Fictional ‘survivor’ testimony
A bestselling memoir of a child’s nightmarish experiences of Majdanek and Auschwitz concentration camps has been denounced as a work of imagination, triggering a fierce debate among scholars of Holocaust literature.
Fragments, by Binjamin Wilkomirski, published in 1995, claims to be the childhood of a young Jewish boy from Riga who, after surviving the death camps, was adopted by Swiss parents. His memories were repressed not only by his foster parents but also by the tight corset of Swiss society. Now, after psychotherapy, his memories have come flooding back.
They are very graphic: he tells of the blood shooting out of the neck of his father, of the rats scrambling over the mountains of corpses. His Swiss experiences prompt flashbacks — a teacher reminds him of a concentration camp guard, the ski teacher of an executioner.
The book was extravagantly praised in The New York Times Book Review and elsewhere for its descriptive powers. One reviewer, the children’s book author Maurice Sendak, said it was final proof that children, in particular children of the Holocaust, can hang on to the very earliest of memories.
But the Swiss writer Daniel Ganzfried found some episodes unbelievable and decided to investigate. He dug deep and — as he reports in this week’s Weltwoche of Zurich — discovered that almost nothing added up.
Wilkomirski’s real name is Bruno Doesseker, a Swiss citizen who was indeed adopted. But birth certificates and school records show that his childhood was not spent in concentration camps. Rather he was born, illegitimately, in Switzerland on February 12, 1941. Wilkomirski contests this: “That date has nothing to do with my life history nor with my memories.”
Mr. Ganzfried and other critics say there would be no objection to presenting the book as a novel, but the author has been lecturing far and wide on the fate of the anonymous children from the camps as if he were one of them. His publisher, Suhrkamp, argues that the detailed reminiscences were revived as the result of “recovered memory therapy”, the controversial method applied to suspected victims of child abuse. But the key element is Mr Doesseker’s birthdate.
The Swiss are known for their bureaucratic thoroughness. In wartime, and in the case of an illegitimate child, the birth certificate could have been inaccurately dated, but Mr. Ganzfried holds this to be improbable.
The importance of the debate is that many on the far Right are contesting the details and, therefore, the veracity of the Holocaust. Witness accounts are essential. That is why Steven Spielberg set up the Shoah Foundation to interview survivors. Since many are in ill-health, and since the camps themselves are decaying, Holocaust biography has become more important than ever. Fake Holocaust testimony distorts the debate.
by Roger Boyes
September 8, 1998