Holocaust Denial: A Sequel
It has taken the mental-health field long enough to acknowledge how injurious the Holocaust has been to the identity of survivors. But the media have chosen to leave the diagnosis of Wilkomirski as a "compulsive liar" to former girlfriends and an ex-wife (whose motivations are unquestioned), who lack any professional understanding of the loss of self-worth that survivors have endured. Wilkomirski tells us in his memoir that he was pressed to lie by adoptive parents who urged him to deny the tortured memory of his enslavement in the camps. Nor does the media's reliance on expert testimony from historians stop at the limits of their expertise; it rolls over into privileging their unauthoritative judgments on Wilkomirski's own memory.
The attraction of believing in Wilkomirski's Swiss birth may go hand in hand with recoiling from the reality of the child survivor's deep traumatic memory. Swiss journalist Ganzfried, before setting off on his exposé of Wilkomirski, was disgusted by the pornographic level of cruelty in Fragments. Not a humiliated child but a dirty old man is Wilkomirski! Media consultation with renowned mental-health experts on the Holocaust (like Robert Krell, Yolanda Gampel, Sarah Moskovitz and Paul Valent) might have helped point out that learning to bear the traumatized mind of children is a difficult lesson for adults. "The tendency to exaggerate their adventures is dying down"--this from a naïve report on the rehabilitation of 732 young camp survivors brought to Britain after liberation (quoted wryly by British historian Sir Martin Gilbert in his distinguished book The Boys). Childhood, indeed, may be the last era to cross over into Holocaust history, if ever.
Historian Eric Hobsbawm has remarked that the hardest part of history for historians to grasp is the "twilight zone" between history and memory. In agreement, Holocaust historian Saul Friedländer bemoans a common thesis in his profession: that memory and historiography of the Holocaust are in opposition. In the 60 Minutes segment, the historian's difficulty with memory becomes almost a badge of professional honor as Raul Hilberg scorns the "cult of testimony" that invites "every single survivor" to be celebrated for telling his or her story. Unwittingly, such disparagement of witness gives comfort to a new revisionism that no longer attacks the truth of the Holocaust itself but only individual claims of survival.
These factors do not, of course, mean that Wilkomirski is telling the truth--but they do suggest that he could be. The Ortho prize awarded to him, one may note, is being given for his promotion of interest in traumatic memory, perhaps the most elusive aspect of horrific suffering and hence the most tempting to ignore or discredit. Specifically, the award also honors Wilkomirski as a historian in his work with Dr. Elitsur Bernstein, an Israeli clinical psychologist, for their innovative conceptualizations in helping young child survivors recover a sense of personal identity through historical verification of their fragmented memories. Their cooperation in understanding fifty child-survivor patients was reported in an evocative and well-received paper at a 1998 Holocaust conference at the University of Notre Dame. The Ortho award honors, then, the memoirist and the healer, and his journey from one to the other.
The heated terms of the Wilkomirski controversy so far are such that would-be witnesses--as indeed there still may be from Auschwitz and the orphanage--would be brave indeed to step into the maelstrom of disbelief that, as much as anything else, has kept them fearfully silent for so long. Because to be disbelieved is to be hunted again. Many mainstream journals and institutions may have refrained from comment out of fear that either believing or disbelieving will be proven wrong. But waiting for irrefutable proof is a false hope that will only make the story grow cold, leaving perhaps yet more child survivors as forgotten victims of the Holocaust. The Ortho Hayman award, in honoring the very uncertainty of a child survivor's identity, acknowledges the unfinished memory of many. And where the usual stakes of fragmented, hidden and lonely memory have favored forgetting, that is an important truth to remember