Solly Ganor survived the death camp at Dachau. But at 79, he doesn't know if he will survive what an odd Holocaust Web site, run by a Jewish refugee in Massachusetts, has done to his reputation.
Ganor, who lives in Israel, wrote a well-received memoir in 1995 -- "Light One Candle: A Survivor's Tale." He began lecturing about his experience in schools in the United States, Israel, Europe and Japan.
But for the last couple of years, if you run a Google search on "Solly Ganor," one of the top results is a page from ISurvived.org operated by Kalman K. Brattman in the Boston suburb of Malden. "Solly Ganor Case of Credibility and Deceit," it reads, "questioning his claims and representation of the Holocaust and his alleged autobiographical book."
At Ganor's appearances, students began asking whether he was, as a Google search suggested, a fraud.
"I feel like the character in Kafka's `The Trial,"' Ganor says -- hounded and helpless.
With the Internet, the world entered a new information age of thrilling speed, breadth and openness, but also, sometimes, of Kafkaesque menace. It once was nearly impossible to ruin another person's reputation in every corner of the globe without spending an awful lot of money. Not anymore.
Ganor's story is a cautionary tale of this changing geography. Here is the enhanced capacity of a single savvy individual to spread insinuation in ways that gain authority with a mass audience inclined to believe that where Google shows smoke, there must be fire. Here, too, is the tremendous imbalance of power between those for whom the Internet is home and those for whom it is a strange and scary place.
"The Internet is like the Wild West," Ganor says. "It seems like there are not any rules at all."
Googling "Solly Ganor" returns some 10,000 results in an instant. But what really matters is what comes up on the first page. A shadow of doubt is cast, and the damage is done.
A click on the link to ISurvived plunges you into a tome by the site's "managing editor," there identified as K.K. Brattman. It is a scattershot assault intended to tatter Ganor's credibility.
Why did Ganor change his name? (Many Jewish emigres to Israel did.) What's his real age? (He learned belatedly that he is a year older than the year used in his book.) How could he know so many languages? (He spoke Lithuanian, Russian, German, Yiddish and some English.) How could he have kept a diary in the Kovno, Lithuania, ghetto? (Ganor says he disposed of it when he arrived in the first of two concentration camps; he reconstructed it after the war.)
Plunked in the middle of the diatribe, next to a huge exclamation mark, is a stunning disclaimer: "Let us begin by noting that we have no direct evidence of any sort on Solly Ganor." What you are reading, Brattman writes, "is but our opinion for what it's worth."
Ganor considered suing, but was told it could prove expensive and futile. He complained to the major Internet search engines. If ISurvived didn't rank so high in their results, the fulminations it contains would be distant cries in the cyber-wilderness.
Google advised Ganor to file a "spam report" if he thought Brattman was gaming their algorithms, which calculate rankings based on a Web page's links to other pages pertinent to a given search. But he should be specific: Did he suspect Brattman of using deceptive redirects, doorway pages, hidden texts, or misleading or repeated words?
Google software engineer Matt Cutts looked at ISurvived and saw no evidence of any deceptive practice intended to fool the company's Web crawler. If Google, with its motto "Don't be evil," doesn't screen out character assassins, what then?
"The wonderful thing about the Web," Cutts responds, "is that anybody can put their own message out there. The answer to bad speech is more speech."
Who is Kalman Brattman?
Born May 1, 1944, he escaped Romania in 1969 after graduating first in his class from the University of Bucharest, where he studied astronomy.
And while Brattman hasn't had to confront Solly Ganor in court, he has experience with the American legal system.
In 1979, acting as his own counsel, he was convicted of assaulting a college student with intent to rape. Court records show Brattman pulled a stranger into his Harvard Square apartment and began attacking her until, frantic, she told him she didn't believe in premarital sex. He let her go.
Again representing himself, Brattman overturned the verdict on appeal, because the judge had misdefined "rape." Brattman was subsequently retried, and in 1982 found guilty of assault. He was given a six-month suspended sentence.
Now in Malden, he is president of NatureQuest, a foundation that publishes ISurvived and other Web sites and which, according to year after year of filings with the IRS, has no money coming in or going out.
ISurvived is mostly a compendium of Holocaust information built through links to hundreds of reputable Holocaust archives and Jewish education sites -- links that may help account for its strong ranking on search engines. The one section bearing Brattman's personal imprint is the "Holocaust Controversy Page," on which "we present `sensitive' and controversial issues with respect to the Holocaust as we filter certain conventional representations of the Holocaust."
For Brattman, the consuming controversy of recent years was an effort to honor the late American diplomat Hiram Bingham IV for his role in helping Jews escape Vichy France. Brattman considers Bingham unworthy, and launched a campaign to deny him a U.S. postage stamp and recognition at Yad Vashem, the official Holocaust memorial in Israel.
First he attacked members of Bingham's family, whom he charged were using "distorted and fabricated evidence" to make their case. Then he trained his sights on Eric Saul, an established Holocaust curator and researcher, whose Visas for Life project documents how diplomats from many nations, Bingham among them, aided Jews fleeing Hitler.
Saul, 56, lives in Morgantown, W.Va. He says he sank his life savings of $350,000 into Visas for Life.
But Brattman brands him a profiteer: "His motto could have been: there is no business like the Holocaust business!"
Because of ISurvived, when you Google "Eric Saul," the top two hits identify him as a "Holocaust research imposter."
Next came Solly Ganor.
In 1992, Saul had reunited Ganor and other Dachau survivors in Israel with some of the Japanese-American veterans who had liberated them. It was a cathartic moment that led Ganor to write his memoir.
When Saul brought his Visas for Life exhibit to Jerusalem in 2004, Ganor wrote an article of praise which, he was told in an e-mail, incensed Brattman.
The message was signed "Avi," with no surname, but the title "assistant managing editor." It described a purported gathering at which Brattman reacted to the article as though a member of his family had died: "His sadness was most visible. Then, you could see in his eyes his raging indignation. He saw this as a betrayal."
The Ganor entry on ISurvived soon followed.
While Brattman won't be interviewed, questions e-mailed to him at ISurvived are answered promptly by the "First Assist Service Team (FAST)."
Q: Who is Avi? Does Avi have a last name?
A: All of us here have last names (sic!), be it Judith, Avi, Ilan, Eva, Miriam, Otto, Pete, etc., but only our Managing Editor, Mr. Brattman, and our chief webmaster Steve Grunfeld, are permitted to use their last names.
Q: Who is the "I" in "ISurvived"?
A: Questioning the first letter `I' in the name of our website is as meaningful as questioning Apple Computer Company of the names placed on their products such as the iMac or the iPod, etc.
Q: How is it that you are able to ensure that your site comes up among the first three or four hits on Google and Yahoo! when searching for "Solly Ganor," or "Eric Saul"?
A: That is something you need to ask Google, take a course or two in computer sciences, etc. We, for sure, have no intention of giving you free computer lessons on Google algorithms.
Brattman was asked about his criminal record in a separate e-mail. The reply: "As you have been advised, we no longer can assist you with your inquiries. Whatever you are working on is of no interest to us. You are wasting your time and ours in fishing for additional information. Best regards, First Assist Service Team (FAST)."
"It is Kafka," Karine Barzilai-Nahon, a professor at the University of Washington's Information School, says of Ganor's dilemma.
Barzilai-Nahon believes the search engines can no longer simply plead neutrality in cases like this. "The time has come to show more social responsibility," she says. If not, she warns, the state will step in.
Eddan Katz, executive director of Yale's Information Society Project, says search engines must perfect their algorithms to provide higher-quality results: "Google can try to make the world a better place by making dubious voices less heard than might otherwise be the case."
In May, Hiram Bingham was one of six former American diplomats honored by the Postal Service with a commemorative stamp. But in Israel, Yad Vashem declined to grant him "Righteous Among the Nations" status for saving the lives of Jews, despite what Eric Saul believes is the strength of his case.
Meanwhile, Saul, who used to show his Visas for Life exhibit a half-dozen times annually, hasn't had an offer in two years.
And Solly Ganor tries to fathom how it all came to this.
Brattman, Ganor says, "tells me I'm a Holocaust imposter. He defames the memory of my mother, who died in a concentration camp, of my brother, who was shot by the SS.
"There are so few survivors that are still around to tell the story and he's undermining the credibility of what we're saying.
"He's playing into the hands of the Holocaust deniers."
July 20, 2006
(Jonathan Tilove can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)