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.
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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.
I happen to believe that Binjamin Wilkomirski is telling the truth: about his existence in Majdanek and Auschwitz, his care after liberation in a Krakow, Poland, orphanage and, finally, his Swiss adoption. I do so on the basis of the following evidence, which was mostly available to the media but has been ignored:
§ The most important is testimony supporting Wilkomirski’s claim that he lived in the Krakow orphanage, from which he was sent to Switzerland. Lea Balint, director of Children Without Identity, an Israeli research center that traces the identity of orphaned Jewish child survivors from Poland, indicates that Wilkomirski’s detailed memory of the orphanage is accurate. Julius Lowinger, a Polish-born Israeli, was 15 years old when he lived in the orphanage. He didn’t know Wilkomirski at the time but met him in 1994; Lowinger confirms not only Wilkomirski’s detailed memory of the orphanage’s entire plant and environs (like the steps leading down to the Vistula River) but of a Purim celebration and, later, of a Polish mob that attacked the children’s home. This riot, leading to the closing of the orphanage and removal of the children to another home, has also been confirmed by the then-director. The identity of the woman named in Fragments (“Mrs. Grosz”) who brought him from the orphanage to Switzerland has been confirmed by her daughter, Sara Genislav. Balint asserts that her phone calls to the New York Times reporter on the case were never returned; 60 Minutes conducted a three-hour interview with Balint but used none of the footage in its account.
§ Wilkomirski’s assertion of being shipped from Majdanek to Auschwitz is plausible in light of evidence (contra historian Hilberg) in published German and Polish documents that several trains carried nearly 400 children either from Majdanek to Auschwitz directly or via the transit camp of Plaszov (the site depicted in the book and filmSchindler’s List) or the children’s camp of Konstantinov Lodzi. Wilkomirski’s claim of being subjected to medical experiments at Auschwitz (distrusted by the New York Times because he was not a twin, on whom experiments are well known) is supported by Helena Kubica, historian of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, who is directing research on the fate of children and juveniles there. She confirms non-twin experiments on blood and eyes. I view Wilkomirski’s long-term blood and eye disorders as adding credence to his claim.
§ Those who have not read the memoir but have read news accounts of adoption papers at odds with Wilkomirski’s story should be aware that he has acknowledged his false identity papers all along–see the Afterword of Fragments–and not as a response to the fraud allegations. After liberation, false documents for child survivors in their adoptive countries were the rule rather than the exception. Wilkomirski’s plight may be just one episode in the barely known story of uncountable numbers who were missed in the ingathering of orphans to Jewish families in Israel or dispersed elsewhere in Europe and the Americas. Fitted with false identity papers bearing non-Jewish names, children were whisked from orphanages and displaced-persons camps into private adoptions and raised to accept self-images that silenced Holocaust suffering. The “exposé” of Wilkomirski’s Swiss birth may rather demonstrate how successfully the legal maneuvers concealed real birth. A tragic reckoning, however, may come years later for the rare orphan whose awareness of the truth has survived the death of all witnesses. He or she is left alone to disprove a fictive birth through a daunting, byzantine trail of documentation. To put on a child survivor the onus of disproving Swiss birth documentation is darkly parallel to the disingenuous insistence by Swiss banks that Holocaust survivors unearth the death certificates of victims for whom they’re claiming reparations.
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