Magazine article Tikkun

Wilkomirski the Adoptee

Magazine article Tikkun

Wilkomirski the Adoptee

Article excerpt

* The Wilkomirski Affair: A Study in Biographical Truth, by Stefan Maechler. Schocken Books, 2001.

The riddle of the true identity of Binjamin Wilkomirski, an adoptee and author of the once-acclaimed memoir Fragments, was finally solved in March by a DNA test that reveals him to be the son of a birth father he never knew. The test proves conclusively what legal documents couldn't: that he is not the Jewish child survivor of the Holocaust he claimed to be, but rather the Swiss Protestant boy, Bruno Grosjean, relinquished by his single, working class birth mother at the age of two.

Until the DNA blew his cover, Wilkomirski had insisted that his papers were switched with the real Bruno Grosjean, a four year old who looked just like him, when they were residents in a Swiss children's home. It was that boy who was born to Yvonne Grosjean on December 12, 1941, while, he, Binjamin Wilkomirski, was born in Riga, Latvia, a few years earlier.

Now we know that there was no switch. But DNA can only solve genetic riddles while the psychological ones remain. Why would a Swiss Protestant musician claim the identity of a Jewish Holocaust survivor? Does that make him an impostor, a fraud, a liar?

Yes, Wilkomirski may be all of these, but he is also an adoptee and, as such, is another kind of child survivor. As a psychologist, who is also an adopted person, I have observed that adoptees who have lost their birth parents and all their birth family members often feel like survivors, though they usually do not know what it is they have survived. Moreover, the secrecy around their origins suggests dark and illicit happenings, which leaves them feeling like survivors without honor. They are not seen by the outside world as motherless children who have suffered a psychic trauma they need to mourn, but rather as throw-aways, who are fortunate to have been rescued by their adoptive parents. I am not trying to equate what I call cumulative adoption trauma with the cumulative trauma of child survivors of the Holocaust-- they are different-but to a young child the pain and deprivation may feel similar. They share a feeling of being abandoned, alone, and powerless.

Certainly little Bruno Grosjean had had enough trauma for a lifetime even before he was adopted. Separated by the child welfare system at the age of two from a devoted mother who could not support him, he must have been overwhelmed with grief and panic at her sudden disappearance. He was shunted about for the next two and half years from three foster homes to a children's home, as surely as his book's narrator was shunted from one concentration camp to another. His nine traumatizing months with one abusive and demented foster mother may be an important psychological source of the horrific experiences that he describes in Fragments. But even parting from his birth mother each time she paid brief visits to the foster homes must have been devastating. She was in the hospital recovering from a botched abortion attempt when he was abruptly taken from the children's home to become Bruno Dossekker, the adopted son of a prominent, but formal, Swiss couple. As for so many adoptees, there was no explanation as to why his mother disappeared forever from his life. He was left to face the world alone, just as Binjamin Wilkomirski is alone in the memoir.

Binjamin writes that he does not know what the word "mother" means. But adoptees are mother-haunted children, and Fragments is a mother-- haunted book. The boy is told by other children in the camp (who sound something like the Lost Boys in Peter Pan) that "everyone has a mother" and "if you have a mother she belongs just to you!" His own lost mother makes a cameo appearance in the memoir as a dying woman in Majdanek. He is taken to her by a camp guard who warns him not to speak to or about her, or he will be killed. His mother, shrouded in a blanket on the floor, holds out a precious piece of stale bread to him so that he can survive. …

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