(August 1) — A post-modern parable about the pliable nature of historical truth and the ways in which the memory of the Holocaust is manipulated.
In 1995, a new Holocaust memoir titled Fragments, written by one Binjamin Wilkomirski, was published in Switzerland and in several translated editions elsewhere. It purported to tell of the author’s childhood experiences growing up in the Riga ghetto, his deportation to Majdanek and Auschwitz, his experience in a Cracow orphanage after the war, and his eventual adoption by the Swiss family that raised him.
The book received largely positive, even effusive critical praise. A reviewer in Britain’s The Guardian called it “one of the great works about the Holocaust” and a reviewer in the US magazine The Nation actually wrote: “This stunning and austerely written work is so profoundly moving, so morally important, and so free from literary artifice of any kind at all that I wonder if I even have the right to try to offer praise.”
Fragments won several literary prizes, including a National Jewish Book award, and Wilkomirski himself became a celebrity-survivor, giving readings and lectures across the world.
Then in 1998, Swiss-Jewish author, Daniel Ganzfried, who had been skeptical about the book since its publication, wrote an article which charged that Wilkomirski, far from being a Holocaust survivor, was a native-born, non-Jewish Swiss citizen originally named Bruno Grosjean, who had entirely invented the story of his childhood in war-time East Europe and the camps.
Wilkomirski denied the accusation, and because he had indeed been an adopted child, it was not easy at first to establish the facts of his early years. But as other journalists began to poke into the story, the truth of Ganzfried’s charges — and the falsehoods and inventions in Fragments — looked more and more evident, and calls were made for the book to be pulled from the shelves, or at least relabelled as fiction.
Instead the publishers went out and hired a Swiss historian, Dr. Stefan Maechler, to investigate the charges against Wilkomirski. The result, together with the complete text of Fragments, is now being put out by the same companies that published Wilkomirski’s questionable text in the first place.
If the whole affair already sounds like some kind of post-modern parable about the pliable nature of historical truth and the ways in which the memory of the Holocaust is being manipulated, it gets even worse. Maechler makes it absolutely clear that Wilkomirski-Grosjean (he took the former name because of a resemblance to a well-known Jewish violinist, Wanda Wilkomirski) made up everything in Fragments connected with the Holocaust — or borrowed it from other sources, especially Jerzy Kosinski’s novel-memoir The Painted Bird, whose own veracity has been questioned.
Serious doubts had been raised and then ignored about the work from the very beginning. Even worse was the indiscriminate rush to canonize yet another survivor-saint following the book’s publication. The height of this absurdity, reports Maechler, came when Wilkomirski addressed a meeting of the Holocaust Child Survivors Group of Los Angeles, and was tearfully embraced there by a woman named Laura Grabowski, who claimed to remember him from the camps. It later turned out that she was actually a non-Jewish, US-born woman named Lauren Stratford, who had falsely accepted Holocaust reparations and had previously claimed to be the childhood victim of ritual abuse by Satanic cults.
Like other adherents of the so-called “recovered memory” movement in the US, Wilkomirski himself is seen by Maechler to be not some kind of deliberate con-artist, but a psychologically disturbed individual, who gradually created, and then accepted as truth, his fake Holocaust-survivor identity. To this day, even when confronted with absolute proof of his deception, Wilkomirski refuses to admit his scam. Even worse, some of his and Fragments initial admirers refuse to back down from their position — and claim that to now attack the author and his work is to question the very veracity of the Holocaust.
Why were so many people initially fooled by Fragments? Reading it for the first time, it’s not hard to imagine why. Wilkomirski does clearly have some literary talent; what’s more, he very cleverly constructed his impressionistic book — deliberately or not — in such a manner that it evades easy detection. At the very beginning, he writes: “My earliest memories are a rubble field of isolated images and events. Shards of memory with hard knife-sharp edges, and events, which still cut flesh if touched today. Mostly a chaotic jumble, with very little chronological fit.”
Although Holocaust experts were able to later pick out inaccuracies in the text — such as the description of a rat-plague in Majdanek that never took place — it is unlikely a layman would detect Wilkomirski’s forgery.
What is less understandable, however, is why this slim, vague and over-wrought work received such critical acclaim. The answer, of course, is because it deals with the Holocaust, an event that has been lifted out of the realm of normative critical perspective, and elevated into a pseudo-religious sphere of sanctified legend.
No wonder then that some academics are now turning a more jaundiced eye towards the way in which the memory of the Holocaust is increasingly being used — and misused. Maechler himself, at the end of his report, writes: “The rise and fall of the figure of Binjamin Wilkomirski reveals more than just the mechanisms that are now part of the Shoah and its remembrance, and it would be wrong to discuss the phenomenon only within that framework.
“Nonetheless it can be said that the Wilkomirski phenomenon, from the origins of his memories to their reception and exposure, is a litmus test revealing how we all — depending on the nature of our involvement — deal with its aftermath.”
Being cautious to a fault, Maechler doesn’t come out and say “how we all” did on this particular litmus test. But the implication is clear, and I don’t hesitate to say it: this affair is a clear sign that something has gone awry in the way we are remembering the Holocaust and dealing with its aftermath. A Wilkomirski is in many ways as dangerous, if not more so, than a Holocaust-denier like David Irving. We would do well to keep our guard up.
By Calev Ben-David
The Jerusalem Post Newspaper
August, 01 2001