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The Yale Journal of Criticism 14.1 (2001) 67-92

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Memorizing Memory

Amy Hungerford

When Binjamin Wilkomirski's memoir, Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood, was published in 1995, it was hailed as a powerfully moving account of the author's experiences as a child during the Holocaust--an account whose disjointed narrative and simple, almost abstract style was said not just to represent, but actually to demonstrate, the effects of trauma on its author. But at the time of its German publication, there were already questions about the authenticity of Wilkomirski's story, as the author's legal name turned out to be Bruno Dössekker, and his Swiss birth record indicated that he was born not in Riga, Latvia as he had claimed in the memoir, but in Biel, Switzerland, and that he could not have been as old as he had claimed he was during the war.

Because of these questions about his identity, Wilkomirski added an afterword to the book before publication, citing the birth record and explaining that it was simply part of the new identity "imposed" upon him by Swiss authorities after the war. 1 This confession seemed not to bother early readers of the memoir, who praised its seemingly artless and unsentimental representation of brutality. As André Aciman put it, in a review for the New Republic, Wilkomirski's "aesthetic vision" was characterized by "incomplete or mistaken readings of reality, accompanied by rude, painful awakenings." While this style could be attributed, he suggested, "to the writer's desire to describe the events of the Holocaust purely from a child's perspective," that would only mean that Wilkomirski had employed what Aciman called an "old" stylistic "trick." Instead, the reviewer argued, "the fragmentary nature of Binjamin's account is not so much a product of the grown man's style as it is a product of the young boy's experience." 2 It was this kind of claim--that the very "fragments" of Wilkomirski's narrative were the evidence of its truth--that led readers to accept it despite the doubts raised at the outset by Bruno Dössekker's birth record.

Most readers will know the end of this story: the book's publisher, having hired an independent historian to investigate the matter in 1998, decided that there was enough doubt about the truth of the memoir to justify taking it out of print, and it was duly withdrawn from publication in the fall of 1999. Some continue to defend it, suggesting [End Page 67] that to doubt its authenticity is not only to underestimate the thoroughness of the Swiss bureaucracy in covering up the traces of a child's original identity, but is also to perpetuate the brutalization the child Binjamin suffered at the hands of the Nazis. 3 But two extensively researched essays published in the summer of 1999--Elena Lappin's in Granta and Philip Grourevitch's in the New Yorker--seem to have convinced most readers that Wilkomirski, if not the calculating liar that Daniel Ganzfried (a Swiss writer and his earliest critic) describes, is at least a seriously and sadly deluded person who has invented for himself a terrible history. We might simply say that the story of Wilkormiski's memoir reveals how our desire for such memoirs of difficult lives has created an atmosphere conducive to fraud, but I want to suggest that there is more to be said about the relation between the phenomenon of the false memoir and the common interest in trauma. For producing a fake is possible--and attractive to the would-be con artist--not only because the Holocaust memoir has become a form that has a certain cultural presence and worth (a worth evident in the various prizes and speaking tours that accompanied the general celebration of Wilkomirski's book) but also simply because the holocaust memoir is a form. 4 As one reviewer of Fragments noted (even before the questions about Wilkomirski arose), "a peculiar set of conventions has come to cluster around depictions of the Holocaust . . . the effect has been to turn the literature...


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