Magazine article The Spectator

The Victim - of His Imagination

Magazine article The Spectator

The Victim - of His Imagination

Article excerpt

A LIFE IN PIECES by Blake Eskin Aurum Press, 116 99, pp. 245, ISBN 1854107623

I met Binjamin Wilkomirski once, in the spring of 1997. He had flown into London from his home in Switzerland to receive that year's Jewish Quarterly non-fiction award for his internationally praised memoir Fragments: Memories of a Childhood 1939-1948. Before the winner stepped forward to accept his L4,000 cheque, I introduced myself to him as one of the judges. (The others were Dannie Abse, Eva Figes and Peter Vansittart.) The author was tremulous to the point where I feared he might pass out even before we had shaken hands. He radiated emotional fragility. His restless eyes were those of a frightened child; unsurprising, I thought, in view of his tragic past.

Presented as fragments of memory painfully dredged from his unconscious, his book tells the story of a Jewish child caught up in the Holocaust. The traumas begin in Riga in 1941 when he is about three years old. Wilkomirski watches as the Latvian militia brutally murder a man, possibly his father. With no mother around, the infant finds himself stranded on a Polish farmstead, before being deported to Majdanek, and subsequently to another concentration camp unidentified in the text but assumed to be Auschwitz. Everything is remembered and described through the eyes of a child. Wilkomirski, a music teacher and clarinet maker by profession, writes, 'I am not a poet or writer', yet he shows a literary gift in using words to `draw as exactly as possible what happened, what I saw'.

The fragmentary, dislocated nature of the narrative, the lack of historical context, names, places, dates, which an adult narrator would be tempted to provide, all seemed to confirm the book's authenticity when I read it. Even to those familiar with Holocaust literature, many of the purgatorial images - starving babies chewing their fingers to the bone, to give just one example - were hard to take, their horror heightened by the innocence of the viewpoint. Paul Bailey declared in his review that he had to take `silent walks' between chapters. The importance of this slim volume as testimony lay not least in the fact that so few of the one-and-a-half million Jewish child victims lived to bear witness.

Fragments covered some of the author's miserable post-war years too: his time in an orphanage in Cracow before he was smuggled into Switzerland and placed in a children's home. Throughout this period and after he was adopted, memories of the camps continued to torment him.

During the 1980s Wilkomirski's second wife and a psychologist friend encouraged him to confront his memories and eventually write them down. Thus Fragments finally emerged on the literary scene, published first in Germany in 1995, followed by American, English and other editions. In addition to the Jewish Quarterly award, the book won the American National Jewish Book Award for autobiography, the Prix Memoire de la Shoah in France, a literary award from the city of Zurich, and other accolades.

Wilkomirski became a familiar figure on the international Holocaust remembrance scene, appearing on public platforms alongside Nobel prize-winner Elie Wiesel and other eminent survivors. Generous honorariums came his way. At conferences he attracted admiring attention from psychologists and psychiatrists interested in the therapies Wilkomirski was developing to help other child survivors, and in `recovered-memory' techniques. Wilkomirski himself, in a press interview, rejected the suggestion that his book had resulted from such techniques. His memories, he said, had never been lost.

Touring America to promote the book, he addressed child survivor groups, giving solace to those who had suffered like him. At one of these sessions in Los Angeles, amid much hugging and weeping, he had an emotional meeting with one Lauren Grabowski, who had been in Auschwitz at the same time as Wilkomirski, though they could not remember each other. …

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