Troubling the life narrative: the case of Binjamin Wilkomirski’s Fragments: Memories of a childhood, 1939–1948

This essay was published in TEXT Special Issue 50, Life Narrative in Troubled Times, eds Kate Douglas, Donna Lee Brien and Kylie Cardell, October 2018. It also appears in my PhD thesis, in longer form, as one of the chapters of the exegesis. The thesis is called ‘A shark in the garden: an adoptee memoir’: adoptee memoir as testimonial literature – a creative and exegetical reflection.

To read the essay in its entirety, go to the website of TEXT as per the link above.

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Abstract:
Binjamin Wilkomirski’s Fragments: Memories of a childhood, 1939–1948 was first published in 1995 in Germany, and in English translation in 1996. It purported to be a Holocaust memoir: the author wrote of his experiences as a six year old in concentration camps in Poland. Doubts were raised as to its authenticity, and eventually the memoir was revealed to be a ‘hoax’. Wilkomirski (whose actual name was Bruno Grosjean at birth) had been given up for adoption by his mother, who was poor and the victim of an accident that left her with brain injuries. I argue that the author of Fragments could not find a sense of identity or belonging as an adoptee, but did as a Holocaust survivor, and through a long and complex process he came to produce a narrative that explained his life as he saw it. I discuss the case in detail to build a picture of Wilkomirski as an adopted person rather than a literary hoaxer, and utilise the work of Betty Jean Lifton, who postulated that the damage done to him in childhood reverberated through the years into his adult life. A discussion of trauma (and trauma theories), as it relates to adopted persons and their life narratives, and the Divided Self theory adapted by Betty Jean Lifton and Jo Sparrow, are employed in providing a reading of Fragments as a troubled adoptee memoir, one that is embedded within the ‘false’ or ‘hoax’ memoir of Holocaust survival.

 

Introduction
In researching and writing about adoptee memoir for my doctoral thesis, I read a review of a study of a memoir from the 1990s that at first glance seemed to have nothing to do with adoption. Binjamin Wilkomirski’s Fragments: Memories of a childhood, 1939–1948 (1996) purported to be a Holocaust memoir, a child’s-eye view of surviving concentration camps in Poland. It was widely praised and awarded prizes until it was proven to be a ‘hoax’. A number of memoirs purporting to be by survivors of the Holocaust have been revealed as false (Katsoulis 2009), but the focus of my interest here is not hoaxing but adoptee narratives. The review was of Stefan Maechler’s The Wilkomirski affair: A study in biographical truth (2001) and the reviewer was Betty Jean Lifton, an adoptee, adoptee activist, psychological counsellor and writer. Why was Lifton reviewing this book about a literary hoax and its author?
That Wilkomirski was adopted is the obvious answer to Lifton’s interest, but the fact that the author chose to write a ‘false’ memoir about being a Holocaust survivor rather than a factually ‘true’ memoir about being an adoptee (survivor) is the troubling, complicating feature. Lifton’s review, and Wilkomirski’s memoir, are the starting points for my larger investigation into the nature of adoptee trauma and testimony as it can be manifested in memoir. For this essay, I will specifically discuss the Wilkomirski affair and present an alternative reading of his memoir as that of an adoptee.

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