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?

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