Wilkomirskis förfalskade självbiografi
Falska minnen tillförlitligt avslöjade
Hösten 1998 avslöjade den schweiziske journalisten Daniel Ganzfried,
själv son till en överlevare från nazisternas koncentrationsläger, hur
den då hyllade "självbiografin" Fragments: Memories of a
Wartime Childhood av Binjamin Wilkomirski, var en stor bluff.
Wilkomirski var inte, som han själv hävdade – och fortfarande
hävdar! – ett judiskt barn som genomlevt förintelsen i Majdanek och
Efter att ha hyllats för sin bok, emottagit ett stort antal
utmärkelser, turnerat som föreläsare – bl a tillsammans med "sin
terapeut som skapat en metod för återkallande av traumatiska
minnen" – kom avslöjandet att författaren var Bruno Grosjean, ett
schweiziskt, kristet, adoptivbarn som inte lämnat hemlandet innan vuxen
Efter avslöjandet tillsattes historikern Stefan Maechler att utreda
hur det kom sig att en sådan total svindel kunnat genomföras. I den
nyligen publicerade boken The Wilkomirski Affair:
A Study in Biographical Truth beskriver Maechler vad han kommit
fram till. Här återger vi med benäget tillstånd en presentation av
A Holocaust Fraud Exposed, a Peccadillo Papered Over
by Rick Perlstein
The Wilkomirski Affair: A Study in Biographical Truth, by Stefan
Maechler. Schocken Books, 496 pages, $16.95.
No nation is immune to the snares of mass hysteria. Here in America,
consider the 80’s wave of accusations of "Satanic ritual abuse"
against day-care providers. Outside caregivers were the ones implicated,
only rarely biological parents–and once the thing finally began
unwinding, you didn’t have to be a social psychologist to figure it all
out. There was a lot of free-floating and repressed anxiety about the
increasing incidence of working women offering up their children to be
raised in day-care centers; visions of livestock killings, feces games and
underground tunnels where tots were coerced into sex and fealty to Old
Scratch were how, as it were, society’s repressed returned.
Europe being an entirely more morally serious place, the stage for
their recent mass delusion was more world-historic. The dynamics, on the
other hand, were strikingly the same. It was in the fall of 1996 when,
under the prodding of our own Alfonse D’Amato, a class-action suit was
taken out against Switzerland’s major banks by Holocaust survivors to
hold the banks accountable for trafficking in looted gold, hoarding money
left in victims’ and survivors’ accounts, and laundering Germany’s
foreign holdings to supply Hitler with enough hard currency to keep up der
Large swatches of the Swiss reading public had a favorite book around
then. Fragments was a memoir of a Holocaust childhood, by a man called
Binjamin Wilkomirski. Its imagery was stunning–for instance the child
feeling his way through the new concept of motherhood: "All I
understood was that a mother [was] something that was worth fighting for,
the way you fought over food." The story behind the story, as it
began making its way public, seemed even more so: The memoirist
Wilkomirski, who still maniacally wiggled his toes unconsciously in the
night for fear of devouring rats, was in the midst of an unceasing
struggle to reclaim the truth of his Jewish past from foster parents so
determined to deny it they even went to the length of sending away their
own small child in order for Binjamin Wilkomirski to take up his identity.
Implausible? Perhaps. But critical acclaim for the book was
overwhelming (Fragments bore "the weight of this century," went
a typical Swiss review); translations, and copycat praise, followed in
nine languages more (The Nation’s reviewer: "I wonder if I even
have the right to try to offer praise"). Awards followed from
upstanding Jewish organizations on two continents, and also psychological
organizations, before which the author barnstormed with his Israeli
therapist to promote their new method combining the arts of psychoanalysis
and historiography to give new life to victims of long-repressed trauma.
And survivors of all kinds now spoke of Mr. Wilkomirski as the hero who
gave shape and meaning to experiences their minds would not let them
recall. He almost, it seemed, gave a nation its conscience back: In August
of 1998, Switzerland’s major banks agreed to pay $1.25 billion to the
Jewish class-action litigants.
Two weeks later came the sucker punch. Swiss novelist Daniel Ganzfried,
himself a son of a survivor, released an article in a Swiss journal
calling Binjamin Wilkomirski a man who "knows Auschwitz and Majdanek
only as a tourist," his book a "coldly planned swindle."
60 Minutes followed up with corroborating evidence a few months later–a
particular embarrassment to the American Holocaust Museum, which had given
the book and its author an especially warm welcome. Further investigations
followed, sullying even the prestigious publisher, Schocken Books, that
brought out the English edition: The translator of Fragments, Carol
Janeway (who is also director of foreign rights at Knopf–like Schocken,
an imprint of Random House), introduced into her version literary
corruptions which, if seen in light of Schocken’s later publication of
the study presently under review, seem a mild form of actual corruption.
The Wilkomirski case is far more interesting than any swindle; it is
certain to be enshrined in textbooks on abnormal psychology, and in
sociology textbooks as well. Born Bruno Grosjean, the child of a troubled,
illegitimate affair, the young boy spent years bouncing from orphanages to
cruel and neglectful foster homes before landing with adoptive parents,
the wealthy Dössekers, who took the boy in–mostly to have someone to
take over the aloof and arrogant father’s medical practice. Other
similarly traumatized adoptees might have fantasized castles and heroics.
Bruno, instead, unconsciously chose to become the Baron Munchausen of the
Holocaust memory wars.
It started, apparently, when he first glimpsed magazine pictures of the
death camps. His new parents implored him never to bring up the subject.
This seems plausible. In Switzerland, as Jane Kramer has elucidated in a
brilliant 1997 New Yorker article, "the clean white snow blanket of
Swiss rectitude and Swiss safety" had become an excuse for national
repression of the fact that Swiss wealth was built from "manna from
Hell"–Swiss complicity in Nazi fortunes. But the bruised young boy
embraced the verboten subject. And through a remarkable lifelong process
of elision and accretion–he would hear a detail from a bona fide
survivor, unconsciously map it against his actual childhood memories of
arbitrary authority, and then double back to the original survivor’s
story as evidence of his own experience–Mr. Wilkomirski came to believe
himself a Holocaust survivor. And the world eagerly came to believe him
Ensconced under the clean white snow blanket of vicariously pure
victimhood, readers made him a kind of international messiah. Then he was
exposed; and yet for many he remained an international messiah. "Account
of a Child Survivor: Fact or Fiction?–Does It Really Make a Difference?"
was the title of a 1999 article about the subject in Martyrdom and
Resistance, a publication of the International Society for Yad Vashem.
Binjamin Wilkomirski and the modern cult of victimology implicate each
other. Binjamin Wilkomirski and Switzerland implicate each other. And
Binjamin Wilkomirski and the Holocaust memory industry implicate each
other. These are the themes that emerged from two previous investigations
of the matter, both very fine, by Philip Gourevitch in The New Yorker and
Elena Lappin in Granta. And these themes are only explicated in more
detail in Swiss historian Stefan Maechler’s The Wilkomirski Affair: A
Study in Biographical Truth. It’s pretty good, though marred by a
pretentious structure (in the opening pages, the main narrative is told in
self-contained chapters from different vantage points, which confuses more
than it enlightens) and by some exceptionally heavy-handed
social-psychological and literary-critical interpretations. It should be
said, however, that it’s not so good that the ordinary reader wouldn’t
be just as well off with a trip to the local library to photocopy the
articles from The New Yorker and Granta.
And yet, some of the forensic coups Mr. Maechler adds to the story are
quite stunning. A typically eye-popping one is his discovery that one of
Mr. Wilkomirski’s key witnesses in his after-scandal face-saving, a
survivor named Laura Grabowski who corroborated Mr. Wilkomirski’s
memories of Birkenau, was actually a woman named Lauren Stratford–the
American author of Satan’s Underground, a "memoir" about her
awful childhood experience of Satanic ritual abuse! Mr. Maechler also
nails his own countrymen with aplomb. My favorite is the Swiss lawyer who
sued Mr. Wilkomirski when he learned the book was a fake–not just to
recover the cost of the book, but because he had been "maliciously
tricked into feeling sympathy for this topic."
That takes care of the review. But there’s another matter: the
strange provenance of Mr. Maechler’s book. A Swiss literary agent, Eva
Koralnik, shepherded Mr. Wilkomirski’s bogus Fragments into publication
with astonishing speed (it came to her as an unsolicited manuscript). In
lieu of outright contrition, Ms. Koralnik commissioned Mr. Maechler to
write his "Study in Biographical Truth." Whatever you think of
the moral bona fides of that move, consider the parallel act of the book’s
U.S. publisher, Schocken: The American edition of Mr. Maechler’s book is
an act of contrition avoided.
Mr. Maechler notes that "Many critics have remarked on Fragments’
emotional and brutal aesthetic of violence; some have even spoken of a
pornography of violence." European critics, he means. You never learn
from The Wilkomirski Affair that the version of Fragments English-language
readers have seen–which is reprinted in The Wilkomirski Affair as an
appendix–is quite different from the German. Mr. Maechler told The
Observer that Mr. Ganzfried believes that Fragments in the original is
"pornographic" and that Carol Janeway’s English translation is
prettified–turned into something more literary. It also introduced
distortions that squeeze Mr. Wilkomirski more perfectly into the mold of
Perfect Victim. For example, as Ms. Lappin has pointed out, Mr.
Wilkomirski’s German recalls a schoolyard ditty aimed at him as "Beggar
child, the beggar child, he still hasn’t got enough"; in Ms.
Janeway’s English it’s "Beggar kid, beggar kid. There’s never
enough for the yid." It scans better, and it adds a telling
anti-Semitic detail in no way present in the original. Ms. Janeway’s
version of Fragments is both less repellent and more pitiful: No wonder
some of Mr. Wilkomirski’s most belated defenders are American.
Ms. Janeway saw The Wilkomirski Affair through publication in America,
but Schocken’s edition never mentions discrepancies in the translation
of Fragments. Ms. Janeway’s motives for publishing Stefan Maechler’s
corrective study are likely colored by contrition–and yet this omission,
in an otherwise overwhelmingly exhaustive 500-page book, is troubling. The
Wilkomirski Affair succeeds in putting away for good any lingering doubts
about the character of the man who calls himself Binjamin Wilkomirski. As
for the character of those who saw Mr. Wilkomirski into print, doubts are
still in order.
Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater
and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (Hill & Wang).
ran on page 23 in the 4/30/01 edition of The New York Observer.