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Maechler, Stefan 1957-

MAECHLER, Stefan 1957-

PERSONAL:

Born May 30, 1957, in Baden, Switzerland; son of Karl (a farmer) and Agnes (Bruehlmeier) Maechler. Ethnicity: "Caucasian." Education: Lehrerseminar of Wettingen, B.A., 1977; University of Zurich, M.A., 1993.

ADDRESSES:

Agent—Eva Koralnik, Liepman AG, Maienburgweg 23, Zurich, Switzerland CH-8044.

CAREER:

Department of Education, Canton of Aargau, Switzerland, teacher, 1977-82; Foundation ECAP, Baden, Switzerland, teacher of German, 1985-88; Asylkoordination Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland, assistant manager, 1987-89; Department of Education, Canton of Zurich, teacher, 1990-95, project coordinator for educational reform, 1995-2003.

WRITINGS:

(With Kaspar Kasics) Closed Country (documentary film screenplay), Extra Film, 1999.

The Wilkomirski Affair: A Study in Biographical Truth, Schocken (New York, NY), 2001.

(With Franz Daengeli) Wahre Szenen (documentary film screenplay), Extra Film, 2003.

Contributor to books, including Das Wilkomirski-Syndrom. Eingebildete Erinnerungen oder Von der Sehnsucht, Opfer zu sein, Pendo (Zurich, Switzerland), 2002. Contributor to periodicals, including History and Memory.

WORK IN PROGRESS:

The Federation of Jewish Communities in Switzerland and the Nazi Persecution of the Jews (working title).

SIDELIGHTS:

Stefan Maechler's book The Wilkomirski Affair: A Study in Biographical Truth is an examination of a strange case of fraud involving a Swiss man named Bruno Doessekker who alleged that he was a Holocaust survivor. The man, claiming his true name was Binjamin Wilkomirski, was born Bruno Grosjean in Switzerland in 1941. His mother was an unmarried factory worker who was forced by the authorities to give away her child. Bruno ended up with a doctor's family in Zurich by the name of Doessekker, who much later adopted him. As an adult, he began to imagine a new identity for himself. Following visits to camps in Poland and discussions with actual survivors, he came to believe that he too was really a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust. Work with a therapist strengthened his belief in these memories and led him to write them down. In 1995, this text was published under the title Bruchstücke (Fragments) by the renowned Suhrkamp Publishers. The book was subsequently translated into nine languages, won a number of literary prizes, and received critical acclaim for its authentic description of traumatic memories. Wilkomirski traveled on an extensive book tour that included a warm welcome from the American Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and a meeting with supposed cousins now living in New York. The memoir, Paul Maliszewski wrote in the Wilson Quarterly, made Wilkomirski "a prominent, revered figure in the survivor community." But by 1998, a Swiss journalist uncovered evidence that Wilkomirski's story was a fraud. The American television program 60 Minutes followed with yet more evidence.

Wilkomirski denied these accusations, and, as the facts were still unclear, his agent approached Maechler to undertake a full investigation of the case. She gave Maechler access to all the relevant documents, including her correspondence with Wilkomirski. Maechler also dug into the archives of four countries, interviewed witnesses, and examined historical photographs to find the historical truth. His research proved beyond a doubt that Wilkomirski's claim that he had been in a concentration camp was absolutely false. Following this, the book was withdrawn from the market. How, then, had Wilkomirski come to promote such a story, and how had something so untrue become disseminated worldwide as an actual memoir? Maechler argues that Wilkomirski probably deluded himself into believing he was a Holocaust survivor. As an adopted child, he was unable to tell a coherent story of his origins. The metaphor of a Holocaust victim seem to express best the painful experiences of his childhood. Why was the story believed by so many who should have known better? In a later article for History and Memory, Maechler argues that the Shoah has become "the most powerful, culturally sanctioned metaphor of suffering." Doessekker, equipped with its power of legitimization and rhetoric, could not be gainsaid. "Maechler's conclusions are clearly presented and thoroughly documented," Lawrence Birken noted in a review of The Wilkomirski Affair for Shofar. Robert Alter concluded in the New Republic that "Maechler's work reads as compellingly as a detective story."

Maechler told CA: "As a historian, I have always been interested in the relationship between form and content. My early encounters with the writings of Paul Ricoeur and Hayden White confirmed my rather intuitive belief that historiography cannot exist without narrative—a conviction which was not prevalent when I was at the university. In those days, a narrow structural approach held sway. I was convinced that narrative was a basic element of the discipline and in no way only a secondary aspect of it which merely transfers an independently existing context, or, even worse, a misleading illusion that hinders us in our analysis of historical events. On one hand, I was interested in the heuristic potential of the writing itself, namely in the discoveries made as a result of stringing together sentence after sentence. On the other hand, I was interested in the implications that the rhetoric of a text has for its reception.

"Closely related to these interests is my fascination with how people perceive and interpret their reality and come to terms with it, and how they transform the amorphous and contradictory variety of life into a meaningful, coherent story. I had the feeling that perhaps Wilkomirski's supposed autobiography had much in common with these concerns: indeed, I discovered a man who possessed no biography of his own, a man with an unportrayable past—a void out of which his existential trouble grew. Instead of bearing them, he invented a life story that both seemingly conserved and transcended the unspeakable. In order to do this, he used elements from the collective memory of humanity which have become the master narrative for a story of unspeakable victimization: the remembrance of the Shoah. A clever and cunning choice, we might say—if that didn't suggest an intentional process had taken place, which presumably was never the case with Wilkomirski."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Die Welt, June 22, 2000, Rolf Schneider, review of The Wilkomirski Affair: A Study in Biographical Truth.

Die Woche, June 30, 2000, Sylke Tempel, review of The Wilkomirski Affair.

Forward, June 8, 2001, Susan Rubin Suleiman, review of The Wilkomirski Affair.

History and Memory, fall-winter, 2001, Stefan Maechler, "Wilkomirski the Victim," p. 90.

Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Volume 17, number 1, 2003, David Scrase, review of The Wilkomirski Affair, pp. 161-163.

Jerusalem Report, May 21, 2001, Samuel Apple, review of The Wilkomirski Affair.

New Republic, April 30, 2001, Robert Alter, review of The Wilkomirski Affair, p. 35.

Shofar, summer, 2001, review of The Wilkomirski Affair, p. 175; fall, 2002, Lawrence Birken, review of The Wilkomirski Affair, p. 174.

Washington Post, April 15, 2001, Steven J. Zipperstein, review of The Wilkomirski Affair.

Wilson Quarterly, summer, 2002, Paul Maliszewski, review of The Wilkomirski Affair, p. 109.

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