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 Krieg .
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 so.
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).