A Holocaust memoir may be the latest example of a local literary tradition, writes Lisa Pryor.
WHEN an author invents a persona and fakes a memoir, it is usually easy to find a motivation: fame, riches, critical acclaim or a desire to hoodwink the literary establishment.
It is harder to find a rational explanation behind the strange tale of unravelling in Western Australia, where a cook on a mining site north of Kalgoorlie has paid at least $75,000 to make public the story of how he survived Auschwitz as a child.
With no signs of a German accent, no paperwork to prove his identity and no record to prove the number tattooed on his forearm is the work of Nazis, the credentials of Bernard Brougham, 69, looked precarious even before 500 copies of his book Stolen Soul were distributed to bookshops by the University of Western Australia Press earlier this year.
In the four years the publisher Judy Shorrock worked with Brougham, she did not doubt his claims that he was a German Jew kidnapped by the Nazis in 1944. And the Perth journalist believed him when he tearfully recounted stories of being experimented on by scientists, living with wolves, joining the Resistance and travelling to Australia as an orphan.
It was only once the book was published – under the name Bernard Holstein – that Shorrock received a phone call that changed everything.
“All of a sudden I got a call from a man in Sydney, claiming to be Bernard’s brother,” Shorrock says. “He said everything Bernard had told me over the course of the four years was a lie.” The book was pulled from the shelves and an investigation launched.
A private investigator found evidence that Bernard may have been born into a Catholic family on the North Coast of NSW, where his relatives still live, around the town of Valla, near Coffs Harbour.
The Brougham family – which has since refused to have anything to do with the scandal – presented Shorrock with childhood photographs, allegedly of Bernard, and explained that his infertility is the result of mumps as a child, not forced sterilisation by the Nazis.
Shorrock admits that with the benefit of hindsight, she should have checked the facts more carefully but says she expected Stolen Soul was mainly published for Brougham’s peace of mind and was only ever expected to sell 30 or 40 copies.
And how thoroughly should a publisher interrogate a distressed, elderly man who cries as he recounts his life, who suffers nightmares and flashbacks and is willing to deplete his savings to ensure his story is told?
Ben Korman, president of the Holocaust Institute of Western Australia, says those who encouraged Brougham were misguided rather than unscrupulous. But he says they could have done a better job of checking their facts, given that the Germans were notoriously meticulous in their documentation of the people they held captive.
“Also, most of those people have applied for reparations from the German Government and the German Government carefully checks the veracity of their claims,” Korman says.
Some Jews worry that, when stories like this are proved false, it can be fuel for anti-Semitic Holocaust deniers. And Korman says it can be damaging to real survivors of the Nazi death camps.
“I suppose you can get people like this coming out of the woodwork at any time, and I’m sure it offends Holocaust survivors,” he says.
Yet it is hard to understand what advantage Brougham could gain from such a deception. Even if his story proves to be untrue, in a way he is as much victim as perpetrator in this bizarre tale, spending thousands of dollars in his quest to have his story told.
A Perth resume writer charged him at least $50,000 to ghost write his memoirs, which resulted in an unsatisfactory draft.
Shorrock then found Brougham another ghost writer at a cost of $15,000. And Shorrock charged him another $5000 to co-ordinate and edit the story over two years.
On top of that, Brougham paid $5000 to have the book printed and published.
So why has he refused to take a DNA test to prove he is not related to the NSW family who claims him as theirs? And why has it been weeks since Shorrock has been able to contact him?
“I’m extremely disappointed that there’s a possibility that he’s not who he says he is because I never doubted him for a minute,” Shorrock says.