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Stefan Mächler - Wilkomirski the Victim: Individual Remembering as Social Interaction and Public Event

Stefan Mächler - Wilkomirski the Victim: Individual Remembering as Social Interaction and Public Event

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Published by loop1973
History & Memory 13/2 (2001): 59-95.
History & Memory 13/2 (2001): 59-95.

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Categories:Types, Research, History
Published by: loop1973 on Nov 06, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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 Wilkomirski the Victim
Individual Remembering as Social Interaction and Public Event* 
I wanted to know everything. I wanted to absorb every detail and understand every connection. I hoped I would nd answers for the pictures that came from my broken childhood memory some nights to stop me going to sleep or to give me terrifying nightmares. I wanted to know what other people had gone through back then. I wanted to compare it with my own earliest memories that I carried around inside me. I wanted to subject them to intelligent reason, and arrange them in a pattern that made sense. But the longer I spent at it, the more I learned and absorbed empirically, the more elusive the answer—in the sense of what actually happened—became. It made me despair.
Binjamin Wilkomirski,
“The wandering Jew, that’s me; the starving prisoner in striped pajamas, that’s me; the little kid from Warsaw who faced the German machine guns, with a  face of unbelievable seriousness and dignity, that’s me once more; me, tortured by the Inquisition; me, the bloodied rabbi after a pogrom; me, Dreyfus on Devil’s Island...” For the longest time, this is what Jewish identity meant in my eyes, and this, after years of bluster, is the meaning it has lost.
Alain Finkielkraut,
The Imaginary Jew 
Le Juif imaginaire 
is the title of a book by Alain Finkielkraut publishedtwo decades ago. In it the French philosopher, born in 1949 to Jewish
Stefan Maechler 
60parents of East European origin, discusses self-critically the temptationof a Jewish biography: The Judaism I had received was the most beautiful present a post-genocidal child could imagine. I inherited a suffering to which Ihad not been subjected, for without having to endure oppression,the identity of the victim was mine. I could savor an exceptionaldestiny while remaining completely at ease. Without exposure toreal danger, I had heroic stature: to be a Jew was enough to escapethe anonymity of an identity indistinguishable from others and thedullness of an uneventful life. I was not immune to depression, of course, but I possessed a considerable advantage over the other chil-dren of my generation: the power to dramatize my biography.
 These advantages—although admittedly not appropriate in the same way and with totally different prerequisites—suited the Swiss Bruno Gros-jean who became famous as Binjamin Wilkomirski, author of 
Fragments:  Memories of a Wartime Childhood 
. Obviously the metaphors of a Jewishexistence could also serve as a biographical surrogate for a non-Jew whosuffered from not being able to trace his past. The power and seduction of culturally spread images will be thefocus of my article. I will describe how, over the course of his life, Wilkomirski acquired his memories and ultimately came to publish hisbook. I will examine how social interactions and social context play afundamental role in his invented narrative and how he used the mytho-logical power of the Holocaust to create a convincing autobiography.
 The boy who would one day write his story, because he had none, was born to an unmarried factory worker in the Swiss town of Biel inFebruary 1941.
His mother, Yvonne Grosjean, had lain in hospital foralmost half a year before the birth, after being knocked off her bicycleby a motorist and left severely injured. When she emerged from herprolonged coma in hospital, the doctors told her that she was pregnant.Her younger lover abandoned her without ever seeing the baby, who was
 Wilkomirski the Victim61named Bruno. Today he claims that his parents forced this course of action on him to spare themselves the shame of having an illegitimategrandchild. In accordance with the law at the time, the unmarried mother was denied parental guardianship and her child became a ward of state.As a result of the accident Yvonne Grosjean was physically handi-capped and psychologically disturbed. She received no compensation,however, since the police and law courts handled the culprit, a promi-nent factory owner, with kid gloves. She moved from one rented roomto another, trying to support herself and the child on the pittance sheearned from work done from home. Finally, she was forced to giveBruno, still barely two years old, into care. After two foster homes,he was placed with the Aeberhard family in the neighboring village of Nidau. His foster mother was mentally disturbed, which made Bruno’slife unbearable for almost a year until, in February 1945, the family informed the legal guardian that they could no longer keep the child.While the biological mother was ghting for her life in hospital,after almost hemorrhaging to death due to a self-induced abortion, thelegal guardian sent her son to a children’s home in the Bernese Oberland. The guardian, always skeptical of the young woman’s life style and herability to rear her child, soon urged her to put the child up for adoption.She nally gave in to the pressure—including the threat of being certi-ed as incompetent. Her son, whom she would never see again, was sobewildered meanwhile that he identied a strange woman visitor to thechildren’s home as his mother.In October 1945 Bruno Grosjean was sent to Zurich to live withKurt and Martha Dössekker, a childless couple, both from respectable,established families, wealthy owners of a large villa in the best areaof town, the Zurichberg; the man had a ourishing doctor’s practice.Bruno’s schoolfriends of the time recall that, even as early as primary school, his stories were not always reliable.
He did not actually lie somuch as distort reality, relating strange tales—of scorpions or caves, forexample—in his desire to impress others. He once dedicated a poemto his girlfriend’s mother, whom he respected, claiming to have writtenit himself, whereas it was really by Bertolt Brecht. Even his epilepticattacks, which aroused the concern of his fellow pupils at secondary school, were probably simulated as well. He was already telling peoplethat he was a child refugee from the Baltics. However, he still celebrated

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