A reader of my blog made a comment in which he or she linked to an essay by Tammy Cairns that was published on the reader’s blog. The essay is entitled An examination of the key problems posed to historians examining memoirs in response to the Wilkomirski Controversy (by Tammy Cairns)
I was asked by the person, who made the comment, to give my opinion. My opinion is that this is a long and boring article, which says virtually nothing. I learned almost nothing from this article. The article also needs some proof-reading, as there are a couple of mistakes in grammar.
I don’t think that there was that much of a controversy about Wilkomirski’s book. When it was learned that the book was a complete fake, the publicity about this hoax only contributed to the book’s success. It is my impression that Wilkomirski was almost immediately exonerated; his book was classified as fiction, and it continued to sell millions of copies. Teachers continued to assign this book to be read by their students.
There is another book entitled The Wilkomirski Affair A Study in Biographical Truth which you can read about in this quote from amazon.com:
This is 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 heart-wrenching 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.
The Maechler report has implications far beyond the tragic story of one individual’s deluded life. It explores our feelings about survivor literature and the impact these works can have on our remembrance of the Holocaust.
It is the quality of the writing in the book Fragments that has caused it to become a best-seller, not the tiny bit of information about the “death camps” that is contained in the book. Fragments is in the same class as Elie Wiesel’s book Night and Tadeusz Borowski’s writing about Auschwitz. It is the style of writing that is important, not the content.
One thing in the article by Tammy Cairns did catch my eye:
Wilkomirski’s memoir in particular has had similarities drawn with The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski
I purchased a copy of The Painted Bird in 1998, after I returned from a trip to Poland, during which I had toured the Majdanek “death camp” and the Auschwitz-Birkenau “death camp.” I tried to read this book, but could not finish it.
On my 1998 trip to Poland, I had been accompanied by a private tour guide. One day, while we were eating lunch, I asked my Polish guide if people in Poland had ever heard of Ted Kaczinski, the infamous Unabomber. She thought that I had said the name Kosinski and she immediately informed me that Jerzy Kosinski, the author of The Painted Bird was reviled in Poland because his book was full of lies. She also told me that the name Kosinski is a very common name in Poland, but Ted the Unabomber was unknown in Poland.
In 1998, after I returned from Poland, I also purchased a copy of Wilkominski’s book Fragments. It was the paperback edition that was first published in 1997. Shortly after I had finished reading the book, I began to read in the news that the book had been discovered to be a fake memoir.
I had become suspicious of the book while I was reading it. On page 111 in the book, Wilkomirski had written: “…the voices get louder and more excited as we pass the fence, go through the gate, and out into the open country.”
“into the open country”? No, no. The Majdanek camp, which I had just visited, is right on a major road that goes through the city of Lublin. But then I thought: “Maybe the camp was not located inside the city of Lublin when it was in operation.” I found the old photo above, which shows that the gate of the Majdanek camp might have led “out into the open country.”
In reading the book Fragments, before I knew that it was a fake memoir, I was also suspicious because Wilkomirski claimed that he was sent from the Majdanek death to the Auschwitz death camp. That doesn’t make any sense. In fact, Tammy Cairns also picked up on this obvious mistake, when she wrote:
In hindsight, the mere fact that this young child was able to survive Nazi camps Majdanek and Auschwitz, and the constant selection processes in place is enough to raise questions.
As everyone knows, children under the age of 15 were immediately selected for the gas chamber. Majdanek had 5 gas chambers, which have now been downgraded to 2, because so many people made fun of the so-called gas chambers, but that’s another story.
However, there were a few child survivors of Auschwitz, as shown in the photo below.
When I visited Majdanek in 1998, the entrance was through a low gate with a wooden frame and barbed wire; it looked like the gate into a cow pasture. Immediately to my right, as I entered the camp, through the wooden gate, I saw the familiar curved concrete posts and barbed wire which typically surrounded the Nazi concentration camps. In front of this fence was a small parking area for tour buses and a visitor’s center, which was like a tiny museum. The Memorial Site might have been upgraded by now, as the Holocaust story has become more popular and there are more visitors to the former camps.
When visitors to the Majankek Memorial Site see this gigantic monument, near the city street which passes the camp, it is like being hit between the eyes with a sledge hammer. It is like suddenly coming upon Stonehenge is the middle of a city. The museum guidebook says that “this Monument to Struggle and Martyrdom has a manifold symbolic meaning. It can mean tragedy, but also be an expression of hope and victory.”
The view of the monument in the picture above was taken a few feet from the street; the former Majdanek camp is in the distance. You can see the round dome of the Mausoleum, in the background on the left, at the end of the road called the Road of Homage in English. Both the Mausoleum and the Monument were designed by Wiktor Tolkin and were set up in 1969.
The Road of Homage was called the “black path” when the Majdanek camp was in operation. According to a guidebook, which I purchased at the Memorial Site, the path was paved with broken tombstones from Jewish cemeteries, just like the road at the Plaszow camp which was shown in the movie Schindler’s List. But I digress.
This quote is from the article by Tammy Cairns:
Wilkomirski had his own personal library of over two thousand books and memoirs telling the stories of the Holocaust.
Over time, these books and his own personal memories seem to have become muddled, especially once he started therapy on his ‘repressed memories’. This blurring between collective memory and actual memory has long provided historians with difficulties in accessing the truth. It is in these gray areas that the use of diaries and the immediacy they offer can provide a deeper insight into how these experiences were lived and felt during contemporary conditions. This does not necessarily take away the validity of memoirs but instead can add to the understanding of them and the context in which they were written. [...]
…. the use of memoirs is not enough to confirm an event has happened. Instead, they can explain how an event shaped and affected the people involved but further proof and evidence will always need to be sought to confirm what officially happened.
Wilkomirski’s book is still assigned to students in America, as a piece of literature, but not as a true account of the Holocaust.