15 March 2011

Binjamin Wilkomirski, Fragments, 1995

Finding generally available Holocaust memoirs published outside of Yad Vashem is not always easy, and not made easier by questions about the authenticity of books such as Jerzy Kozinski’s The Painted Bird and Binjamin Wilkomirski’s Fragments, which is now recognised as a rather unfortunate work of fiction. Wilkomirski’s now notorious 1995 ‘memoir’ had not been published for long in several other languages when, in 1998, questions were being asked by Swiss journalist Daniel Ganzfried about the authenticity of Wilkomirski himself. His investigations uncovered the likely perpetration of a deliberate literary fraud, and when the questions became accusations Wilkomirski’s literary agent commissioned Swiss historian Stefan Maechler to deconstruct Fragments and learn the truth about Wilkomirski. The ‘Wilkomirski affair’ is now well documented, but the potted history is that Wilkomirski was the son of a single Swiss mother who was given up for adoption at the age of two, is neither Polish nor Jewish nor had brothers (as he claims), had never set foot in a concentration camp, was brought up with the name Bruno Dössekker by a middle-class Zurich couple, and eventually worked as a classical musician. The best, ultimately, that can be said for Fragments is that it appears to be a misguided and unfortunate (perhaps even cynical) blurring of the line between metaphor and truth; at worst it may have undermined the reputations of several historians, educationalists and therapists who still believe it has proper contextual relevance and meaning, it provided fuel to Holocaust revisionists, and fooled a considerable number of people.

The book itself is a series of disjointed ‘recovered memories’, a shaky enough foundation on which to base a Holocaust memoir. The premise of the book is that Wilkomirski’s true parents were murdered by Nazis in Riga, Poland, and he continued to survive alone as a child in Majdanek and Birkenau before being smuggled out to Switzerland at the end of the war. His adoptive parents claimed his concentration camp memories were just bad dreams that he must forget, but with help he was able to establish that these memories were ’real’. Fragments was therefore driven by the need to fill a large hole in his past, which his adoptive parents refused to share with him. Why would Dössekker perpetrate such a fraud, when there appears to be no motive other than the attention-seeking behaviour of someone claiming victimhood? It is this that shouts loudest in Fragments, written with the tone of a scared child throughout, a persona which Wilkomirski/Dössekker carried through convincingly in his public appearances as the awards rolled in. In retrospect, with some self-imposed editing and revision it could have made a legitimate (if rather strained and brutal) work of children’s fiction, and Dössekker could have kept his credibility intact instead of being forced into hiding.

So knowing it’s a fraud, why read a book such as this? Mostly to view the tone with which it is written, to see if one can smell the rat and maybe see where Wilkomirski trips himself up. These ’recovered memories’ are far too detailed to be authentic. The style is one in which almost every paragraph, filled with “shards of memory with...knife-sharp edges”, craves sympathy for yet another hardship, yet another injustice or indignity, calculated to bleed you dry of emotion. Comparisons are sometimes made with Elie Wiesel’s Night, recognised as a legitimate memoir but still with its own detractors, though Wilkomirski seems to want to go one better by delivering his points of impact with an overbearing intention to shock: adults are dangerous because they are best at fooling you, children stand in buckets of shit to keep their feet warm, babies die from gnawing their fingers to the bone for lack of food. At an early point in the book, presumably as a suppressed memory, Wilkomirski witnesses the murder of his father and from this point on women are mostly portrayed as stern nurturers and men as psychopathic murderers, a delineation that lacks balanced realism. This tells you it is not so much ‘us vs. them’ in the context of a Holocaust memoir, as ‘big vs. small’ or ‘me vs. everyone else’, with only a loose grounding in verifiable fact.

It was a technique that in terms of literary style alone perhaps should not have fooled as many as it did, yet in other places, relieved of its unfortunate accompanying baggage, it is easy to see why Fragments initially received the accolades “small masterpiece”, “stunning”, “unforgettable”, and “morally important”. But in truth it is nothing more than a catalogue of invented horrors, supposedly unquestionable because of their sacrosanct location, and as a piece of holocaust literature Fragments is now worthless even as a legitimate novel, only worth reading for the curiosity value and necessarily to be taken with massive pinch of salt.  PY


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