An examination of the key problems posed to historians examining memoirs in response to the Wilkomirski Controversy (by Tammy Cairns)

An examination of the key problems posed to historians examining memoirs in response to the Wilkomirski Controversy (by Tammy Cairns)

In 1995, Benjamin Wilkomirski’s critically and commercially acclaimed Holocaust story Fragments: Memories of a Childhood (1939-1948) was published in Germany. As a survivor of the Holocaust and a multi award-winning writer, Wilkomirski found himself in the public gaze having won critical acclaim, a number of international prestigious prizes and in turn becoming a prominent media figure and celebrated holocaust survivor. However, in 1998-99, journalist investigations exposed this memoir to be false and very few could have seen Wilkomirski’s dramatic fall from grace or the repercussions this would have on other similar works. It is due to the initial overwhelming positive reception that both Fragments and Wilkomirski himself received, that the scandal which followed is generally known. In this essay, I will be focusing on the problems the use of the memoir poses, in particular those written by holocaust survivors in the wake of the Wilkomirski controversy.

The use of memoirs in historical research have always been regarded as problematic. The questions of memory, motive, representation and the context in which they were written have always resulted in the historian placing a considerable amount of trust in the writer. Despite these problems, the use of memoirs have come to be invaluable especially since the 1960s and the influence of social history. The use of life writings, and memoirs in particular, have opened up the lives of everyday people, as until recently the lives of women and minorities have had to endure a process of suppression and repression (LaCapra, 1994, p.21). In times of war, the use of memoirs has allowed us a glimpse into the lives of working class Tommie’s on the front line, women on the home front and those imprisoned or persecuted, the latter of which is especially the case in Holocaust narratives.

It is under the genre of testimony or memoir that the editors and publishing houses have published the majority of holocaust narratives in good faith, and it was under this banner that Fragments: Memories of a childhood was published in Germany, and later worldwide (Plummer, 2001, p.232). The exposure Wilkomirski received in response to the international popularity of Fragments is primarily the reason for the public outcry that emerged after the fraud became public knowledge. Wilkomirski is not the first writer to publish a fictionalised memoir and pass it off as factual. In 1994, the memoir My Own Sweet Time by an Australian indigenous woman called Wanda Koolmatrie was exposed as a fraud, written in fact by a white Austrian man (Smith and Watson, 2010, p.37). The famous testimony I, Rigoberta Menchu, by Rigoberta Menchu has also come under close scrutiny due to its ‘witnessed evidence’ (Peskin, 2000, p.39). These further examples emphasise Wilkomirski does not provide us with a single case of publishers and public alike being fooled by fictional memoirs or events contained within them. The sheer publicity and recognition that Fragments gained however emphasised not only Wilkomirski’s unreliability as a ‘witness’ but also raised questions over other witnesses’ credibility (Tighe, 2005, p.101). Charges of hoaxing, bad faith and exaggerations reveal how complex questions of experience and integrity can become, especially when the narrator claims that the memories and experiences in the text are those of the author named on the cover (Smith and Watson, 2010, P.37).

One key problem with the use of memoirs for historians is the time lapse between events taking place and the recording of these events. Whereas a diary has the immediacy of being in close proximity to the event, memoirs are often written years or even decades after the event took place. As Kenneth Plummer argues, memories are simply our most habitually told stories; ones told so often that the speaker comes to believe they are true exactly as recounted (Plummer, 2001, p.234). The more time that passes, the further ingrained these stories become. Stefan Maechler writes in a similar vein that over time, suggestive questions can also produce and shape false memories (Maechler, 2001, p.68). It has been widely publicized that Wilkomirski was having treatment to help him clarify many inexplicable shards of memory (Scarse, 2001, p.163). The question posed by the therapists and specialists may have been responsible for the memories Wilkomirski then went on to ‘recover’.

Another problem present with the time span between the events happening and the writing of the memoir is the changes that happen in society. These changes help the author make sense of the events that occurred as well as allowing them to become aware of the outcomes of the event, both shaping how the author writes about them. The teller of the story will always shape the story, just as the cultural expectations and conditions shape the author (Williams, 2003, pp.297-298). With themes such as gender and race taking on new historical significance in recent years, the life writings written in the last few decades will have a different focus to those written previously. If we apply this theory to Plummer and Maechler’s arguments, then over time, the significance of the Holocaust will have changed, resulting in how those who experienced it would remember their experiences. As the questions asked of the survivors changed, so too would their memories.

With the constant retelling of the Holocaust on television, film, theatre, literature (both fiction and non-fiction) as well as oral history and memorialisation projects, the event has in effect become part of a ‘collective memory’. Narrative accounts often follow a formula as seen a century earlier in the majority of slave narratives or the most recent ‘quest narratives’ that focus on the overcoming of tragedy. Those memoirs that follow the conventions laid out by their predecessors are no less valuable to historians, however, as Plummer notes these do lead to a commodification where other people’s stories become repeated and rehearsed by others and in effect become cliché (Plummer, 2001, p.241). Wilkomirski’s memoir in particular has had similarities drawn with The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski (Scarse, 2001, p.162) and Years of Childhood by Jona Oberski, which was also written exclusively from a child’s viewpoint (Maechler, 2001, p.81). Additionally, Wilkomirski had his own personal library of over two thousand books and memoirs telling the stories of the Holocaust. Over time, these books and his own personal memories seem to have become muddled, especially once he started therapy on his ‘repressed memories’. This blurring between collective memory and actual memory has long provided historians with difficulties in accessing the truth. It is in these gray areas that the use of diaries and the immediacy they offer can provide a deeper insight into how these experiences were lived and felt during contemporary conditions. This does not necessarily take away the validity of memoirs but instead can add to the understanding of them and the context in which they were written.

In relation to memoirs concerning emotive subjects, it is often difficult to gauge the level of historical accuracy due to the emotional pull they have on the reader. Even though objectivity is something historians strive for, the success of Fragments and other holocaust memoirs reveals how the public consume such material. The majority of holocaust memoirs, it has been argued by Andrew Gross and Michael Hoffman, are not read for their historical insight, but instead for their emotive power (Gross and Hoffman, 2004, p.32). Michael Bernard-Donals examines this emotional pull further when he warns that although a testimony may be effective in allowing the reader a glimpse into the trauma suffered by the writer, this alone does not provide evidence that the event happened. This is summed up in his statement that testimonial narratives (or memoirs) do not disclose history, instead they disclose the affect the events had on the witness (Bernard-Donals, 2001, pp.1303-1308). The problem this presents historians with is the lack of ‘facts’ presented. The need for evidence in historical writing has always been paramount, from students to academics; evidence is required to illustrate and justify particular explanations of events (Young, 1998, p.37). In this sense, the use of memoirs is not enough to confirm an event has happened. Instead, they can explain how an event shaped and affected the people involved but further proof and evidence will always need to be sought to confirm what officially happened. In the case of Fragments, the events written did not actually happen to the author, and although Wilkomirski has suffered a great deal of trauma, this was not in the way he described in his book. The emotional pull of this work on the reader is a prime example of the argument made above by Bernard-Donals and Young.

One of the biggest problems with Fragments is that the author genuinely believed he was Binjamin Wilkomirski, the child survivor of the holocaust. It has been claimed after the fraud emerged that ‘knowledgeable historians’ such as Paul Hilberg realised early on that Fragments was a possible work of fiction (Finklestein, 2003, p.60). In hindsight, the mere fact that this young child was able to survive Nazi camps Majdanek and Auschwitz, and the constant selection processes in place is enough to raise questions. The ambiguities present are also glaringly obvious once the true story is known. For example ‘it must have been Riga, in winter’ (Wilkomirski, 1996, p.6), why must it be Riga? The author never reveals how or why he has assumed this. Another example is when he witnesses the death of a man who ‘maybe my father’ (Wilkomirski, 1996, p.6). If this man was Wilkomirski’s father then why did he not know this? Instead of providing answers to his own questions, he instead edges from them and focuses on the emotional content of a certainty without making the connection absolutely clear (Tighe, 2005, p.94). What Plummer refers to as the ‘correspondence theory of truth’ which would involve the cross checking of births, school records and measuring ‘objective objects’ is difficult to equate when examining subjective aspects such as feelings, thoughts and emotions (Plummer, 2001, p.240). All of these ambiguities are brought vividly to life by Wilkomirski’s work and remind the researcher of the problems posed by memoirs, especially those on the holocaust or written in a child’s perspective.

In response to the Wilkomirski affair, a number of holocaust testimonies were re-categorised under ‘fiction’. Ann Charney, the author of Dobryd, which documents her survival in Nazi occupied Poland, took the decision herself to place her book as fiction because ‘she did not trust the factual accuracy of [her] recollections.’ This was also the case for many other holocaust memoir writers, including the journalist who initially outed Wilkomirski (Feuchtwang, in Radstone and Hodgkin, 2003, p.83). By producing a fake personality to go with the memoir, Wilkomirski pointed out the unreliability of oral and personal testimony especially an area where a great many documents are missing. The enormous voids this presents us in understanding the Holocaust and the people who enabled it, opens the subject up further for more cases such as Fragments (Tighe, 2005, p.100). This problem can be applied to many events where official documents are problematic, not only of genocide but also the lives of those under corrupt and repressive regimes.

For many, Wilkomirski was not simply a fraud or a hoax but instead a man so deeply traumatised by the events of his early life that his holocaust memoir is in some respects seen as a metaphor of his holocaust of the soul. Rachel Carroll see’s Wilkomirski as ‘a witness without an event’ (Carroll, 2007, p.23), while Gross and Hoffman use Fragments to illustrate that affect is no guarantee of accuracy. Although Wilkomirski’s trauma is nevertheless real and critics do not doubt the authenticity of his suffering per se, it is his actual claim to have been a victim of the holocaust, which is where he crosses the line (Gross and Hoffman, 2004, p.36). Throughout creative literature, there are numerous examples of writer’s identification with the persecuted Jew and where the Holocaust is used as a metaphor for severe psychological pain. Sylvia Plath’s poetry and, more recently, Das Judasschaf by the German feminist writer Anne Duden are prime examples of this (Reiter, in Gray and Oliver, 2004, p.133). Therefore, if Wilkomirski had published his book as fiction, or stated that the holocaust was a metaphor for his own individual suffering then he would have been able to keep his credibility intact. Because the holocaust is such a dark part of Western history, and the persecution still weighs heavily on the Jewish consciousness is where Wilkomirski make his biggest mistake. By being accepted within the Jewish community there was a great deal of trust and faith given to him by academics and the general public and once this was lost, his fall from grace was guaranteed.

In conclusion, although historians have a long history of questioning and examining the use of testimonies, the debate continues regarding their authenticity and validity in a large part due to the existence of works such as Fragments. In response to Wilkomirski, many other holocaust survivors reclassified their own memoirs as fiction as they were unable to offer evidence of when events occurred and felt unable to rely on their own memories, in part due to the time lapsed between the event and the time of writing. It has also been made apparent through Fragments that when examining emotions, thoughts and feelings, it is difficult to assess the historical value as no evidence can be given to confirm that what is written is genuine, as previously discussed such works do not disclose history itself. The exposure the Wilkomirski controversy received was largely in part due to the subject he was covering as other fraudulent memoirs have also been exposed and received less coverage in both the media and academia. What the Wilkomirski debate has emphasised is the problem trauma provides for the historian especially when it is used as a metaphor unconsciously by the author.

• Bernard-Donals, M. (2001), ‘Beyond the Question of Authenticity: Witness and Testimony in the Fragments Controversy’, in PMLA, vol. 116, no. 5, pp.1302-1315

• Carroll, R. (2007), ‘Possessed by the Past: Agency, Inauthentic Testimony, and Wilkomirski’s Fragments’, in Literature Interpretation Theory, vol. 18, pp.21-36

• Feuchtwang, S. (2003), ‘Loss: transmissions, recognitions, authorisations’ in, Radstone, S. and Hodgkin, K. (2009, 4th ed.), (eds.), Memory Cultures: Memory, Subjectivity and Recognition, New York: Routledge

• Finkelstein, N. (2003), The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, London: Verso

• Gross, A. S. and Hoffman, M. J. (2004), ‘Memory, Authority and Identity: Holocaust Studies in Light of the Wilkomirski Debate’, in Biography, vol. 27, no. 1, pp.25-47

• LaCapra, D. (1994), Representing the Holocaust: history, theory, trauma, New York: Cornell University Press

• Maechler, S. (2001), ‘Wilkomirski the Victim: Individual Remembering as Social Interaction and Public Events’, in History and Memory, vol. 13, no. 2, pp.59-95

• Peskin, H. (2000), ‘Memory and Media: “Cases” of Rigoberta Menchu and Binjamin Wilkomirski’, in Memory and Media Society, vol. 38, no. 1, pp.39-46

• Plummer, K. (2001), Documents of Life 2: An Invitation to a Critical Humanism, London: Sage Publications

• Reiter, A. (2004), ‘Memory and Authenticity: the case of Binjamin Wilkomirski’, in Gray, P. and Oliver, K. (eds), (2004), The memory of catastrophe, Manchester: Manchester University Press

• Scarse, D. (2001), ‘Review: The Wilkomirski Affair: A study in Biographical Truth by Stefan Maechler’ in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, vol. 15, no. 1, pp.161-163

• Smith, S. and Watson, J. (2010, 2nd ed.), Reading Autobiography: A guide for interpreting life narratives, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

• Tighe, C. (2005), Writing and Responsibility, Oxon: Routledge

• Young, J. E. (1998), Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequences of Interpretation, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press

2 thoughts on “An examination of the key problems posed to historians examining memoirs in response to the Wilkomirski Controversy (by Tammy Cairns)

  1. Pingback: Fragments — The fake memoirs of Binjamin Wilkomirski | Scrapbookpages Blog

  2. We all experience unexpected and upsetting recollections from our early years that are so graphic, usually as a consequence of some emotional trauma, some are true to life and, some are not so true to life and, so far fetched we ponder on where they ever came from.

    But our subconscious, like our dreams have an eerie tendency of repositioning events, that when we are in the here and now, appear so real.

    Memories for a child that has been involved in such abominations from World War II are then subsequently presented later on in a fractured fashion because the brain becomes so swamped with everything that has happened.

    Something that happened in a child’s life, will then, later on, be understood in their minds much differently. As a child I would encounter people that I visualised as being extremely tall, but as I got older and, met them years later, they did not appear as tall as I had though they were from when I was younger, they just appeared tall because I was smaller.

    A location that I may have been to stay in when I was younger may have appeared very large, but when I visited as I got older, it did not look so because I had got bigger.

    It’s what happens to your brain to allow you to recall say your favourite film, your summer break or your first kiss and, then what happens to them as a collective because our powers of recall supply each of us with a huge but flawed warehouse of enlightenment and, a foundation for our own life story.

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