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Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood (Bruchstücke: Aus Einer Kindheit 1939-1948)

FRAGMENTS: MEMORIES OF A WARTIME CHILDHOOD (Bruchstücke: Aus einer Kindheit 1939-1948)

Memoir by Binjamin Wilkomirski, 1995

Binjamin Wilkomirski's Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood, translated by Carol Brown Janeway and published in 1996, was presented as a memoir but has since been revealed to be fiction. Before it was known to be fictional, Fragments was compared to works by Anne Frank and Primo Levi , and it won a string of international prizes. Although the prizes were awarded on the basis of the authenticity of Fragments, they also testify to its power as a literary work. Its most striking features are the construction of a view of organized genocide through a child's eyes and the resulting defamiliarization of facts that we have come to accept as comprehensible. These features are both of literary value even though Fragments no longer has value as a historical document.

The construction of the child's-eye view may in the future come to distinguish Fragments as a text that tried stylistically to evade Holocaust "image-fatigue," as does, for instance, Martin Amis's novel Time's Arrow, which is about the life of a Nazi doctor written backwards. In Fragments the boy Binjamin has no historical or other understanding of what is going on around him; events occur at random for no apparent reason. The reader has to supply the missing background. This is clear when Binjamin first arrives at Majdanek and asks a soldier what his weapon is; instead of replying, the soldier hits the child in the face with a whip. This episode painfully juxtaposes a child's innocence with adult knowledge. We, as adult readers, know what the whip is right from the start, yet we are made to see the weapon and the act of violence as if for the first time.

A second striking feature of this scene is its lack of any historical context; there is little to suggest that we are reading about incidents in a wartime death camp. Throughout Fragments historical details are far and few between, and the word "Jew" is used only rarely, with at least one of these instances in reported speech. We could take the dehistoricized nature of many scenes in Fragments as an insight into the text's composition. Emotions that may have been familiar to the author from childhood experience—the betrayal of good faith, un-warranted punishment, even physical cruelty—reappear in a specific historical setting in an apparent effort to make sense of personal suffering. This would explain why Fragments bears some resemblance not only to Holocaust novels but also to authentic testimony by child survivors: they have in common a way of remembering. It also explains the strikingly split structure of the text. It is divided, in alternating sections, between the past of the camps and the present of postwar orphanages and also, we can speculate, divided between invented and remembered detail.

When Fragments was shown to be fiction, many readers pointed to the loss of authenticity in particular incidents in the text, which had often been singled out as the most memorable in reviews of the book as a memoir. These events include the death of Binjamin's father, the child's visit to his dying mother, women's corpses being eaten by rats, and starving babies chewing their own fingers. It is revealing that these episodes are identified as the text's most striking. Of course they are harrowing to read, but they are also not difficult to understand, because they have a universal meaning. In other words Fragments does not demand special knowledge of the Holocaust or of Jewish history in order to understand the suffering depicted in the book. We might speculate that the necessarily dehistoricized and fragmentary child's-eye view of the Holocaust was relatively easy for a nonsurvivor to recreate; hence also the text's reliance on cruel individual incidents.

Precisely because it is such an extreme case, the scandal surrounding Fragments has been instructive. For instance, the case has highlighted the fact that it is impossible to decide what is authentic testimony and what is fiction from internal textual evidence alone and that there is a place in the canon of Holocaust literature for fiction written by nonsurvivors.

—Sue Vice

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