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Discourse 25.1&2 (2003) 119-137

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Telling Tales:
Trauma and Testimony in Binjamin Wilkomirski's Fragments 1

Anne Whitehead

In the context of Holocaust literature, there has been much recent discussion regarding the boundaries between fact and fiction. It has been recognized that Holocaust fiction is often based on extensive historical research and documentation, while Holocaust testimony is subject to the inaccuracies and distortions of memory. Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler's List, argued that his novel, based on interviews with survivors and extensive archival research, comprised a hybrid form, suspended between fact and fiction, which he termed "non-fiction fiction." Art Spiegelman's Maus comic books, based on historical research and interviews with his father, took thirteen years to complete. Spiegelman protested when the New York Times classified Maus under "Fiction" in its bestseller list; in response to his letter, the Times changed the classification of Maus from "Fiction" to "Fact." Of Holocaust testimony, Primo Levi, in The Drowned and the Saved, insisted that "[h]uman memory is a marvelous but fallacious instrument," liable to deterioration and decay, especially in the wake of such a catastrophic experience as the Holocaust (11). Elie Wiesel, in his memoir All Rivers Run to the Sea, revised and commented on a passage in Night, in which he described the horrific train journey to Auschwitz. Wiesel revealed that his description in Night mingled fact and fantasy, and distorted the truth of the event, and he observed of the process of testimony: "No witness is capable of recounting everything [End Page 119] from start to finish anyway. God alone knows the whole story" (Rivers 17). If testimonies inevitably contain errors and omissions, scholars nevertheless agree that they remain fundamentally accurate. Levi defended the consonance of his memories with the historical record, arguing that his own published writings are "unaffected by the drifting I have described" (21). Lawrence Langer observed that the essence and substance of Holocaust testimonies takes priority over inconsistencies or contradictions in their detail (xv).

The recent controversy surrounding Binjamin Wilkomirski's 1996 Fragments: Memories of a Childhood, 1939-1948 represented a crisis point in this discussion. Fragments narrated the story of its author's childhood experiences, which included escaping from the persecution of the Jews in Riga, surviving imprisonment in concentration camps in Poland, and being smuggled from a Polish orphanage to Switzerland immediately after the war. On publication, the text was widely hailed as a literary masterpiece, and received numerous prestigious awards, including the American National Jewish Book Award for autobiography and memoirs, the Jewish Quarterly prize for nonfiction, and the Prix Mémoire de la Shoah from the Fondation Judaisme FranÀ'Àais. However extensive research by Elena Lappin, Philip Grourevitch and Stefan Maechler has convincingly demonstrated that Wilkomirski invented the history in Fragments. Wilkomirski was born in Switzerland in 1941, under the name of Bruno Grosjean. He was brought up by his mother until he was two years old, when she was forced by the Swiss authorities to give him up for adoption, because he was illegitimate. He was officially adopted by the Doessekers in 1945, when he was four years old. In the wake of the revelations concerning Wilkomirski, the publishers temporarily withdrew Fragments from print in autumn 1999. Many critics turned against the work, arguing that it no longer had any literary value. However, influential scholars stood against the tide of opinion and defended the text. Susan Suleiman described Fragments as "a work of literary art, powerful in its effect" (553), Lawrence Langer regarded the book to be "a very compelling work of literature" (qtd. in Eskin, 107), and Deborah Lipstadt agreed, arguing: "If [Wilkomirski] had told the same story in terrible prose, it wouldn't have been mesmerizing" (qtd. in Eskin, 108).

Fragments collapsed the boundary between fact and fiction in an unprecedented manner, and critics were at a loss as to how to categorize the text. Although it was published as a memoir, this description was clearly no longer appropriate, because memoir, by definition, describes experiences that the author has lived [End Page 120] through. Wilkomirski self...


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