Wilkomirski, Binjamin

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Pseudonym for Bruno Dössekker. Nationality: Swiss (originally Latvian: immigrated to Switzerland after World War II). Born: Riga, ca.1939; grew up in Majdanek and Auschwitz concentration camps, an orphanage in Kraków, Poland, and foster care in Switzerland. Career: Classical musician. Awards: National Jewish book award and Prix Memoire de la Shoah, both for Fragments.Agent: c/o Schocken Books, 201 East 50th Street, New York, New York 10020, U.S.A.



Bruchstücke: Aus einer Kindheit 1939-1948. 1995; as Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood, 1996.


Critical Studies:

"The Man with Two Heads" by Elena Lappin, in Granta, 66, Summer 1999, pp. 7-65; "Ethos, Witness, and Holocaust 'Testimony': The Rhetoric of Fragments" by Michael Bernard-Donals, in JAC, 20(3), Summer 2000, pp. 565-82; "Memorizing Memory" by Amy Hungerford, in Yale Journal of Criticism, 14(1), Spring 2001, pp. 67-92; The Wilkomirski Affair: A Study in Biographical Truth by Stefan Mächler, translated by John E. Woods, 2001; A Life in Pieces: The Making and Unmaking of Binjamin Wilkomirski by Blake Eskin, 2001.

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Binjamin Wilkomirski is the pseudonym of the Swiss classical musician Bruno Dössekker. Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood was published in English translation in 1996, having appeared in German the year before, as the testimony of Wilkomirski, a child survivor of the Holocaust. The text itself is written from a child's viewpoint and so lacks specific dates and locations, but in interviews Wilkomirski established the background to his text. He claimed to have been born in Latvia in 1939. He saw his father killed in the Riga ghetto and spent six years in Majdanek and Auschwitz. After the war the orphaned Binjamin was taken to Switzerland, where he was adopted by a couple, the Dössekkers, who urged him to forget his past. In the early 1990s, after entering into therapy, Wilkomirski wrote Fragments, initially as a private document that friends then urged him to publish. The book was a critical and commercial success, and Wilkomirski toured the United States to deliver lectures sponsored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on being a child survivor.

In August 1998 the article "Die geliehene Holocaust-Biographie" ("The Borrowed Holocaust Biography"), by the Swiss journalist Daniel Ganzfried, appeared in the Zurich newspaper Die Weltwoche. It argued that Binjamin Wilkomirski had been born in Switzerland, not Latvia, in 1941, that he was not Jewish, and that, except as a tourist, he had spent no time in Majdanek or Auschwitz. On the contrary, the article said, he was the illegitimate son of a woman named Yvonne Grosjean (now dead) and had been placed in various orphanages and foster homes before being adopted by the Dössekker family. After protracted investigations the German publisher of Fragments —Jüdischer Verlag, the Jewish-interest wing of Suhrkamp Verlag—withdrew the book from sale. An exhaustive report of the investigation, Stefan Maechler's The Wilkomirski Affair: A Study in Biographical Truth, which was published in 2001 and which includes the text of Fragments as an appendix, provided conclusive evidence that Fragments was fiction and that Wilkomirski was really Bruno Dössekker, who had never left his native Switzerland during the war years.

It appears that Dössekker was not so much a confidence trickster as a troubled individual who had transposed the details of a genuinely traumatic childhood onto the historical catastrophe of the Holocaust and who had come to believe in this story of his own past. In his overidentification with the Holocaust, Dössekker may appear to resemble Sylvia Plath, whose confessional poems "Lady Lazarus" and "Daddy" use Holocaust imagery and who has been accused of "larceny" for appropriating historical events in order to convey an individual angst. In Plath's case, however, the larceny was a poetic matter and not the personal one it was for Dössekker. His case is more similar to that of writers who have fraudulently published as autobiography what turned out to be fiction—for instance, Martin Gray's For Those I Loved (with Max Gallo), which purported to be a memoir by a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and Treblinka but is at least partly invented, and Helen Darville's novel The Hand That Signed the Paper, originally published under the name Helen Demidenko as autobiographical fiction about being a second-generation perpetrator.

—Sue Vice

See the essay on Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood.

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