Holocaust Seekers

Online, a Tangled Web

When Jen Rosenberg first started searching for information about the Holocaust on the World Wide Web, she found a lot of dubious and intentionally misleading pages. “You were more likely to come up with a denier or revisionist web site,” she says, which “looked more professional sometimes.”

So Ms. Rosenberg, who has worked as a fact-checker for reference books about the Holocaust, began her own site under the umbrella of About.com, a Web company that has hundreds of sites “led by expert guides” on subjects from cancer to crocheting. Ms. Rosenberg told the Forward that she wanted her Holocaust education and discussion site “to have real information. I wanted people to know that it is accurate.”

The Web site, www.holocaust.about.com, provides links to survivors’ associations and Holocaust museums. It has a forum for discussions of the Holocaust, with a special section devoted to answering questions from schoolchildren. It also includes original content, such as Ms. Rosenberg’s report on her visit to Auschwitz, where, at the request of a survivor named Laura, she left a pair of pink plastic sandals in memory of Anna, Laura’s friend who died there.

After depositing the shoes at the crematorium, Ms. Rosenberg recited the Kaddish in memory of Anna and others who died. The gesture moved others in her tour group to tears. As Ms. Rosenberg describes it, “The little pink shoes, a symbol of innocence and childhood, contrasted so greatly with the concrete crematorium, a symbol of death and destruction. How sharp the realization of the reality of the victims and the shocking truth of the horror.”

In its retelling on the World Wide Web, the story of two young friends, one living and one dead, conveys a sense of the suffering and loss experienced by the youngest victims of the Holocaust. Ms. Rosenberg identifies her “very good friend” Laura as a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau who underwent medical experiments. The only hitch is that numerous photographs and documents, as well as the statements of her own sister, place Laura in America during the war, which means she could not have known any such Anna.

The innovations in form brought about by the Web — inexpensive, global distribution of data and inexpensive and pseudonymous electronic dialogue — have put more information at the disposal of the public. The Internet has made it easier for virtual global communities to develop. This goes for Holocaust deniers as well as for those who could perhaps be called Holocaust seekers, people of various backgrounds with a passionate if sometimes ill-defined affinity for the subject. This formal revolution should not be mistaken for progress in the area of content.

Finding reliable information on the Web is, if anything, more of a challenge now than it was when Ms. Rosenberg started the About.com site as a counterweight to misinformation sites like the one run by David Irving, the Holocaust skeptic who is suing historian Deborah Lipstadt for libel in England. Early, self-styled Web experts who hung out a shingle on the Web have been joined and in some cases eclipsed by corporate-sponsored experts whose affiliated brand is trumpeted by hefty advertising budgets. Familiarity and easy access, however, do not add up to authority, and new-media sources should feel the same responsibility to the truth as old-media ones.

Of course, the old media aren’t perfect either: I stumbled upon Laura’s story in my investigation of the story behind “Fragments,” a Holocaust memoir by a Swiss clarinetist called Binjamin Wilkomirski which was published in 1995 despite warnings about its inauthenticity and withdrawn four years later. Laura shares memories of the camps with the author of “Fragments”; he said that he, too, remembered little Anna. When his bona fides were first called into question, Laura was asked to help. She wrote that she could not corroborate his story “fact wise,” only “with memories of the heart.”

According to her birth certificate, Laurel Willson was born in Buckley, Washington on August 14, 1941. Her birth mother and her adoptive parents were practicing Christians. Her adoptive mother’s father was Anton Grabowski, a Polish Catholic who emigrated in the 1890s and was buried in Tacoma. In 1943, a church ceremony was held in which her life was dedicated to Jesus. In a photo album, Laurel Willson appears at regular intervals with her sister and her classmates at school in Washington. There are dozens of photographs taken before 1950, the year in which, Laura said, she was smuggled here from Poland.

Not only that, Laura has a long history of giving lurid and questionable personal testimony about victimization and survival. Beginning in the 1980s, she wrote a trilogy of memoirs under the name Lauren Stratford in which she tells unverifiable tales of witnessing secret murders, embodying multiple personalities and enduring sexual abuse at the hands of pornographers and Satanists. During the epidemic of reported Satanic ritual abuse, which peaked in the 1990s, she appeared on “Oprah” and other national talk shows. She drew particular attention from fundamentalist Christian television and radio, which did not fade after a team of evangelical Christian investigative reporters combed through Lauren Stratford’s first autobiography, “Satan’s Underground,” and found that it was contradicted by a prodigious amount of information.

As “Laura Grabowski, child survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau,” she described the candy jars she saw in the laboratory of the Nazi doctors who gave her injections. Laura Grabowski found acceptance in a Los Angeles support group for Holocaust survivors who were children during the war. The members of the group, now in their 60s and 70s, were incarcerated in camps or lived in hiding, and some of them lack a complete knowledge of their family history or the necessary documentation to apply successfully to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany for compensation. Several former members of the support group told the Forward that, though they were accustomed to meeting survivors who had an incomplete knowledge of their own history, Laura, when she introduced herself to the group, was unusually vague about her background and reticent about sharing basic details such as her country of origin.

Laura befriended other regular visitors to the About.com Holocaust web site, where she participated in discussions under the generic handle, “Child Survivor.” Among the frequent visitors to this electronic bulletin board was Monika Muggli, who lives outside Munich. The two never met face to face, but Lauren, as she called herself in their e-mail correspondence, told Ms. Muggli that their friendship enabled her to trust Germans again. For her part, Ms. Muggli, who evinces a profound shame over her country’s Nazi past, sent Lauren $1,000 so she could visit Mr. Wilkomirski (Lauren told Ms. Muggli in an e-mail that her doctor had ordered her to fly first-class) and later another $150 toward treatment of a rare blood disorder she developed as a result of the Nazi experimentation. (In her memoirs of Satanic ritual abuse, Lauren Stratford claimed she suffered from a rare blood disorder.) Ms. Muggli was not the only one to subsidize Laura Grabowski. In Los Angeles, Laura received funds from Jewish Family Services that had been designated for needy Holocaust survivors. According to one source familiar with the situation, the charity made 24 disbursements to her totaling $2,188.73 between April 1998 and March 1999, to pay for food, medicine and even car repairs.

Although Laura Grabowski repeatedly protested, to Ms. Muggli and others, that she wanted to shield her identity, her story became public. She performed a concert with Mr. Wilkomirski at a Los Angeles synagogue for which she composed an “Ode to the Little Ones;” that concert was taped by the BBC. She told Ms. Muggli that she was apprehensive about being videotaped, but in fact she had already identified herself as a child Holocaust survivor on the Internet. With Ms. Rosenberg’s help, she published “We Are One,” a manifesto in poem form proclaiming the unity and equality of all child survivors of the Holocaust (“None of use are any less or any more than our/ Holocaust siblings”).

In the same spirit, Laura Grabowski joined a debate, on an Internet-based mailing list for academics called H-Holocaust, over who should be considered a Holocaust survivor. Some participants proposed limiting the category — an individual who, say, left Europe before the outbreak of war might not be entitled to that label — but Laura Grabowski thought otherwise. “I think we need to be sensitive to all who consider themselves as survivors of the Holocaust,” she wrote. “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.”

Lauren Stratford did not reply to a letter the Forward sent to her last known address, asking her to reconcile her eyewitness testimony of Birkenau with the information placing her in America during World War II. Nor did she respond to an e-mail sent to the address where Ms. Muggli wrote to her.

Ms. Rosenberg has been aware for months that Laura Grabowski’s Holocaust past may be a lie — the same reporters who exposed Lauren Stratford a decade ago published a follow-up expose, and the BBC documentary film aired in America late last year — but she says she hasn’t figured out what to do about her description of the pink shoes at Auschwitz on the About.com Holocaust site. “Whether I can say this is true or not true, I would have to do my own research.” Ms. Rosenberg says, and adds 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,” Ms. Rosenberg went on. “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.” In other words, Ms. Rosenberg believes her mission at Auschwitz was emotionally honest, even if it was based on a historical fiction.

“I don’t want to be involved in this,” Ms. Rosenberg protested. “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. In an e-mail to Ms. Muggli in Germany, she said she volunteered to help Ms. Rosenberg monitor the discussion late at night, since she had insomnia. Ms. Rosenberg taught her how.


The Forward
March 17, 2000