Die Geliehene Holocaust-Biographie: The Purloined Holocaust Biography
by Daniel Ganzfried, translated from the German by Katherine Quimby Johnson.
This article originally appeared in Die Weltwoche, Aug. 27, 1998, http://www.weltwoche.ch/
Subheadline: Binjamin Wilkomirski's "Fragments," currently the most successful Swiss book, is a fiction. If someone comes and maintains that he has been inside Hell, we sympathize without reflection. He relieves us of the task of understanding Auschwitz.
A two or three-year-old child enters the gears of the Nazi machinery of destruction, survives Majdanek, Auschwitz, survives the whole journey through the labyrinth of Horror, and is finally tossed up on the banks of Lake Zurich, where he keeps what he has experienced to himself, until, long after he has become a grown man, he begins to write. The manuscript ends up with the respected Zurich literary agent Liepman and, in 1995, finally appears under the title Fragments from a Childhood, 1939-1948 from the Jewish Press of Suhrkamp.
Since then, Binjamin Wilkomirski has become a public figure. This child, now a mature person of flesh and blood, travels the world. Translations appear in more than a dozen languages. To date, the book has spawned three films, one play, many learned treatises, and untold feature stories and reviews. Nothing is lacking, in order to indicate the great entrance of literary Switzerland in Frankfurt [i.e., the Book Fair], in the form of this book, the most successful in many years. Perhaps Zoe Jenny's Blutenstaubzimmer, another small book that appeared several years later from the same publisher, is comparable to it. But that was reviewed as a novel, which lets it remain innocent.
We read Fragments and are moved by the brutality of what is described, but at the same time we are somewhat repelled: rats eat dead bodies in the open; the shattered skulls of children spray brains over slimy snow; a father spews out blood as he is run over by a truck and killed; and two dying children gnaw their already frozen fingers to the bone out of hunger.
It's All an Anti-Semitic Conspiracy?
Such episodes must touch every reader's heart, so nothing can go wrong for the author, we think. We read further and ward off the vapidity that we notice between the coarseness of the portrayals and the language, which is like that of a poetry album. It is as if someone were describing, without it being any of his own creation, what struck him from a repulsive book of pictures with bad commentary. Yet sympathy for the fate that the author advertises as his own prohibits questions. We want to exile this book to the shelf headed "Holocaust." But one reservation cannot be pushed aside: The memories of someone in his mid-fifties about his earliest childhood, those rendered here, in what soil are they rooted?
An Afterword, "About this book," asserts that he has no birth certificate, only a "makeshift extract," which gives his date of birth as February 12, 1941. The documentary films about the book do not shed any light, nor do the written publications. Even after our more than seven-hour conversation with the author in his lovingly renovated cottage in the Thurgau, none of our questions were answered.
Who is Binjamin Wilkomirski? The product of a creative act by Bruno Doessekker, as he is legally called, and as is written on his mail box, a creative act nourished by historical research? Or actually the child from Riga who escaped the death factory?
In a lecture at the Psychoanalytic Seminar in Zurich, held at the beginning of this year  and available on tape, we meet Wilkomirski as the representative of a therapeutic method, namely "Interdisciplinary Therapy." He is able to "treat" people without an assured identity, as they bring scraps of memory to light, by attaching to those scraps the appropriate facts and locales out of actual history. In this way, the patient's own life history, including identity, can be regained.
We wait in vain for the obvious question as to how fiction and factuality, the two components of every recounted memory, are to be differentiated from one another. The thrilled public, a majority of them educated analysts, preferred to remain silent, as various participants of the event told us. Days later, at our meeting, Wilkomirski offered the following theory: The traumatic memory of what has happened, even in earliest childhood, is preserved, as clear as glass, in the soul.
We sit with Binjamin Wilkomirski at the table. Everywhere the eye looks there is Judaica: wall hangings with Biblical motifs, mezuzahs on every passage and entrance, stars of David and pictures of the Holy Land. It seems to us as if at any moment a rabbi may appear in order to test his convert's confession of faith. An impressive archive appears to attest that the man, armed with all the methods of modern communicaton, is serious about the investigation of historical fact. To our question about the Swiss part of his life -- dates, home town, place of residence before he came to Zurich, photos from his childhood -- he satisfies himself with a conspiracy theory.
In sum: A conspiracy of anti-Semitic Swiss civil servants, cold-hearted foster parents and corrupt officials is said to have erased the child's Jewish origin with a falsified identity and to have sealed the growing child's mouth and soul under threat of punishment. Thus, we think, was the Holocaust finally completed for him by Switzerland -- and that fits all too well with the current Swiss preoccupation with history. We admit that we don't believe some things, and leave, but we think that more exhaustive research would certainly help him to furnish evidence of his history.
We meet acquaintances of Bruno Doessekker from his time in school. They show us photographs, tell stories. All in all, we get the impression of a well-brought up Bruno Doessekker, growing up in a generous house, cared for by a loving mother who adored him, and a somewhat stiff father. Two talents were noticeable early on -- he played music with verve, and from time to time he made up peculiar stories, which became clothed as legends.
The youth had his first girlfriends. None of them can corroborate that he was circumcised then. But that means nothing. Many children at that time were no longer circumcised. Even that he was an inspired skier, on and near the slopes, says as little as all the remaining episodes, which give us a totally different picture of the young Bruno than he gave in the book and in conversation. For example, he is supposed to have scared himself half to death at the sight of a ski lift, because it reminded him of the cart for corpses in the crematoria.
The photographs that we see, after he couldn't show us a single one, depict a handsome young man with wavy hair, soft eyes, quite in the height of fashion of his time. We still allow for the possibility that the man has actually experienced his his/story. We are confident that, in a country like Switzerland, hardly anyone grows up without leaving diverse traces behind, which allow his life to a degree to be conclusively retraced. We are, however, astonished that Wilkomirski, alias Doessekker, has not tried to trace these tracks himself.
This Witness Was Never in Hell
And we are more than astonished when he soon warns us threateningly, both by telephone and in writing, against further research. We learn from Suhrkamp Verlag that Wilkomirski's Swiss lawyer has verified in writing that it is impossible to certify Bruno Doessekker's identity back to his birth. The lawyer tells us that Mr. Wilkomirski himself has waived a look into the official records at the public offices. For him, as a lawyer, that puts an end to the matter. Apparently that was also enough for the publisher, for whom the lawyer's letter was sufficient.
In the Zurich City Archives, we come across the first document that gives us pause. Bruno Doessekker was enrolled in the first grade on April 22, 1947 in the primary school in Zurich Fluntern. During the first year he was absent 25 times and revealed in none of the following years any further cause for the teaching staff to notice him.
1947? We remember. One of the films ("The Good Life Is Only a Trap: A Visit With B. W." Eric Bergkraut, 3sat) maintained, that Wilkomirski has lived in Switzerland only since 1948. We read his book anew: The incidents which he depicts from his own life in post-war Poland hardly allow for him to have started school in Switzerland in 1947. But we don't want to commit ourselves to anything yet. There is still this age difference of three years, between him and his classmates. No one noticed that, as little as they noticed his speech -- Zurich German without any if's, and's or but's. Three years are a lot in the life of a child -- at the age of six to seven, practically the half of his life, we say to ourselves, and search on.
A photo even shows us the young Bruno in the summer of 1946 in the circle of his nearest and dearest, all spiffed up in front of the villa in Zurichberg. It is becoming barely feasible, but we still are inclined to believe his story, in principle. In the meantime, further interventions arrive. Wilkomirski and "Aktion Kinder des Holocaust," a group clearly close to him, request both orally and in writing that we cease from further research. We decide on discretion after discovering the name of his place of origin in the official records: 2732 Saules bei Tavannes. The preliminary outlines of the story give the following picture:
On Feb. 12, 1941 Yvonne Berthe Grosjean gave birth to an illegitimate child in Biel. His name: Bruno Grosjean. Hometown: Saules bei Tavannes, Canton Bern. Yvonne Grosjean's brother wanted to take care of the child, but could not prevent Bruno from being placed in a children's home in Adelboden and from being given up for adoption in 1945.
Mr. & Mrs. Doessekker, a married pair of doctors from Zurich Fluntern, childless, at first took the child into foster care. Before he entered primary school on April 22, 1947, a request for a change of name was entered with the cantonal authorities of Bern. After this had been approved, Bruno no longer was called Grosjean, but Doessekker, like his foster parents. Bruno Doessekker's biological father, who later had other children, paid child support until the adoption was legal in 1957. Mrs. Grosjean later married Walter Max Rohr, resident of Hunzenschwil, Aargau, and died in 1981, shortly after her husband, in Bern, where she is buried in the Bremgarten cemetary, in an "urn grave."
Bruno Doessekker passed his federal matura at the Free Gymnasium in Zurich, became a musician and instrument builder, the father of three children. Since his biological mother had no further children, her estate came to him, who took possession of the small inheritance. In 1985 his adoptive parents died. Since then, Bruno Doessekker has lived in prosperity. Even when he puts the new identity on his door-plate, Binjamin Wilkomirski is still a pseudonym; its holder was never the inmate of a concentration camp.
It took a great deal of research to find this all out, because Wilkomirski alias Doessekker did not allow access to the pertinent legal papers, which is certainly his right as a private citizen, but which also confirms that he actually is implicated by the legal papers and secret master in matters of the dead Mrs. Grosjean. The publication of his book and his activity as a lecturer, however, turn the private citizen Doessekker into the public figure Wilkomirski, who has to at least put up with questions from that same public.
Our research admits no other conclusion: Wilkomirski was born in Switzerland and grew up in the best sort of Zurich household. His book would be a worth talking about as a novel. That would not take away from its historical accuracy. Finally, as we were told, the author studied History in Geneva, began a Lizentiat about the Conference of Evian, and continued to study history out of passionate interest, as his immense archive demonstrates. Now, however, his book makes claims to explicit witness.
We tried to understand his writing process, which clearly went so far that the author completely incorporated himself into the figure in his novel. Somewhere on the borderline between fiction and historical research, the distance from his written ego must have collapsed, so that "he" became "I". Wilkomirski, alias Doessekker, is no writer. His report does not move in the sphere of literature. It is probably the internalized collection of pictures of a man whose imagination has burned through, completely apart from whether or not a Wilkomirski could have existed, from whom Doessekker borrowed the story of his life in the concentration camps.
But that does not explain the book's overwhelming success. It doesn't explain why every serious Feuilleton has celebrated this book as if it had to do with an original of the Old Testament. It doesn't explain why the psychoanalytic community from Zurich to Israel has been led so far astray that it dissolved into belief instead of assiduously investigating. It doesn't explain why, in Switzerland alone, two films could be made, both financed with public money, which advertise themselves as documentaries, and which follow the figure of Binjamin Wilkomirski, without clarifying even one fact from the life of Bruno Doessekker.
"So what," one can interject, "as long as it is well done? Karl May never spent time among the Apaches. His Chief Winnetou is nothing more than an exaggeration of the then predominant totality of virtues, which certainly doesn't make the books any worse. And if a book about the fate of a child from the concentration camp evokes this fullness of sympathy, then it may contribute to the elevation of its readers."
However: In The Chief of the Apaches, Kara Ben Nemsi, and all the others, Karl May created literary figures, which are recognizable as such at all times. Bruno Doessekker/Wilkomirski has brought about nothing further than an ego, which appears to forbid every question about literary quality. The reality of the concentration camp serves him as raw material for a fictitious biography. At last, with the appearance of his book and the suprising response to it, he must have decided to give real substance to his world that he had made up. His creativity is limited to a mimetic theatricality.
When Winnetou appears today on a open air stage in Bavaria, every child knows the name of the actor. With Wilkomirski, however, who is dancing on many stages, it is otherwise. He holds lectures, offers his services as an expert for the winning back of identity, takes money from public institutions -- all under the assumption that he is who he claims to be. When he leaves the podium, students from a Zurich cantonal school, for example, might believe they had seen with their own eyes someone who has physically returned from Hell. They never did believe in Hell. But now they have to find out that the witness was false. Soon they will believe no longer, and as early as tomorrow, they will tend to believe someone who tells them that Auschwitz was only a work camp, where unfortunately a few too many inmates died.
Bearing witness, and the trust that the world has to have in that process, takes on a special responsibility precisely in the face of the reality of death factories that the Nazis developed in such a way that no one would ever be able to think their existence was possible. It appears human, that people believe even more someone who declares that he has been inside Hell, when he can so graphically testify in his own person, to that which our thoughts could never be capable of assimilating. He takes from us the effort of reflection and the disturbing experience of the failure of our human understanding in the face of the fact of Auschwitz.
We use the experience of others in order not to have to make amends ourselves intellectually for that which escapes our power of imagination. Sympathizing without thought, we find, in sacrifice, the hero with whom we can fraternize on the side of morality: Binjamin Wilkomirski. The one who makes this possible has to do no more than to put himself in front of the entrance gate to Auschwitz and declare: "I am the one who comes from there!"
It may well be astounding, how cheaply the reviewers and disseminators in film and literature have let themselves be fobbed off. That they not only didn't give themselves the liberty to question, in the face of a construct like Wilkomirski's life's history, but also lost the courage of individual judgement, must shock us. Along with this inability to judge, the claim of quality has come to grief -- which substantiates the unanimous exaggeratedly high opinion of Wilkomirski's work and other such simply bad products of current literature and art.
That Auschwitz now serves as a foundation for the fictitious life of people who find their biography as a member of the affluent class too little worth the telling to be spun into legend, and that Auschwitz thereby, at the discretion of the culture business, is worn down into triviality, as in the current case -- this must move us to courageous opposition. Even if we assume that at first the gullibility of the many who only wanted the best for their sacrificial hero Wilkomirski, seduced Bruno Doessekker's Wilkomirski-creation into madness, one could skip over the exotic life history of a Jewish child from Riga, and henceforth go through life with the fascinating identity of the tried-by-suffering.
Pity Replaces Thought
Bruno Doessekker's "pseudology" entered a world that was busily occupied in healing the scars of its history with prostheses and narcotics. Whoever wants to can range himself on the side of the believers, where, beneath pity-craving participation, the festering wound of Auschwitz painlessly continues to rot in the body of humanity. Here sympathy is an elevating feeling. It helps us over many a human abyss. Although, to be sure, it brings us no closer to others, at least it brings us closer to that abyss.
When sympathy, the last virtue of a good person, begins to lead us over the abyss of Auschwitz, we lose that quality of unfathomableness that constitutes memory's characteristic detachment from the world and makes it so difficult. The industrial mass killing, the center of the Nazi system of power, dissolves into episodes.
Humaneness would fill the graves before which our understanding shudders, were not the repeated attempt to understand in itself an act of resistance -- resistance to that place of silence premised on our incomprehension, the site where the experiment in total power drew to completion, while the world around it was distracted by the business of war.
Binjamin Wilkomirski alias Bruno Doessekker, however, knows Auschwitz and Majdanek only as a tourist.