The curious case of Binjamin Wilkomirski (Part I)

In 1995, a book entitled Bruchstücke. Aus einer Kindheit 1939–1948 was published in Germany (the English translation of the book, published in 1996, was entitled Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood). The name of the author was Binjamin Wilkomirski, and the book was a vivid and supposedly accurate account of his horrifying experiences as a very young Polish Jewish boy in two Nazi concentration camps. Being an appealing survivor’s tale with high literary quality, the book quickly became an international best-seller and received numerous awards. Wilkomirski gave readings of the book everywhere, was interviewed on TV, met with and spoke to other Holocaust survivors publicly, and participated in academic symposiums on the book or on subjects concerning the Holocaust. He was compared to Anne Frank; if his story was not more moving, it was certainly more satisfying and probably more inspiring, for he survived while Frank did not.

But then it turned out that nothing described in the book about that little Jewish boy had ever happened. The author was not even Jewish, and his real name was ‘Bruno Grosjean’, not the obviously Jewish ‘Binjamin Wilkomirski’. Grosjean was a Swiss who had been born to an unmarried woman and later adopted by a childless couple, and who grew up to be a professional (but not outstanding) clarinetist. He was born in 1941, the year one of the concentration camps in which the story happened began to operate, and he had never left Switzerland before adulthood. The ‘memoir’ was based on history books, magazines, and novels Grosjean had read, as well as films he had seen. His account was first questioned by a Swiss journalist named Daniel Ganzfrield, whose arguments against the authenticity of it were, however, considered by some to be inconclusive. The Swiss historian Stefan Maechler was later commissioned by Wilkomirski/Grosjean’s literacy agency to investigate the matter, and Maechler proved in great detail that many of the things described in Grosjean’s book contradicted historical facts.

Graosjean’s book was not the first autobiography of an alleged Holocaust survivor that turned out to be a fraud, nor was it the last. What makes Grosjean’s case more interesting and relevant to our discussion is that Grosjean might actually believe, or at least believe that he believed, the story he told in his book. Grosjean certainly knew that he grew up in Switzerland, but he also knew that he was an adopted child. If he did not remember much the first few years of his life, it was not impossible for him to believe that he was a traumatized child rescued from the war and exchanged for a child named ‘Bruno Grosjean’. As social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson understand the Wilkomirski/Grosjean case, “Grosjean spent more than twenty years transforming himself into Wilkomirski; writing Fragments was the last step of his metamorphosis into a new identity, not the first step of a calculated lie” (Tavris & Elliot, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), p.84).

Let us assume that Tavris’s and Aronson’s understanding of the Wilkomirski/Grosjean case is correct. What Tavris and Aronson say next relates the case to the problem about meaningfulness: “Wilkomirski’s new identity as a survivor of the Holocaust gave him a powerful sense of meaning and purpose, along with the adoration and support of countless others”. Grosjean’s book was, according to Tavris and Aronson, a result of “a quest for meaning in his life” (ibid., italics added). They presumably do not have a fully developed theory of a meaningful life like mine when they relate the meaningfulness of Grosjean’s life to his identity, but their description of the case fits quite well the account of a meaningful life I have suggested: Grosjean’s sense of meaningfulness came from his newly found identity, which was valued not only by himself but also by others; and it was this newly found identity that allowed him to evaluate his life positively, that gave him directions for how he should live his life, that he could see as the reason for his existence, and that he happily believed to be who he really was.

What exactly was Grosjean’s newly found identity which he thought made his life meaningful? It may appear that the answer is straightforward: it was his identity as a Holocaust survivor, or more precisely, his identity as a Jewish boy who suffered from his experiences in Nazi concentration camps and survived. But suffering in itself does not give meaning to a life. We would not say that the lives of all the Jews who were tortured and murdered in concentration camps were meaningful lives simply by virtue of their suffering, nor would we say that at least the lives of those who survived were meaningful simply by virtue of their suffering and their survival. What Grosjean thought made his life meaningful was his identity as the young Holocaust survivor who lived to tell his story, which inspired and moved a lot of people. According to Maechler, Grosjean “truly blossomed in his role as a concentration-camp victim, for it was in it that he finally found himself”, but what we should note is that “[v]ideotapes and eyewitness reports of Wilkomirski’s presentations give the impression of a man made euphoric by his own narrative” (Maechler, The Wilkomirski Affair: A Study in Biographical Ttruth, p.273, note 14, italics added). It was not being the sufferer, not being the sufferer-survivor, but being the sufferer-survivor-reporter, that counted for the meaningfulness of Wilkomirski’s life.*

If you are inclined to disagree, just imagine that Anne Frank survived but had not written her wartime diary, or that she had written the diary but neither she nor the diary survived. Would Frank’s life have been as meaningful as it actually was?


Meaningfulness and divine purpose

[Although I do not believe that God exists, in what follows I will, for simplicity, sometimes speak as if God exists. I will also assume that it is compatible with God’s nature that God has purposes or plans.]

Some people believe that a human life is meaningful only if it fulfills God’s purpose (call it divine purpose). There are two ways in which we can be related to divine purpose. In the first way, God created us to serve a particular purpose, just as a watch is made to serve the purpose of telling time; there is a divine purpose in us. In the second way, God did not create us to serve a particular purpose, but God has some purpose or plan which we can participate in, just as we can participate in an author’s purpose of writing a book to raise consciousness about global warming ¾ by reading the book. These two ways do not have to be independent of each other, for God could create us to serve a particular purpose such that we can participate in another purpose God has simply by fulfilling the former purpose.

It is obvious that divine purpose is not sufficient for meaningfulness. The mere fact that God created us to serve a particular purpose does not imply that our lives are meaningful, for we may fail to serve that purpose. Likewise, the mere fact that God has some purpose or plan that we can participate in does not imply that our lives are meaningful either, for we may fail to participate in it. In either case, even given the divine purpose, whether our lives are meaningful still depends on what we do.

So what we should examine is whether divine purpose is necessary for meaningfulness. Let us begin with Kurt Baier’s well-known criticism of the view in question; his criticism concerns only the first way in which we are related to divine purpose. According to Baier, no human being’s life can be meaningful by virtue of being used to fulfill another being’s purpose, even when that being is God. As he elaborates:

To attribute to a human being a purpose in that sense is not neutral, let alone complimentary: it is offensive. It is degrading for a man to be regarded as merely serving a purpose. If, at a garden party, I ask a man in livery, ‘What is your purpose?’ I am insulting him. I might as well have asked, ‘What are you for?’ Such questions reduce him to the level of a gadget, a domestic animal, or perhaps a slave. I imply that we allot to him the tasks, the goals, the aims which he is to pursue; that his wishes and desires and aspirations and purposes are to count for little or nothing. We are treating him, in Kant’s phrase, merely as a means to our ends, not as an end in himself. (Baier, “The Meaning of Life”, p.120)

How forceful we consider Baier’s criticism to be depends on whether we agree with him that God, by creating human beings to serve a particular purpose, treats them merely as a means. When we treat another human being as a means to our end, but not merely so, we do not necessarily degrade him. I treat, for example, my piano teacher as a means to my end of learning to play the piano, but my treating him that way does not degrade him, for I also treat him as an independent individual who has his own wishes and desires and aspirations and purposes that have nothing to do with his being my piano teacher. It can be argued, however, that if God created us to serve a particular purpose, then God can only treat us merely as a means. If my piano teacher decided not to give me piano lessons any more, I could still treat him respectfully as a valuable independent individual in many other ways (as a good pianist, as a polymath, as a loving and devoted father, etc.) that have nothing to do with the ends I have. But if God created me to serve a particular purpose and I decided not to fulfill that purpose, there does not seem to be anything else in me which would allow God to see me not as bad (on some religious understanding I would indeed be considered by God to be so bad that I deserve eternal punishment) ¾ God would see me in the way a watchmaker sees a broken watch.

Divine purpose and meaningfulness can be related by the idea that, in Nozick’s words, “[a]ttempts to find meaning in life seek to transcend the limits of an individual life” (Philosophical Explanations, p.597). If God created us to serve a particular purpose or if we can participate in God’s purpose or plan, then we will be able to transcend the limits of our lives by serving God's purpose or participating in his purpose or plan. We will be, in a sense, bigger than our earthly lives allow us to see ourselves.

But the problem with this view is that transcending the limits of our lives this way does not imply that our lives will then have no limits. The only being who is not limited in any way is God. If being unlimited were necessary for meaningfulness, then only God’s life could be meaningful. Accordingly, our lives would after all not be meaningful even if we fulfilled God’s purpose (in either way or both ways). On the other hand, if meaningfulness does not require being unlimited but requires only that we transcend the limits of our lives in some way, then it is not clear why we have to fulfill a divine purpose in order to transcend the limits of our lives. That is, it is not clear why transcending the limits of our lives in the earthly way does not count at all for meaningfulness. Consider a composer who wrote good (but not great) music, influenced and inspired many other composers to write better music of a certain style, and thereby started an important tradition of music. There is a clear sense in which he transcended the limits of his life as a composer, and such transcendence does not have to do with any divine purpose. If transcending the limits of our lives is necessary for meaningfulness while meaningfulness does not require being unlimited, why should we think that the composer’s way of transcending his limits count for nothing with respect to the meaningfulness of his life? Why should we think that in order for his life to be meaningful he must also transcend the limits of human life as such rather than merely the limits of his life?