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Posted Monday, October 5, 1998



"Was this recollection of a child's experience in the Nazi camps of Majdanek and Auschwitz indeed a memoir as advertised, or was it a work of fiction...?"

Calgary, Alberta, Canada
October 3, 1998

Award-winning holocaust book under fire

George Jonas, The Calgary Herald

TORONTO - Swiss musician and instrument builder Binjamin Wilkomirski's 1995 book, Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood, may not have set the world on fire, but it did make a genuine impact. After it appeared in English (in a translation by Carol Brown Janeway), the New York Times Book Review described it as an "extraordinary memoir" that "recalls the Holocaust with the powerful immediacy of innocence."

Among other honours, Fragments made the American Library Association's 1997 list for Best Books for Young Adults. In the same year, the book won the Jewish Quarterly's £4,000 literary award for nonfiction (that's a prestigious British award that merely shortlisted Mordechai Richler's novel Barney's Version this year.)

There was only one problem with the book Kirkus Review called a "masterpiece." It was a question raised by another Swiss writer, Daniel Ganzfried, in the Swiss weekly Weltwoche last month. Was this recollection of a child's experience in the Nazi camps of Majdanek and Auschwitz indeed a memoir as advertised, or was it a work of fiction?

Under a photograph identifying a handsome youngster as "Binjamin Wilkomirski alias Bruno Doessekker in 1956," Weltwoche asked: "Is this a child from Riga or a youngster from Zurichberg?"

Ganzfried offered his answer. "Binjamin Wilkomirski alias Bruno Doessekker knows Auschwitz and Majdanek only as a tourist," he concluded in his piece.

According to Ganzfried's research (which Wilkomirski disputes), Wilkomirski wasn't a young Jewish boy from Riga, adopted by Swiss parents after he survived the Nazi death camps where his real parents had perished. He was adopted, all right--but after his illegitimate birth in Switzerland in 1941.

The question may never be decided. For the time being, Wilkomirski's publishers stand by the book and Weltwoche stands by Ganzfried's investigation.

The significance of all this is twofold. The first has to do with the potential aid and comfort a literary hoax of this type (if the book is a hoax) gives to Holocaust-deniers.

  This cannot be circumvented by elaborate sophistries, such as the topic raised in one Swiss panel discussion: "Is literature a different and 'better' form of memory?"

A novel about death camps may be poignant and historically accurate, but it isn't memory. As Roger Boyes put it in the London Times -- the only piece I've seen so far reporting on the controversy in English --"fake Holocaust testimony distorts the debate."

The other matter of importance is Wilkomirski's claim that his childhood memories surfaced in his mind as a result of psychotherapy. This would bolster the idea that forgotten memories of childhood trauma can pop into a person's head and fishing for them has therapeutic as well as evidentiary value.True believers in the recovered memory syndrome have suffered many setbacks in the past few years. When Fragments first appeared, it was hailed by beleaguered supporters of the movement. Last year, Michele Landsberg wrote in the Toronto Star that "Wilkomirski's book is a rare testimony of the way children struggle to make sense of horror--and to validate their fragmented memories in the face of adult denial and silencing."

Now Ganzfried's research suggests that Wilkomirski's book may only be testimony to how people of vivid imagination can confuse their inventions with their memories.

Media fashions change, of course. By now most people see that whatever the scientific validity of recovered memory, its uncritical and premature introduction into the criminal justice system has been wrong. It demonstrably resulted in innocent people being falsely accused and convicted. Mental flashbacks elicited under therapy, unsupported by other evidence, cannot possibly amount to proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

When the recovered memory syndrome first came into vogue, the media jumped on the bandwagon and contributed to the hysterical atmosphere of a modern witch hunt. It was decidedly not the fourth (or fifth) estate's finest hour. If it recalled any memories, it was of the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, who once called journalists "the shallowest people on the ridge of the earth."

But there's a self-correcting side to a free press. Though we often resemble flocking birds, emitting shrill cries and flapping our wings in unison, after a given trend has run its course, one journalist or another usually calms down, does a little research, and rectifies the tribe's mistakes.

© 1998 The Calgary Herald

See too: Memoir of a Holocaust Survivor -- or an Ex-Priest's Novel? "Forward" finds itself asking  |  and Swiss and German journalists unmask a "survivor"

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