Reflections on a Holocaust Impostor: Fragments and Its Tortured History
Issue #61, September 2002
In 1995 a book called Bruchstücke, or Fragments, was published in Switzerland. It was a memoir of a Jewish child's experiences in ghettos and Nazi death camps. The first-time author was Binjamin Wilkomirski — until now a musician and maker of clarinets — and the narrative indicated that he was a survivor. Survivors' narratives have become a major form of autobiographical writing in the past half century. Most such narratives are the only books by their authors, and are often written with the help of someone else. Some of these autobiographical narratives, however, have become literary classics and are therefore the standard against which other survivors' narratives are measured. Elie Wiesel's Night and Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz, for instance, have become part of the university curriculum in modern literature and not just in courses on the Holocaust.
Wilkomirski's Fragments was immediately measured against the standard of Wiesel and Levi, and it came out well. Wiesel himself complimented the book when it was published in English. Wilkomirski's narrative was unusual in that it was one of the few survivors' testimonies to be written deliberately from a child's perspective. It contained scenes of incredible vividness and used a fragmented narrative structure that reminded readers of classic twentieth-century novels, as well as a self-conscious narrative voice associated with post-modern forms of writing. The reviews were almost uniformly ecstatic and the book was eventually translated into a dozen languages.
Although not a huge bestseller, Fragments earned a number of prestigious awards in England, France, and the U.S. As a result, Wilkomirski became something of a public figure, being interviewed on television shows, participating in performances in which he played the clarinet while someone recited from Fragments, and giving talks sponsored in the United States by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Response to Wilkomirski seemed especially strong from other Holocaust survivors, who saw him as a spokesman for their own painful experiences. The greatest sales occurred here in the U.S., which has the largest collection of Holocaust survivors of any other country and is a place where Holocaust remembrance has become a highly organized cultural phenomenon.
Although there had been a few dissenting voices in the chorus of praise for Fragments, few people — Wilkomirksi perhaps least of all — were prepared for the reversal of fortune that began to occur during the summer of 1998. On August 28 of that year a Swiss journalist named Daniel Ganzfried published "an article [in] . . . Die Weltwoche in which he accused Wilkomirski of having invented his autobiography" (our italics). Ganzfried claimed that Wilkomirski had never been in a concentration camp and that he had actually been born in Switzerland in 1941. Having carefully researched his subject, Ganzfried claimed that Wilkomirski was in fact born as Bruno Grosjean and wasn't even Jewish. Wilkomirski immediately denied these allegations, and a number of people associated with him came to his defense. Ganzfried's article was summarized by a number of newspapers in Europe and the United States, and these were followed in 1999 by two long, thoughtful essays — in Granta by Elena Lappin, and in the New Yorker by Philip Gourevitch — which supported Ganzfried. Gourevitch's tone, in particular, was stern and unforgiving. All of Wilkomirski's publishers, including Schocken (the American publisher), eventually pulled the book out of circulation. He was quickly transformed from heroic Holocaust testifier to pariah, from sympathetic victim to betrayer.
In April 1999 Wilkomirski's Swiss agent Liepman, in response to all the controversy, hired Swiss historian Stefan Maechler to pursue an independent investigation. Wilkomirski maintained throughout this period that his critics were trying to steal his life; that he was, in effect, a singular victim of Holocaust denial. But by this time he had lost his credibility, and it was soon impossible to find Fragments anywhere but in a used-book store. The complaints from a variety of sources were frequently vituperative, with some critics retracting their earlier praise, prize-givers withdrawing recognition, and many journalists as well as survivors condemning Wilkomirski as a criminal who gave satisfaction to the Holocaust deniers.
Maechler's findings against Wilkomirski were made public in 2000-again accompanied by Wilkomirski's denials — and a book presenting his analytic narrative which included Fragments as an appendix was published in English by Schocken in 2001. For the first time in two years Fragments was back in print.
Why Did Wilkomirski Do It?
The history of Wilkomirski's life, as established by Maechler, suggests that he was born out of wedlock to a twenty-six-year old woman, Yvonne Grosjean, and it is the name Bruno Grosjean that appears on his Swiss birth certificate. When Bruno was two years old he was for the first time placed in foster care. He lived thereafter in a series of such homes, and the records in the guardian's offices indicate that he became increasingly difficult to manage.
When (in 1945) Bruno was four years old he became the foster child of Dr. & Mrs. Kurt Dossekker of Zurich, a childless older couple. Although Wilkomirski continued living with the Dossekkers, the adoption was not finalized until 1957, when Bruno was sixteen. Why did the Dossekkers wait so long to formalize their relationship with this child, and what effect might the lingering uncertainty have had on young Bruno? It is clear from the records that Wilkomirski experienced a traumatic, frequently disrupted early childhood. In Fragments he describes the couple based on the Dossekkers as being almost emotionally frigid (a description confirmed by others), and so he had to live — even in comfortable circumstances — without parental warmth and emotional support.
In 1979 Wilkomirski met an Israeli psychologist named Elitsur Bernstein who had been practicing in Zurich for twenty years. With Bernstein, Wilkomirski began to work on recovering his "repressed memories." It is these memories that allegedly make up the substance of Fragments — that of a traumatized small child bereft of parents, who has witnessed the death of his father and experienced the abandonment, restoration, and finally death of his mother in a concentration camp barracks. The book is full of mother figures, all of whom fail the small, nameless boy in some way.
To support his obsessive historical studies Wilkomirski has apparently amassed a library of more than two thousand books related to the Holocaust. He is expert on most aspects of that history and has read more than his share of survivors' autobiographical narratives. What seems to have happened is that in creating his own autobiographical narrative Wilkomirski retained the emotional traumas that lie at the heart of his emotional dissociation, but substituted for the actual events of his early childhood events drawn from the history of the Jews in the Holocaust, a subject on which he has apparently brooded for more than thirty years. It is a history full of the deaths and disappearances of parents, the brutality and emotional aridity of surrogate parent figures, and the apparent nurturance and abandonment by mother figures.
All of this does not suggest someone maliciously setting out to deceive others as much as someone who has willfully adopted a level of traumatic autobiography to fit the level of his own emotional disturbance. In the process, he has succeeded in deluding himself into accepting these fictions as "facts." It seems apparent, then, that this troubled man believes his own story and has conveyed that belief so passionately and effectively that he has persuaded others to believe it as well. Geoffrey Hartman uses the term "memory-envy" to describe the feeling of those who, coming after the Holocaust, long to identity with the survivors. Wilkomirski, by substituting a story of the Holocaust for his own life history, at once validates his personal trauma and becomes the honored member of a group whose contemporary identity is a function of historical persecution.
The Context of Wilkomirski's Career as a Writer
Explaining the arc of Wilkomirski's critical success and subsequent fall, historian Stefan Maechler points out that "The author of Fragments would not have unleashed such outrage if he had simply thought up any given biography." The Holocaust, according to Maechler, is not off-limits per se; politicians and historians have "applied it as a metaphor to the Gulag, to Palestinian refugees, to the transatlantic slave trade, to their own personal suffering, to endangered nature." Wilkomirski, however, appropriates the Holocaust not only as metaphor but as memory. This encourages readers, both survivors and those who have no direct relation to the Holocaust, to identify with his memories, and to treat them as a kind of historical evidence now approaching extinction: the survivor's testimony.
Testimony and identification have become central to the way we remember the Holocaust in the West, especially in America; so to understand the Wilkomirski affair, we must first explore the function of the Holocaust in Western politics and culture. Towards this end, Maechler turns to the historian Peter Novick, whose recent book, The Holocaust in American Life (1999), tackles the related questions of why the Holocaust has become central to Jewish-American identity, and why it has become important in the U.S., a country that had no direct experience of the events.
According to Novick, the Holocaust became important as a collective memory when the American Jewish community began to feel threatened by a "demographic crisis" of secularization and assimilation, replacing ritual, belief, and traditional forms of community as the defining center of American Judaism. Though many commentators see the resurgence of Holocaust thought 30 years after the event as the return of the repressed, Novick argues that the recent explosion of books and films about the Holocaust should be understood politically, not psychologically. Neither the Nuremberg trials nor the Eichmann trial produced as much interest in the Holocaust as did the Six-Day War of 1967, when the State of Israel seemed threatened with extinction. The Holocaust helped explain that war as the resurgence of murderous anti-Semitism. In our time, it serves a different ideological function, justifying, for instance, what critics of Israel call "the occupation" as a form of self-defense. Though Israel's difficulties since the 1970s stem primarily from war and the struggle for land, it is easier to recruit support for Israel, Novick claims, by arguing that the Palestinian uprising is the Holocaust in a new form.
The Holocaust serves another political function in the U.S., which Novick feels is increasingly preoccupied with identity politics and victimization. In a society where victimhood is a virtue, the Holocaust gives Jews a perverse preeminence, setting them apart as a secular equivalent of the "chosen people". Novick argues that even gentiles are apt to treat Jews as exemplary victims because it is easy to identify with an assimilated Jewish population. Also, the Holocaust provides an easy, if relatively empty, point of political consensus, since even those who disagree about policy towards Bosnia or Rwanda can agree that the Holocaust was a bad thing. Bearing witness, or testimony, performs an important double role in this process of consensus forming, at once personalizing the Holocaust, making it easier to identify with the victims, and creating an unbridgeable gap, the gap of experience or autobiography, between historical atrocity and current politics.
The Holocaust Memorial Museum, like Wilkomirski's book, also allows us to enter the debate over the uses and abuses of bearing witness in Holocaust studies. Not only does the museum privilege survivor testimony-giving videos from, for instance, the Survivor's Project a central place in the exhibits-it also encourages visitors to experience the Holocaust on a personal level by assigning identity cards bearing the names of victims. The prescribed itinerary takes visitors over actual cobblestones from the Lodz ghetto, and through a cattle car once used to transport Jews to concentration camps. The emphasis is on the visceral, the emotive, and the artifactual; the museum personalizes history, encouraging visitors to identify with and put themselves in the place of the victims. Is this not precisely what Wilkomirski has done?
In "America, the Holocaust, and the Mass Culture of Memory: Toward a Radical Politics of Empathy," Alison Landsberg praises the Holocaust Museum for offering a "transferential space" where "memory and affect get transferred from one person to another." She feels the museum is most effective when it encourages visitors to experience what it was like to be a victim so they can remember, through their own experiences in the museum, how it must have felt: "these spaces [of transference] might actually install in us 'symptoms' or prosthetic memories through which we didn't actually live, but to which we now, after a museum experience or a filmic experience, have a kind of experiential relationship."
Wilkomirski poses a problem for Landsberg because he illustrates the impossibility of distinguishing prosthetic memory from memory-envy. In fact, he creates a problem for all those who view memory — i.e. testimony and autobiography — as a privileged form of historical discourse. What the theories of prosthetic memory and testimony have in common is their belief that subjective memories, no matter how erroneous, offer a necessary corrective to the cold, clinical way history is normally compiled. Theorists and psychologists like Landsberg, Shoshona Felman, and Dori Laub emphasize affect rather than fact; interviewers in the Survivor's Project don't correct inaccurate testimony. It is worth noting that even Wilkomirski's harshest critics don't doubt the authenticity of his suffering per se. Daniel Ganzfried attributes Wilkomirski's false memories to methodologically flawed psychology. Elena Lappin quotes Israel Gutman, a Yad Vashem historian and survivor, who says Wilkomirski's story is "important" even if it is not true because he "experienced [it] deeply". Gourevitch finds it plausible that Wilkomirski might be "a victim of his own sense of victimization." Wilkomirski's memories straddle an irreconcilable contradiction at the heart of what it means to testify: his trauma is authentic, but his testimony isn't.
So if Wilkomirski has come by his prosthetic memories in the prescribed way, through a "radical politics of empathy," and if those memories are affectively, if not factually, true, what are we to do with his false testimony? This practical question actually involves two deeper, epistemological ones: How do we determine the accuracy of testimony? What kind of knowledge does testimony provide? The Wilkomirski affair proves beyond a doubt that the first question has no satisfactory answer. Many readers, including survivors, believed the tale because it is so excruciating, but now that the details have turned out to be more pornographic than realistic, we know that affect is no guarantee of authenticity. Form is also no guarantee. Though the narrative looks like a survivor's testimony, with its fragmented narrative and damaged point-of-view, it is, as critics point out, merely a pastiche of testimonies. Those who began by comparing it to Eli Wiesel's Night now invoke Jerzy Kozinski's The Painted Bird, another discredited survivor's tale told from a child's point of view, which Wilkomirksi admits to having read. Though it might be possible to define testimony as a genre, determining where books like Fragments and The Painted Bird fall short, neither the form of a testimony nor its emotive power can determine its authenticity.
It seems plausible that we will still read Fragments for its emotional power in the same way we read other fictional accounts of the Holocaust. Fiction, of course, can teach us much about fact. However, Fragments is not merely fiction, but fictionalized memory, and memory implies a specific relation of history to historical subjects. According to Walter Benn Michaels, we tend to transform history into memory as a way of constituting cultural identities. "We learn about other people's history," he says, "we remember our own." This distinction gets at the heart of the Wilkomirski scandal, since it explains why Wilkomirksi's supporters and his critics take the book so personally. Perhaps we read Fragments to remember what it means to be Jewish, or more broadly, what it means to be a victim. Now the same book reminds us that memories are metaphors and identities are constructed. The inaccuracy of these memories does not plunge us into a historical crisis in the same way that a delusional Napoleon does not discredit Waterloo. Rather, unstable memories plunge us into a crisis of identity. Exposing Wilkomirski's testimony as memory-envy exposes our interest in testimony as another form of memory-envy. If we identified with him as a victim, we are also implicated in his delusions of victimization.
Wilkomirski teaches us that we read autobiography not to learn about a person but to learn about a people. Autobiographies are questionable sources of historical evidence, but they are paramount vehicles of collective memory. Autobiographies, in the form of testimonies, have helped transform the Holocaust into a foundational myth for a Jewish identity no longer grounded in custom or belief. The emphasis on memory over knowledge has had the effect of transforming Holocaust studies into a secular religion, with Auschwitz taking the place of the Diaspora. The presence of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. suggests that the Holocaust also serves as a foundational myth for American identity. By honoring the victims and celebrating the American role in liberating the concentration camps, the U.S. figures itself as a democracy ready to fight the "evil ones" — to borrow President Bush's recent, memorable phrase.
Fragments is a controversial book because it exposes the machinations behind some of our most cherished myths. It teaches us that a "people" is as contingent as its history, and that memory is a political metaphor. Wilkomirski might not be an actual victim of the Holocaust, but he is a fitting monument to victim culture.
Andrew Gross (email@example.com) is a Faculty Fellow at The University of California - Davis English department. Michael Hoffman (firstname.lastname@example.org) has recently retired from the U.C. Davis English department as a scholar in Modernism, Literary Theory, and the Holocaust to take up a new career in tennis.