PART I Opening the veil of fake memoirs
Motives for writing imaginary/embellished memoirs illustrated by the example of Binjamin Wilkomirski
Considering the case of Binjamin Wilkomirski
Invented memories: the most important source of imaginary/embellished memoirs
Part II. “True” and fake memoirs in comparison
Similarities between “true” and fake memoirs
Development of memoirs
Copyright of experiences and emotions
Part III The role of fake memoirs: negative or positive?
Before getting deeply engaged with the topic, it is important to distinguish between two notions, one of which will play a decisive role in this work. They are very often confused with each other, while each term has a very specific and noticeable difference. The word autobiography consists of two parts: auto-, meaning ‘self, one’s own’ and biography-, coming from Late Greek ‘biographia’ and meaning ‘the description of life’. Writers of autobiographies are concerned primarily with themselves as subject matter – autobiography, thus, requires from the reader to accept that the text describes aspects of the author’s life. Readers, in return, are invited as psychoanalysts to discover, analyse and interpret the inner world of ideas and multiple personalities of the author. There is an eventual establishment of a blind relationship between the author and the reader. When it comes to memoirs, the word memoir is derived from Anglo-French memorie ‘note, memorandum, something written to be kept in mind’, which is special in itself – writers of memoirs are usually those persons who either have played roles in, or have been close observers of, particular historical events and whose main purpose is to describe or interpret the events, not their personas from the inside. The lingual semantic difference between these two words suggests even a further divergence: an autobiography implies a mere description; a memoir is not only about describing, but about writing something down and making it kept in mind. The condition of remembering and non-forgetting is of importance here; the word in itself suggests that if an event should be not only written down but also remembered, it might play a role for future generations, whether in broad or narrow sense.
In this essay, I am going to talk about memoirs. But what if a memoir is a fake one and the described events have actually never taken place in real life? To make the matters worse – how should one evaluate a piece of writing claimed to be a memoir which received appreciation, various prizes and rewards, and then was declared a fake bringing fame and shame to its author? The central question of this work becomes the role of memoirs announced and proved fabricated, both in the historical methodology and literature.
The idea for writing such a paper struck me after getting to know about the case of Binjamin Wilkomirski, who also became the main subject of my essay. I have felt an urge for studying this topic because it seems to me that there are still not enough studies conducted on the topic of fake memoirs because theorists underestimate the role of fake memoirs. Since they are denounced and proved fabricated, fake memoirs are considered blanks for both historical and literary purposes. By carrying out my research, I would like to question and criticize this neglecting position concerning fake memoirs and show how fake memoirs can challenge such fields as historical methodology, literary studies and psychoanalysis.
First of all, I am going to look at the motives that guide fake memoirists in starting their fiction plot. What is the reason for such a desperate and conscious desire to apply an identity which is actually not yours and live a life of not your own? Are fake memoirists people who write their story because they have none? I believe that fake memoir writing is a far more complicated process than one may think at first glance, influenced by social, historical, cultural and personal factors.
There are numerous examples in history of fabricated memoirs such as Misha Defonseca, Herman Rosenblat, Martin Grey and etc. I have chosen the most widely elucidated and studied case of Binjamin Wilkomirski – a self-proclaimed Holocaust child survivor, who, according to Binjamin’s own words, was born somewhere in the Baltics, survived Majdanek and Auschwitz Birkenau and got swapped with a Swiss boy Bruno Grosjean, whose name he eventually acquired. Instead, Binjamin is the Bruno Grosjean born in Switzerland, having no Jewish ancestry at all and, what is more, and probably contributing to his further accounts of building up his biography, having no family or relatives. In the future, Binjamin rejected all ‘real relatives’ in order not to break his entire circle of fantasy. Whether it was conscious or not, remains an open question.
Throughout Part I, I am going to look at the findings in psychology of memory in order to explain how Binjamin constructed his belief in the events that actually had never taken place. Stefan Maechler, a Swiss historian and expert on anti-Semitism and Switzerland's treatment of Holocaust refugees during and after World War II, provides numerous psychological concepts which elaborate on the psychological state of Wilkoimrski in his huge project The Wilkomirski Affair. The False Memory Syndrome (FMS) is a central psychological complex in the studies of memory which I am going to stick to when trying to explain the origins and motives for making fake memoirs and most importantly, fake identities. The FMS includes such phenomena and techniques as visualizations, repetitions, suggestive questions, dream interpretations, flashbacks and source amnesia which will be broadly explained in the upcoming abstract. There has been no complete term description of what a fake memoir actually is. By studying the case of Binjamin Wilkomirski and the psychological grounds for such a behaviour, at the end of this part I will try to give my own explanation of the term based on the facts and information of the abstract below.
In Part II, I am going to look at similarities and differences between “true” memoirs and fake memoirs. The comparison includes studying both types of memoirs in terms of a testimony (historical methodology) and in terms of a text (theory of literature). What unites “true” and fake memoirs and proves my doubt concerning authenticity of one over another is the amount of similar accounts that both memoirs possess: textualization, motives, rethinking, doubtful authenticity and memorization, publicity and finally, presence of audience. After having compared both types of memoirs, it becomes possible to formulate a framework in which I am going to present my own schematic representations of the development of both “true” and fake memoirs and provide a tentative explanation of how one type resembles another. A crucial finding of mine while developing the schemes was realization of the fact that “true” memoirs can evolve from both traumatic and non-traumatic experiences, however fake memoirs are not possible as a product without any traumatic experiences. Thus, my claim is that a fake memoir is a product of trauma per se. In my explanation I will also tackle the concept of “the copyright of experiences and emotions” which is one of my greatest criticisms towards Wilkomirski and other fake memoirists, apart from the absence of the memoirist in a certain time and space which is a necessary condition for becoming a witness.
In the concluding Part III, I am going to get engaged in a philosophical discussion in order to try to define the role of fake memoirs in the historical methodology and literature as a result of all the findings presented in Part I and Part II.
Why would an established grown-up person get engaged into a quite suspicious affair of working on an imaginary memoir? What are the motives and impulses that guide him or her throughout the whole thorny path of lies and fantasies, appreciation and later denouncement?
I would like to answer this question illustrating the case of Binjamin Wilkomirski, a self-claimed Holocaust child survivor who won numerous awards and prizes for his fake memoirs Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood, published in 1995. His case is supposed to be the most and best studied one due to his overwhelming popularity before denouncement and the public reaction both to his appearance in the media and disclosure. It will be less complicated to generalize the psychological findings from the existing literature, sum them up and elaborate on them.
Binjamin Wilkomirski, also known as Bruno Grosjean, was born in February 1941 to an unmarried factory worker, Yvonne Grosjean, in the Swiss town of Biel. Because of the severe accident, after which she was left handicapped and psychologically disturbed, Yvonne could not make enough money to support her and her son’s living. She was forced to give her son into care and little Bruno was in many foster houses until October 1945, when he was officially put up for adoption and sent to live with Kurt and Martha Dösekker, a childless wealthy couple. However, this is the story of Bruno which is totally different from the story presented by ‘Binjamin’. According to Binjamin, he was born somewhere in the Baltics and during the Holocaust survived Majdanek and Auschwitz Birkenau concentration camps. Binjamin (as I would refer to him throughout the whole essay notwithstanding his true name which is Bruno) has started constructing his false identity from the very childhood. His school friends recall that his stories would often bear an unreliable character. He did not actually lie, but distort reality. The story of Binjamin’s identity developed throughout his whole life – already at school he started convincing people that he was a Baltic refugee. Later, in his mid-twenties, he claimed for the first time that he was a Jew. After a couple of trips to Poland, in 1972, specifically to Auschwitz, he claimed to have discovered traces of his family – from now on he became Wilkomirski with the mother and five brothers who were exterminated in a concentration camp. By the end of 1980 he developed his Jewishness even further by studying Jewish rituals and history. Until 1995, when his memoirs got published by the Suhrcamp publisher, Binjamin would maintain his Jewishness and keep on constructing his identity with the help of various events and persons which he encountered in those years.
An interesting fact is that even after Binjamin’s denouncement as a Holocaust child survivor and a prominent writer, neither Binjamin himself nor most people that have known him stopped believing in the created story of Binjamin. The question is thus whether Binjamin himself believes his fantastical autobiography or is he just a gifted liar? Having studied a number of articles about Binjamin and his accounts, it becomes clear that Binjamin’s story was like a planted seed that grew into a tree: it was being built during his entire life, dependent on the number of things Wilkomirski faced: Holocaust books, memoirs, films, TV and radio programs (such as The Yellow Star by Gerhard Schoenberner and Eichmann’s trial of 1961), life events (miserable childhood until adoption in 1945 and the death of his biological mother without even mentioning his name in her last will), people (a Jewish woman Karola who outlived the camps). Most importantly, such a transgression of Wilkomirski’s personality would have never been possible without his psychological and early traumatic experience which, in return, made the process of self-victimization possible. As Alain Fienkelkraut, the French philosopher of Eastern European origin, explains the temptation of the Jewish biography, it makes the motives Wilkomirski followed even more explicit. Finekelkraut calls the post-war Judaism the most beautiful thing a Jewish kid could receive: due to all suffering of the past generations, the new Jewish kids, without real exposure to danger, got to possess a considerable advantage over other children, which was the power to dramatize their biography. In Binjamin’s case, creating a fake identity was supposed to enlarge his importance for both himself and the people around him. He felt neglected from his early childhood, even living in a wealthy family could not change the situation – adopted children tend to look for their biological roots until the end of their lives. Relieving the pain of biological parents’ absence and the probable lack of love was represented in blaming the criminal power of the Nazi regime. Moreover, he found himself in the upper class where he could never be accepted, creating the need for social solidarity and sympathy. By adopting a Jewish child survivor identity, Wilkomirski became the representative of all Swiss Jews, the speaker from the child survivors and an expert in this issue – he was admired and admitted everywhere. The idea of becoming someone with the world-historic significance became an idea fix for Wilkomirski, that is why he did not leave it up to stories shared with friends or colleagues; the urge for world acknowledgement pushed Wilkomirski to seek attention in documentaries, TV and radio programs, public speaking events and giving lectures at universities and museums.
An even more personal account of Binjamin in adopting an imaginary identity was, probably, his own weakness. The Shoah biography could provide one with excuses, justification and explanations for certain actions that a victim would undertake. No one would judge a victim of the violent Nazi crime seriously. The position of Binjamin’s excusing himself would go even further by accusing others of being anti-Semitic or even neo Nazi because of their inability to comprehend the inevitable consequences of his experience. As S. Machler states, “With one singe narration he [Binjamin] produces a convincing explanation for all his personal difficulties and an instrument with which to satisfy all his needs.” It is indeed an elaborative and economical solution, however I still doubt that Wilkomirski acted as a cold-hearted liar. He seems rather a psychologically affected person. Looking at the evolution of Wilkomirski’s fantastical story shows us features typical for invented memories, which seem the most likely source of imaginary/embellished memoirs.
Invented memories (also known as imaginary memories) are usually a part of the psychological disease called False memory syndrome (FMS). FMS is responsible for the condition of a patient in which his or her identity and relationships are strongly affected by memories that are factually incorrect, but that they really believe in. The entire case of Binjamin Wilkomirski seems to fall within this complex, however one should remember that the heart of another is a dark forest, and the inner motives and intentions of Wilkomirski can be still doubted and known only to himself. Yet, if we still stick to the above listed approach of FMS, it provides us with the features which are clear representations of Binjamin’s behaviour and accounts. For the below overview I have analysed the summary of the findings of different psychological schools dealing with memory by S. Maechler.
Binjamin appears a very imaginative and sensitive person. Due to certain complications and difficulties that followed him in his childhood, certain images got either distorted or fully imagined. Authentic memory thus gets replaced or enlarged with invented memories by the method of visualization which is claimed to be highly effective – especially if one looks at the film-like quality of memories represented in Binjamin’s Fragments.
Since Wilkomirski started creating his story and personality in the school years, it gave him more than 50 years of retelling the story and supporting it with new ‘facts’ first to his friends and acquaintances, then to his psychotherapist and finally to the big public. Such constant repetition increased Wilkomirski’s assuredness and belief in his own stories and the more he was busy constructing and communicating it, the more reliable and substantial it sounded both to himself and people around him.
Binjamin’s taking on the identity of a Holocaust survivor might have automatically aroused certain expectations from his listeners, and his stories might have been followed by suggestive questions which ensured further development of the story and contributed to his growing confidence. Suggestive questions, at their core bringing new information and evoking fresh responses, could serve a good basis for false memories.
New research in FMS shows that interpreting one’s dreams in a way the tested person sees it may add up to creation of false memories. Wilkomirski seems an intelligent and not a mediocre person – being a professional clarinettist, he has always been interested in arts, history, literature and, what is very important , psychology. In his interviews he elaborately explains his feelings, talks about his own memory and how fallible it can be for both himself and other Holocaust survivors. It is no surprise that Wilkomirski by all means attempted to interpret his own dreams. The way of his interpretation (especially of nightmares) gave ground for a new bunch of invented memories.
Wilkomirski analyzes his own memory in a way that he states its involuntary, physical and flashback-like character. Since it has been proved that Wilkomirski has never been a Holocaust child survivor, one can conclude that the flashback phenomenon should be out of question here. However, due to the fact that Wilkomirski did have to go through certain difficulties in the childhood that can be attributed to actual traumas, verbalization of those traumas and further rethinking made particular scenes, with the help of visualization, fit in the Holocaust setting. Childhood memories (traumas before his turning 4 years old) are very difficult to retrieve and they are, as a consequence, prone to full or partial distortion. Wilkomirski himself admits that his flashbacks date to the days when he found himself in a non-verbal stage which prevented him from explaining the things he saw, just because at that time he did not possess enough vocabulary for them. Such a sophisticated explanation does give an idea of Wilkomirski’s high intellectual capabilities. As the psychologist Daniel L. Schacter puts it, “The contents of a flashback may say more about what a person believes or fears about the past than about what actually happened.”
As already stated in Motives above, Wilkomirski constructed his story from abstracts of books, articles, films, documentaries, oral narration as well as experiences from his real life which are, of course, not direct replicas of what he describes as his story. It may be the case that he mixed fiction and facts and could not distinguish the source of information anymore. Even though I claimed above that Binjamin seems aware of the processes that take place in his head and gives an impression of an educated person, he still lacks the full understanding of how memory of a person works. In the introductory chapter of his Fragments, he made it clear that he believed that past experiences as a child can be brought to light unchanged. This is an obvious contradiction to the studies in psychology of memory, if not just a rhetorical strategy of Wilkomirski, latter being doubtful. Memory research has long since proved that remembering is a constructive act which is fully depended and influenced on and by the current situation. Unlike Wilkomirski, many Shoah survivors are still aware of their memory’s fallibility and the fact that their power to recall certain events can be unreliable with the flow of years, burden of events, emotions at that moment and moment of remembering etc.
 Etymonlinecom. (2015). Etymonlinecom. Retrieved 25 May, 2015, from http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=autobiography
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 Machler, S & Moechler-woods, M. (2001). Wilkomirski the Victim: Individual Remembering as Social Interaction and Public Event. History&Memory by Indiana University Press, 13(2),pp 61-62.
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 Machler, S & Moechler-woods, M. (2001). Wilkomirski the Victim: Individual Remembering as Social Interaction and Public Event. History&Memory by Indiana University Press, 13(2),p 87
 Mchugh, P.R. (2008). Try to remember: Psychiatry's clash over meaning, memory and mind. New York: Dana Press. Pp 66-67
 Machler, S & Moechler-woods, M. (2001). Wilkomirski the Victim: Individual Remembering as Social Interaction and Public Event. History&Memory by Indiana University Press, 13(2),pp 67-69
 TV 3SAT. [Sven Lamprecht]. (1997). Der Wilkomirski – Betrug [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e4m1lz48Ga0
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 Machler, S & Moechler-woods, M. (2001). Wilkomirski the Victim: Individual Remembering as Social Interaction and Public Event. History&Memory by Indiana University Press, 13(2),p 69.
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