Biography 25.2 (2002) 369-371
[Access article in PDF]
In 1995, the respected German publishing house Suhrkamp issued Binjamin Wilkomirski's Fragments, purportedly the memoir of a child survivor of the Holocaust. Wilkomirski's book attracted considerable attention. In 1998, however, a Swiss journalist, Daniel Ganzfried, set off a major controversy when he charged that "Wilkomirski" had in fact been born in Switzerland and that he had never experienced the brutalities described in Fragments. Stefan Mächler, another Swiss journalist commissioned by the literary agency that handled the book, has now published a detailed investigation of "Wilkomirski" and Fragments.Mächler's book raises important questions about the ethics of biography and autobiography, and about the processes by which texts get accepted as authentic first-person accounts.
Mächler's account, based on research in Switzerland, Germany, Israel, and the United States, including interviews with "Wilkomirski," essentially endorses Ganzfried's conclusion that the man who now presents himself as a Holocaust survivor was an illegitimate child of non-Jewish Swiss parents who passed through several foster homes before being adopted under the name of Bruno D¨osseker. "Wilkomirski" was never in any German concentration camps, and, Mächler contends, both the account in Fragments and "Wilkomirski"'s subsequent defenses of his book contradict the documentary record and the testimony of other witnesses. "Wilkomirski" had the opportunity to review Mächler's manuscript before publication. He rejected the book's conclusions; his responses to Mächler's specific findings are incorporated in the text as footnotes.
If Mächler had simply laid out the contradictions in "Wilkomirski"'s story, his work would have limited implications. In fact, however, The Wilkomirski Affair goes considerably beyond an examination of the factual status of Fragments. In the first place, Mächler's account of his investigation offers an extreme version of the contest between biographer and autobiographer [End Page 369] for the right to narrate a life. In this case, Mächler and "Wilkomirski" are at odds not just about significant factual details or matters of interpretation, but about the latter's very right to label the personal narrative he has written as an autobiography. Mächler approaches the issue with sympathy, documenting the unhappy childhood of the young boy as he was shuffled from one institution and foster family to another. By coming to believe that he had suffered during the Holocaust, "Wilkomirski" made sense of his own life and attracted the sympathy and attention he had never received as a child. Despite these efforts to understand the mechanisms that drove "Wilkomirski" to these convictions, and despite a reluctance to accuse him of deliberate fraud, Mächler is unequivocal in his conclusion that there is an objective biographical truth that flatly contradicts "Wilkomirski"'s self-construction, and that the biographer, backed by documentary evidence and third-party testimony, has a stronger claim to be believed than the self-proclaimed autobiographer.
The second theoretically significant aspect of Mächler's work for life-writing studies is its close scrutiny of the process by which Fragments was accepted as authentic. As Mächler demonstrates, this result took the active cooperation of numerous others: sympathetic friends, therapists of the recovered-memory persuasion, and Holocaust survivors, but also literary agents, publishers, reviewers, and book-prize committees. "Wilkomirski" developed his story gradually, and Mächler shows how he gravitated to people who reinforced his dawning suspicions that his painful childhood memories were signs of his having experienced the Holocaust. As Mächler shows, doubts about the authenticity of "Wilkomirski"'s manuscript surfaced before the book appeared, but both his agent and his publisher were convinced by endorsements from psychologists and other writers about the Holocaust, by the emotional intensity of the work, and by fear that they might be discrediting an authentic survivor'...