told the BBC, “He’s my Binje, that’s all I know.”
A local Jewish newspaper noted that Wilkomirski was helping his long-lost friend reconstruct her half-remembered childhood memories, her own “fragments”. (3)
Somehow, Jon Trott or the Passantinos learned that Laura Grabowski could be Laurel Willson/Lauren Stratford. This was quickly confirmed. Documents signed by Grabowski included Laurel’s Social Security number and address, and in one letter Laura signed her name “Laura Stratford-Grabowski”. As mentioned in Part I of this post, Grabowski was the maiden name of Laurel’s mother, Rose Willson. Anton and Rosalio Grabowski emigrated from Poland in the 1890s. They were lifelong Catholics.
The three writers also compared signatures of Laura and Laurel, finding them nearly identical. Photos of Laura showed a distinct resemblance to old photos and film footage of Lauren Stratford.
The Cornerstone team learned that Stratford/Grabowski had applied to the World Jewish Restitution Organization. An anonymous source told them that in ’98 and ’99 Jewish Family Services made 24 disbursements to Grabowski, totaling $2,188. (1)
Laurel Willson was born in St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tacoma, Washington in 1941, and the Willsons began adoption proceedings within days of her birth. She did not live in Poland until the age of 10. In fact, she had never left the U.S. at all. The entire story was a fantasy. Family photos provided to the Cornerstone researchers by Laurel’s sister, Willow, show Willow and Laurel together as little girls. In one photo, they pose with a group of nuns.
In her books, Lauren/Laurel said she was abused from the age of four by her mother, Satanists, pedophiles, and child pornographers. She gave detailed descriptions of her life in Washington before the age of 10, descriptions that evangelistic Christians like Johanna Michaelsen and Hal Lindsey found highly convincing. Those stories were not true, and the Holocaust stories of “Laura Grabowski” were not true.
The Holocaust survivor community that had become Laura’s family didn’t know how to respond to the revelation that she was a Gentile who had never lived abroad. Jen Rosenberg told Forward magazine she didn’t want to deal with the issue at all. (3)
And what of Laura’s long-lost friend from Auschwitz, Binjamin? As you may know, he was also a fraud. In August 1998, the Swiss news magazine Weltwoche published an article by writer Daniel Ganzfried, laying out evidence that Wilkomirski was really a Swiss Gentile by the name of Bruno Grosjean. Grosjean had remained in Switzerland throughout the war, and was never in a Polish orphanage. His father was not killed in Latvia. He never knew his father. His mother did not die in the camps. (2)
Wilkomirski initially responded to the allegations by explaining he had been given the name of a Christian boy, Bruno, after the war. This satisfied many of his admirers. (2)
However, Ganzfried’s findings were confirmed a year later by Stefan Machler, the historian hired by Wilkomirski’s literary agency. He uncovered still more damning information: When Yvonne Grosjean died in 1981, Bruno contested her will because he knew he was her illegitimate child.
More damning still was Bruno’s “recognition” of Laura Grabowski, a woman who had never been in Auschwitz.
DNA tests conducted in 2002 showed that Bruno Grosjean’s biological mother, Yvonne, and “Wilkomirski” were indeed mother and son. There is absolutely no question that “Binjamin” the Latvian Holocaust survivor was really Bruno Grosjean, born 1941 in Switzerland and adopted by the Dössekker family of Zurich in 1948. (3)
It is quite obvious that Laurel Willson mined Fragments for information about the Holocaust. She placed herself in a Krakow orphanage, just like Wilkomirski.
Of the two hoaxes perpetrated by Laurel Willson, this one was probably more damaging. Though short-lived in relation to her Satanic cult hoax, it defrauded at least one organization that could have been assisting a real Holocaust survivor. And like other Holocaust memoir hoaxes, it has been used by Holocaust deniers to argue that all such memoirs are fictional.
The stories of Lauren Stratford and Binjamin Wilkomirski were known to be “recovered memories”. While there are indications that traumatic memories can sometimes be forgotten and spontaneously recalled, this would seem to be an exception to the rule; most memories of traumatic events are consciously recalled. For this reason alone, those eager to promote their stories should have verified them to the greatest possible extent before making them public.
This entire sad affair mirrors the meeting between Eugenia Smith, a woman who pretended to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, and Mikhail Goleniewsky, a man who pretended to be the Tsarevtch Alexei. The two “siblings” instantly recognized each other. Later, as their credibility eroded, both denounced the other as a fraud.
The End of the Underground
Lauren Stratford never publicly responded to the exposure of her Holocaust imposture. Nor did she recant any of her Satanic testimony, though the two overlapping accounts wildly contradicted each other. No evidence ever surfaced to validate either version of her life story, so her former supporters quietly backed away from Satan’s Underground.
None of the people who helped promote Lauren’s story have expressed regret for failing to verify even the most basic details before presenting her terrifying tales to the public.
Lauren Stratford passed away in California in April 2002. To my knowledge, she remained estranged from her adoptive family to the end of her life.
It is now generally accepted that the woman known as Laurel Willson, Lauren Stratford, and Laura Grabowski confabulated her stories of Satanism and Holocaust survival. There are only a few diehards who insist Satan’s Underground was factual, like Satanic ritual abuse survivor Gregory Reid. As late as 2002, Reid defended the veracity of Lauren’s account and hinted that the Cornerstone writers were complicit in a cover-up of the “real” story. He brought no evidence to the table.
Examing how and why Satan’s Underground came to be, and why it affected so many people, offers us invaluable lessons about critical thinking. If only Joanna Michealsen, Hal Lindsey, Pat Robertson, Oprah Winfrey, Geraldo Rivera, and the other SRA advocates of the late ’80s had learned them…
1. “Lauren Stratford: From Satanic Ritual Abuse to Jewish Holocaust Survivor” by Bob and Gretchen Passantino and Jon Trott. Cornerstone magazine. Vol. 28, Issue 117 (October 1999).
2. The Wilkomirski Affair: A Study in Biographical Truth by Stefan Machler (Random House, 2001)
3. A Life in Pieces: The Making and Unmaking of Binjamin Wilkomirski by Blake Eskin (W.W. Norton, 2002)
4. The “Children in Auschwitz” page of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and State Museum website
5. Mengele: The Complete Story by Gerald Posner and John Ware (McGraw-Hill, 1986)