A Life in Pieces Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 29)

The Polish artist and writer Bruno Schulz, who was shot and killed by a Gestapo officer in the Polish ghetto of Drohobycz in 1942, once worried about what should be done about events that have no place of their own in historical time, and he wrote that time might be “too narrow for all events.” Furthermore, he believed that when “one is burdened with a contraband of supernumerary events that cannot be registered, one cannot be too fussy”—they can simply be placed into one of time’s many parallel branching streams. However, as Blake Eskin’s book more than amply demonstrates, what is good for the artist is not always good for the memoirist. Schulz’s comments were made in the context of one of his fictions, Sanatorium pod klepsydą, (1937; Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, 1978), in which he argued that some things in life are “too big and too magnificent to be contained in mere facts,” and the only way to fully understand these moments is through “the phenomenon of imagination and vicarious being.” The artist, in other words—whether painter or writer—is best suited to render what is in excess of history and chronological time. Conversely, Eskin’s book is about a man, the Swiss Bruno Doessekker, who invented a vicarious being for himself, the Latvian Jew Binjamin Wilkomirski, then placed himself in the eye of one of the worst catastrophes of the twentieth century, the Holocaust, and published the account of his suffering there as autobiography, thereby eliding the boundaries between art and history and calling into question the ethics of memory.

When Binjamin Wilkomirski’s book Bruchstücke first appeared in Germany in 1995 and in English translation as Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood in 1996, it was greeted with broad and wild acclaim and netted such prestigious awards as the National Jewish Book Award and the Prix de Mémoire de la Shoah. Although it was certainly not the first Holocaust memoir to create such a sensation, it was considered by many to be one of the most singularly arresting pieces of nonfiction literature on the Holocaust ever written, mainly due to the book’s narrative persona: a naïve child who was only a toddler when the Nazis came to Riga, emptied out the ghetto, and deported the Jews to the death camps in Poland. In the camps, the young Binjamin has absolutely no sense of time or place, or even of his own identity in relation to that time and place, and his recollections of the horrors and cruelties he experienced there before being smuggled into Switzerland after the war are rendered by Wilkomirski with a raw, unfiltered immediacy. InThe New Yorker in 1999, Philip Gourevitch wrote that “Wilkomirski was held in awe for his ability to evoke the existential predicament of being frozen inside the uncomprehending yet too knowing mind of a traumatized child.”

Four years after Wilkomirski’s book was first published, and after Wilkomirski spent years traveling around the world promoting his story as well as the causes of Holocaust testimony and recovered traumatic memory, he was exposed as a fraud in 1998 in the Zurich weekly Die Weltwoche by the Swiss writer Daniel Ganzfried. Binjamin Wilkomirski, it turned out, was not the Latvian Jewish Holocaust survivor he claimed to be, but Bruno Doessekker, a Swiss music teacher and clarinet maker who had been born Bruno Grosjean in Switzerland in 1941 to an unmarried Christian woman and later adopted in the mid-1940’s by the affluent Protestant Doessekker family. Eskin has both a personal and professional stake in Wilkomirski’s story; nevertheless, his book does not simply accept and elaborate upon Ganzfried’s conclusions, and Eskin is even willing to take into serious consideration Doessekker’s own claim that “The reader was always free to conceive of my book as either literature or as a personal document.” Eskin explores every side and facet of the case, not to finally settle the matter, but to pose the more provocative question of whether or not it is ever possible to unravel the tenuous lines that knit together memory and history.

Eskin first noticed Fragments in 1997 in a catalog he was browsing and was struck by the name Wilkomirski, because his mother had told him throughout his childhood that her family had come to New York from Riga, Latvia, where their name was Wilkomirski. This led both him and his mother to read the book, which in turn inspired his mother to contact the author and ask him if he would like to explore their possible family connections. “Wilkomirski” replied enthusiastically and after an extended correspondence with Eskin’s mother, there was finally an actual meeting with twenty Eskin family members in New York in...

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