(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In 1995, Fragments, a short Holocaust memoir written in a staccato style, was published in Germany. Binjamin Wilkomirski, its author, presented his account as virtually a verbatim report of his fragmentary memories of a childhood at two concentration camps, Majdanek and Auschwitz, both in Poland. Wilkomirski made no claims for his book as literature; indeed, he emphasized that he could provide only a literal picture of the shards of his memory. However, these shards, he maintained, were absolutely authentic. They had remained a vivid part of his life and had been uncorrupted by his subsequent experiences. Shortly before publication of Fragments, another publisher alerted Wilkomirski’s publisher that Wilkomirski’s claims were, at the least, open to doubt, but the power of his story and Wilkomirski’s own affirmation that he had researched his life over several decades overrode any qualms his supporters had, and then the reviews and public response seemed to ratify and strengthen his case. Eva Koralnik, his literary agent, had a distinguished history of publishing survivor literature, and her own troubled childhood background resonated with Wilkomirski’s story, especially his account of how he discovered in Poland that he was related to the Wilkomirski family and took their name as his own after the war. He received honors from both Jewish and psychological organizations that were impressed with the sincerity of his writing and with his efforts to assist other Holocaust survivors in recovering and articulating their memories.

Then, in 1998, journalist Daniel Ganzfried wrote a series of articles pointing out that Wilkomirski could not document a single one of his experiences as a Holocaust victim. Indeed, Ganzfried believed Wilkomirski had assumed a false identity—that in fact he was Bruno Grosjean, an adopted child of a Swiss couple, the Dössekers. Ganzfried had obtained documents that seemed to clinch his case. Other journalists also began to cast doubt on Wilkomirski’s memoir, and his publisher and agent felt compelled to employ Stefan Maechler, a historian of the Holocaust, to investigate the sources of Fragments. Remarkably, Wilkomirski was also a party to the investigation and promised to cooperate fully with the historian’s inquiry.

Maechler’s book emulates, in so far as is possible, the process of his research. He begins with “The Story of Bruno Grosjean,” an opening chapter that basically confirms Ganzfried’s research and adds even more details from Maechler’s investigation, including accounts of his interviews with Bruno’s (Binjamin’s) mother’s brother, which help Maechler to pin down how Bruno came to be adopted by a Swiss family. At this point, it is not clear how Wilkomirski could possibly maintain he is not Bruno Grosjean.

Maechler next presents “Wilkomirski Tells His Own Story,” a compelling defense culled from Wilkomirski’s own words in letters and in interviews with Maechler and others. Wilkomirski points out that many children of the Holocaust were given false identity papers and to this day cannot definitively reestablish their identities. What is more, Wilkomirski does not deny having been brought up by the Dössekers; rather, he claims that he was the child exchanged for Bruno Grosjean and given Grosjean’s identity papers. Other discrepancies and contradictions in Fragments are just that, Wilkomirski asserts—that is, they are the stumbling, incomplete efforts of a man attempting to reconstruct past events that bewildered and traumatized him as a child.

Rather than challenging Wilkomirski and simply presuming he is a liar—as Ganzfried did—Maechler explores “The Origins of Fragments,” a memoir he sees as growing out of a childhood that was indeed harrowing and which led to the story of a boy who lost his mother at the age of four and then found himself at the mercy of an abusive adoptive parent, Frau Dösseker, who assaulted his identity in ways that led Bruno to identify with the Jewish survivor children of the Holocaust. In other words, the thesis that Maechler tentatively advances in this section is that Bruno Grosjean had to find a story and an identity that provided...

(The entire section is 1715 words.)