| This Weeks Column:
THE WILKOMIRSKI AFFAIR
by Dennis Loy Johnson
June 14, 2001 It wasn't the biggest selling book of the 90s, but Binjamin Wilkomirski's 1995 memoir "Fragments" was surely the most sensational and, before the decade was out, the most scandalous as well.
The story of a very young Polish Jewish boy whose first, fuzzy memories revolve around his incarceration in a Nazi death camp, it was a ghastly but riveting ride into hell with an innocent who hadn't even learned to speak yet.
Wilkomirski had not only a horrific childhood he watched his mother die, was regularly dusted with ash from the crematorium, and was subject to medical experimentation by a Mengele associate he also had a remarkably vivid memory for someone who'd been so young at the time. His prose style was equally remarkable simple as the child's perspective he sought to recapture, but with a blunt quality that made it seem as dispassionate as a piece of journalism. It was poetically beguiling, too a quality that helped it overcome lapses in the narrative where Wilkomirski's memory failed him.
It all made for an overwhelmingly powerful survivor's tale, and the fiftysomething author (Wilkomirski believed he was born in 1939) now living in Switzerland, was hailed by critics around the world. He gave readings, addressed groups of Holocaust survivors, participated in academic symposiums, received numerous awards and was the subject of documentary films and television shows.
Wilkomirski quickly developed a fanatical following amongst people moved by his story. And to historians, he was the rarest of rarities someone who could tell firsthand what the Nazis did to toddlers and infants. Most moving of all was his significance to those who'd lost small children in the Holocaust, wretchedly sad people made deliriously hopeful to find him. Did Wilkomirski, perhaps, know their loved one? Was he, perhaps, their loved one himself?
But then a journalist reported that Wilkomirski was something else that he wasn't, in fact, a survivor of the deathcamps. That he wasn't even Jewish. Or Polish. That his name wasn't even Wilkomirski.
Daniel Ganzfried of the Swiss newsweekly Weltwoche said Wilkomirski was actually a Swiss citizen named Bruno Grosjean, a Christian born in 1941 and raised in foster homes, who never left the country before adulthood.
Wilkomirski vehemently denied it, and a hail of vituperation pelted down on Ganzfried, particularly from survivor groups.
Nonetheless, Ganzfried filed another, more detailed report. Wilkomirski, meanwhile, was unable to verify some of his claims to his publishers. To some of Ganzfried's charges, he simply wouldn't respond at all.
Beginning to get nervous, Wilkomirski's agent hired historian Stefan Maechler to investigate.
Over an 18 month period, the investigation would uncover one devastating finding after another. Maechler gained access to records Wilkomirski denied existed, and interviewed countless witnesses who countered claims in "Fragments." He interviewed a man bearing a striking likeness to Wilkomirski who believed himself to be Wilkomirski's longlost father. And Maechler discovered that Wilkomirski had concealed an inheritance from Yvonne Grosjean the woman he denied was his mother.
To their credit, all of Wilkomirski/Grosjean's publishers, including Shocken in America, withdrew "Fragments" from publication when Maechler filed his report.
And with that, the story seemed to have ended a simple tale, if you overlook the wrecked reputations of those who supported Wilkomirski, who published him or gave him awards or made films about him or conducted searches for loved ones based on his lies: Wilkomirski/Grosjean was either a viciously cynical huckster, or a pathetically warped madman.
But in reality, the conclusion of this tale is not so neat, and now, thanks to a surprising decision by Shocken books, the truth behind "Fragments" has a chance to resonate more meaningfully. Shocken has republished the book, but with one addition the 374page report filed by Stefan Maechler.
Retitled "The Wilkomirski Affair," the combined sagas provide some of the most suspenseful and absorbing reading in recent memory, and Shocken which took considerable heat for not having investigated Wilkomirski before the original publication is to be applauded for acknowledging some culpability. They are the only Wilkomirski publishers to do so.
More importantly, the new publication allows for some answers that simply banning the book would have begged. For example, Maechler offers some moving psychological insight into why Wilkomirski would perpetrate such a horrendous hoax.
In the end, though, it's about nothing so much as a deeply thoughtprovoking consideration of the continuing ramifications of the actual Holocaust the thing everyone thought "Fragments" was about in the first place.
Last Weeks Column: ELEVEN KINDS OF LONELINESS Long considered a "writer's writer," Richard Yates is finally getting mass recognition, ten years after his death. A remembrance from his bartender.
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All material not otherwise attributed ©2001 Dennis Loy Johnson.