The Case of Binjamin Wilkomirski’s Fragments
Until the past few months, bestowing any Holocaust honorific upon Binjamin Wilkomirski, the author of the celebrated Holocaust memoir Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood, would warrant no surprise. After all, the book, first published in Germany in 1995, had won the National Jewish Book Award in the United States, the Prix Memoire de la Shoah in France, the Jewish Quarterly literary prize in Britain, and has been translated into more than a dozen languages. But giving him an award now will surely raise eyebrows: Rather than living in the hell of the notorious Majdanek death camp when he was 3 or 4 years old, as his memoir claims, Wilkomirski has been widely accused of living out the war in peacetime Switzerland as a Swiss-born, non-Jewish child. Nevertheless, he is about to be awarded yet another prize–the Hayman Award for Holocaust and Genocide Study–this time by the American Orthopsychiatric Association (Ortho), in Arlington, Virginia, on April 10.
Raising consciousness about children’s vulnerability to trauma and loss has been one of Ortho’s leading projects, and its recognition of Wilkomirski’s work on children’s memories of the Holocaust comes amid a tightening media vise–from the New York Times to 60 Minutes–on his alleged fraud. Reportedly, The New Yorker also has the story under investigation. Under such circumstances, the new prize may convey a message that has been overlooked in all the controversy but deserves the public’s rapt attention: that Wilkomirski’s failure to prove irrefutably his own innocence replays the tragedy of many child survivors (two out of three, according to a new survey by mental-health experts Robert Krell and Sarah Moskovitz) whose legal claims for compensation are denied because they fail to present incontrovertible proof of Holocaust suffering.
Some of Wilkomirski’s readers, untroubled by issues of factual truth and deeply moved by his talent in immersing himself in the child survivor’s experience, may simply accept the memoir as a novel. But Wilkomirski (as well as his publisher, Schocken Books, a Random House imprint) gives no sign of withdrawing his claim to its truth. Is it posture or principle that drives Wilkomirski’s insistence on the reality of Fragments? Unless the charge of falsity–first made in a Swiss weekly by writer Daniel Ganzfried–is refuted, his memoir for many will be nothing but a profit-driven literary hoax, with echoes of other controversies, such as the recent flap over Rigoberta Menchú. As the New York Times reported in a story on Wilkomirski, nonfiction “sells better than fiction with an author who plays the role of promoter and poster child.”
On yet another side of this dispute, as many child survivors ruefully know, is the personal blow that comes from having one’s existence disputed, because it assaults the very foundation of the self–the feeling of being believed. What inflames this injury for the young survivor is the virtual absence of witnesses who can corroborate what has been suffered. Rather than risk the high cost of not being believed, the child survivor often closets and dismisses the memory of the suffering itself. Nowhere else has Hitler’s plan to leave no witnesses of the Holocaust come closer to being realized than in separating the very young from their own experience.
Survivors, then, may be as apt as anyone to abandon trust in Wilkomirski’s story. A Holocaust impostor represents yet another betrayal–the defrauding of the Holocaust itself. Such a deception incites visceral resentment and a vigilante mentality that turns the right of presumption of innocence on its head. A suspicion, if not a conviction, of guilt has shone darkly through almost all media coverage, bottoming out in the 60 Minutes broadcast of February 7. Seemingly not one person or scrap of evidence could be found to defend this man. A Wilkomirski disbeliever becomes easy prey to a falsehood wrapped in the appearance of investigative journalism: that the case against him is devastating and irrefutable. Noted historian Raul Hilberg states that Fragments “hovers between the highly unlikely and the utterly impossible.” True enough, there is documentary evidence and testimony from Wilkomirski’s past calling into question the verity of his account. But so far, the more appropriate parallel to be drawn is to the case of Richard Jewell, falsely accused by the media of the 1996 Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta, rather than to the occasional notoriety of prizewinning memoirists who falsely claim another’s birthright.