Literature of the Holocaust
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Readers of this review are urged to consult The Wilkomirski Affair : A Study in Biographical Truth, by Stefan Maechler, the definitive report on Fragments, Binjamin Wilkomirski's invented "memoir" of a childhood spent in concentration camps, which created international turmoil. In 1995 Fragments, a memoir by a Swiss musician named Binjamin Wilkomirski, was published in Germany. Hailed by critics, who compared it with the masterpieces of Primo Levi and Anne Frank, the book received major prizes and was translated into nine languages. The English-language edition was published by Schocken in 1996. In Fragments, Wilkomirski described in heartwrenching detail how as a small child he survived internment in Majdanek and Birkenau and was eventually smuggled into Switzerland at the war's end. But three years after the book was first published, articles began to appear that questioned its authenticity and the author's claim that he was a Holocaust survivor. Stefan Maechler, a Swiss historian and expert on anti-Semitism and Switzerland's treatment of refugees during and after World War II, was commissioned on behalf of the publishers of Fragments to conduct a full investigation into Wilkomirski's life. Maechler was given unrestricted access to hundreds of government and personal documents, interviewed eyewitnesses and family members in seven countries, and discovered facts that completely refute Wilkomirski's book.
Review of Fragments by Binjamin Wilkomirski
Children of the Camps
By Jonathan Kozol Nation, Oct. 28, 1996
By Binjamin Wilkomirski.
Schocken. 157 pp. $20.
"Some day, maybe," wrote Erik Erikson, "there will exist a well-informed, well-considered, and yet fervent public conviction that the most deadly of all possible sins is the mutilation of a child's spirit; for such mutilation undercuts the life principle of trust, without which every human act, may it feel ever so good and seem ever so right, is prone to perversion by destructive forms of conscientiousness." It is hard to think of any recent book that demonstrates the truth of Erikson's belief as powerful ly as Binjamin Wilkomirski's memoir of the years he spent in Nazi concentration camps and of the immediate postwar years in Switzerland. This stunning and austerely written work is so profoundly moving, so morally important and so free from literary artif ice of any kind at all that I wondered if I even had the right to try to offer praise.
Wilkomirski was 3 or 4 years old, he thinks -- there are no certainties within this work -- when his family was uprooted from their home somewhere in Eastern Europe. After a period of flight in which he was a witness to his father's execution, Binjamin wa s separated from his brothers and his mother and transported to Majdanek, the first of several camps in which he spent the next four years.
"Found wandering on the outskirts of Auschwitz-Birkenau in the closing days of World War II," according to notes provided by his publisher, he was taken to an orphanage in Krakow and subsequently resettled at another orphanage in Switzerland. He still liv es in Switzerland, where he is a well-known classical musician.
Fragments records what Wilkomirski calls the "shards of memory with...knife-sharp edges" that remain to him from roughly 1939 to 1948. He does not, however, try to reconstruct an ordered sequence for these memories. "If I'm going to write about it, I have to give up the...logic of grown-ups," he tells us. "It would only distort what happened." Thus, for example, we are never told, because the child when he was a child did not know, where he lived before the war. Krakow is mentioned several t imes, and Riga once, though all he recalls with certainty of Riga is "a cry of terror" in "a staircase" and the warning, "Watch it: Latvian militia." We get the sense of a crowded train, a long journey, "terrible thirst" and "some vague hope" that has "so mething to do with Lemberg." But, speaking always from the perspective of a child, he says, "I don't know what Lemberg is. It's some kind of magic word.... Maybe someone we have to find...who's going to help." Help is not going to come. "We never reached Lemberg," the child tells us quietly.
The details of life within the camp are vividly recaptured. Four boys sleep together on a straw-filled mattress in a bunk. Between two rows of bunks there is a space in which, at first, the children are allowed to defecate. Binjamin learns to stand within the pool of excrement to keep his feet from freezing. Later, a bucket is brought in, but it fills up so quickly that the children, who are plagued with diarrhea, have to struggle upon pain of death to hold their bowels. A child who pees in his bed is exe cuted in the morning.
The guards are seen as "uniforms," some black, some gray, some "brownish-green," and are, by turn, good-natured and then murderous. One of the guards, "a powerful, bull-necked man" with "thick, strong arms," takes off his jacket and plays kickball with th e children, then suddenly lifts the "ball," a heavy wooden sphere, and smashes it into the skull of a small child, who dies instantly.
Another guard, a female, beckons Binjamin one day: "Today you can see your mother." Escorted to another building, he's directed to "a body under a gray cover." When the cover moves, he sees "a woman's head" and "then two arms." The woman, he remembers, "s eemed to smile." Then, "groping with her hand under the straw" on which she lay, she "motioned for me to come closer." Unable to speak, "she reached out her hand to me and indicated that I should take what she had brought out from under the straw.... I to ok the object, clutched it against me, and went toward the door." Only when he reached his barracks did he realize that her gift to him had been a piece of hardened bread.
The book is built on isolated incidents like these, semi-understood but unforgettable epiphanies rather than clearly recognized "events." Two small bundles are thrown on the floor of the children's barracks one cold night. Peering over the edge of his bun k, Binjamin sees that they are "tiny babies," still alive. By morning, the babies' blackened fingers have become "white sticks" because they chewed their frozen flesh down to the bone before they died.
Binjamin does not know why he survived. The only explanation that he can provide involves the kindness of an older boy named Jankl who slept with him on his mattress. "Jankl was good.... He knew how to steal food.... He always shared. Jankl was my friend. ... I owe my life to Jankl."
The book moves back and forth between the years within the death camps and the years in Switzerland. No line is drawn between the two experiences. The terrors that the child undergoes as victim of the guards at Majdanek are, in fact, exceeded frequently b y those he undergoes as victim of the dangerous solicitude of philanthropic grown-ups. Placed in a foster home in Switzerland, he panics at the insistence of his foster parents that he give up all the strategies of self-protection that he has acquired in the Nazi camps. Those strategies, he has reason to believe, had served him well. With Jankl's help, he had invented useful tools to deal with evil. But he has no tools, no skills, no strategies, to cope with the banality of good intentions.
It was the Nazis, he makes clear, who taught him the most lasting lesson of his life: "Friendly grown-ups are the most dangerous. They're best at fooling you." He had fought hard to adhere to this belief and became frantic when he was compelled to let down his defenses. "I was always being forbidden to stick to the most important rules of survival." When he stole food in the orphanage, he says, "they always found my hiding places.... Oddly, they didn't punish me, at least not right away.... What were they planning?"
His foster family later told him that the concentration camp had not been real, that "it was all a dream," but he was wise enough to have rejected this benighted, unconvincing explanation. His own belief, at least for a long time, was that "the camp's still there -- just hidden and...disguise d. They've taken off their uniforms" but "they can still kill." The flames that he sees through the door of a coal furnace in the basement of his foster family's home fill him with fear as great as any that he felt while he was living next to the gas ovens. "The oven door is smaller than usual," he notes, "but it's big enough for children."
Fragments will very likely be compared to Elie Wiesel's Night, an equally understated memoir recollected in a similarly pure and simple style. But Wiesel was 15 years old when he arrived at Auschwitz, so he understood, at least to some degre e, the genocidal context of his own experience. We read Fragments in a different way, participating in the chaos of a child's desperate incomprehension, his longing to find reference points that might explain the inexplicable. Night remains, for me, the classic work, the quintessential and enduring testament of Holocaust survival. Although universal in its implications, it nevertheless belongs to a narrowly specific time in history. Fragments, on the other hand, is likely to be read a s much by child psychologists as it will be by historians. It poses questions asked by those who work with spiritually tormented children everywhere: How is a child's faith in human decency destroyed? Once destroyed, how can it be rebuilt? Or can it never be? What strategies do children learn in order to resist obliteration in the face of adult-generated evil? Is it right to ask them later to renounce these learnings? Is it too dangerous for them to acquiesce? But, if they can't renounce the skills requir ed in a time of darkness, can they ever truly live within the light of normal day? What does "normal" mean in a world that will so easily sequester and destroy those it has first dehumanized? To ask children to believe in goodness, and even more important , in the reliability of goodness, is to assume or to pretend that we believe in it as well.
In one of the most widely quoted passages of Night, a fellow inmate confides to Wiesel that he has "more faith in Hitler" than in anybody else. Hitler, he says, is "the only one who's kept his promises...to the Jewish people." While Wilkomirski nev er tells us he had "faith" in any of the brutal "uniforms" of Majdanek, it is clear that he had more faith in the predictability of their behavior, once he understood it, than he ever felt in the allegedly kind people who believed they were befriending hi m in Switzerland. Indeed, for a long time, it appears, he had no faith that what was called "the normal world" outside the concentration camps was even real.
"Over there, in the fields" beyond the camp, the child says, "there was a world once, but it disappeared." Leaving the camp at war's end is, for this reason, deeply problematic for the child's understanding: "How can you go somewhere...that no longer exis ts?" As he finally leaves, he says, "We're on our way to nothing... the world's over."
The book ends with no salutary message and no artificial affirmation about human goodness. Only by writing this extraordinary book, by speaking as a witness to the death of faith, does Wilkomirski win a kind of victory at last and voice a final, although fragile, affirmation. The child, in all but physical respects, died long ago. He died at Majdanek and then a second time in Switzerland. The man survives somehow -- we don't know how, his sanity seems like a miracle -- and leaves this gift of nearly perfe ct pain and beauty to a world still willing to destroy the innocent.
Jonathan Kozol's most recent book is Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation (HarperCollins).
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