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The power behind the legend

May 17, 2002.

"A genuine fake?"

Review by Elaine Glazer of A Life in Pieces by Blake Eskin (Aurum, 2002; 245pp.. £16.99)

IN 1995, a Holocaust memoir entitled Fragments was published in German to instant acclaim. Its author, Binjamin Wilkomirski, purported to be a Jewish child survivor whose parents were brutally murdered in a massacre in Riga, Latvia.

Wilkomirski described how he was taken to concentration camps at Majdanek and Auschwitz, placed in a Swiss orphanage after the war, and eventually adopted. Translated into twelve languages, it was published in Britain and the United States the following year, winning numerous prizes.

Wilkomirski was invited to address Holocaust conferences, university departments and survivor groups around the world. Not everyone believed his account, however, and in 1998 a Swiss journalist, Daniel Ganzfried, claimed the memoir was a fake. According to Ganzfried, Wilkomirski was in fact Bruno Doessekker, born near the Swiss capital of Berne in 1941 to an unmarried mother. She had placed him in an orphanage, and he was later adopted by the Doessekker family, who brought him up in their middleclass, nonJewish Zurich home. In 1999, Fragments was withdrawn by its publishers.

A Life in Pieces documents the rise and fall of Wilkomirski's memoir, an extraordinary case in which Blake Eskin also has a personal interest. He is a member of a large New York Jewish family, and his mother's ancestors came from Riga, where they were called Wilkomirski. When Binjamin came to New York on his book tour, he met Eskin's family in the hope that they could establish a connection. This is a story of confidence tricks and disappointment, in a personal as well as a public context, as it gradually turns out that Eskin's relatives are just some of the many people with whom Wilkomirski constructed bogus relationships.

Threaded through this book are Eskin's attempts to discover the European origins of his own family, and it is also a detective story which lays out the paper trail of Wilkomirski's undoing. Eskin collates evidence from previous accounts, such as Elena Lappin's essay in Granta (1999), but his version is distinctive because he makes significant use of his personal connection to the story, and his tone is astute and sympathetic in equal measure. He has also assembled a wealth of speeches, correspondence and interviews which reveal in subtle and complex ways the investments and delusions of those involved.

The prime contribution of this book, however, is that its scope is much broader than the case itself. It explores the relationship between history and fiction, the revelation of SwissNazi collaboration, and controversies over recovered memory and Holocaust commemoration. Eskin discusses the motivations not only of Bruno Doessekker, but also of the world which was so eager to embrace him.

There was much at stake in protecting the identity and history of Binjamin Wilkomirski. Between the lines of Eskin's humane and compassionate book, there is a latent critique of a certain branch of the Holocaust memory industry that privileges the individual testimony of survivors. This testimony is thought to "break through" history, to provide immediacy and sentiment rather than mere knowledge. According to this belief, those child survivors who choose not to record their memories are accused of "collaborating in the erasure of our past", and those who question their veracity are accused of denying the Holocaust.

This emphasis on subjectivity is increasingly the foundation on which the reputations of many academics, psychologists and organizations rest. The concomitant downgrading of history made it easy for Wilkomirski's fake to pass as truth, and the value placed on emotional rather than intellectual response led commentators such as the American academic Deborah Lipstadt to declare that for it to be a false memoir "might complicate matters somewhat, but it's still powerful".

So when the truth was revealed, the myth refused to die. Bruno Doessekker had the perfect defence; he argued that he, like many postwar refugee children, had simply been given a new seamless Swiss identity. His prose style was, as the title suggests, fragmentary like Anne Michaels's post-Holocaust novel Fugitive Pieces, he was alluding to the elusive and discontinuous nature of memory. This applies especially to the recollection of childhood impressions, and indeed he explicitly set aside "the ordering logic of grownups".

Doessekker thus preempted accusations that his memoir did not hang together, and at the same time capitalized on the inherent fragility of childhood memories, which prompts survivors, as well as concerned professionals, to defend them at all costs. In the resulting feedback loop, Wilkomirski's words aped those of child survivor accounts, and in a dark irony, genuine survivors felt that his memoir expressed their own experience.

In various Holocaust education projects, the attention paid to memory alongside history appears to chime with progressive historical techniques that take into account subjective testimony as well as traditional documentation. But where that methodology stresses the ultimately unknowable nature of the past, this emphasis on testimony does precisely the opposite -- it seeks to discover the absolute certainty of the past, embodied in eyewitness accounts.

Eskin reveals, however, that on a personal level the quest, as a Jew, to establish one's European family history at first hand can be both compelling and meaningful. The acknowledgement of his own desire to trace an ancestral link to the great tragedy of the twentieth century enables him to portray with sympathy the ease with which so many people were deluded. Intelligent, expertly written and gripping from start to finish, this book addresses the problem of how to live with the inherent uncertainties of identity, authenticity and history.

Related links:

Dossier on Deborah Lipstadt
Dossier on Benjnamin Wilkormiski
Trial index
Trial transcripts index
Trial press clippings index
DJC Irving vs Penguin & Lipstadt index
Focal Point 2002  email:  write to David Irving