This book has attempted to sketch out some of the complex links between war, genocide, and modern identity. While this is a historical issue with numerous collective ramifications, it is also very much a contemporary problem with profound personal, as well as public, implications. In thinking about how to conclude this book, I decided to avoid a recapitulation of its main arguments, which would have merely entailed both repetition and simplification. Instead, these concluding pages will discuss three recent examples of highly publicized and, in very different ways, troubling attempts to come to terms with the devastating legacy of our century.
As I write these lines, Germany has just emerged from one controversy and is already being rocked by yet another in a series of public debates concerning the Holocaust. There is something almost obscene about this constant rehashing of old arguments by all sides involved over the burden of the past and the need both to remember and to put it aside once and for all. The controversies over the screening of the TV miniseries Holocaust in the late 1970s, President Reagan’s visit to the military cemetery in Bitburg and the German historians’ debate of the mid-1980s, the screening of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, and the publication of Goldhagen’s book have all generated almost the same arguments, recriminations, apologetics, moral outrage, pity, shame, and sorrow. They have provided an array of figures, politicians, historians, media people, with an opportunity to gain a fair amount of publicity and notoriety, to establish themselves as the conscience of the nation, or at least as the spokespersons for this or that group. What makes this phenomenon morally dubious is, of course, the fact that all these figures are performing a sort of Totentanz over the graves—or rather ashes—of millions of victims. What makes it depressing is that it tends to be most of the time circular, intellectually arid, and almost entirely devoid of either scholarly or political insights. Nevertheless, it may be useful to make a few comments on the recent so-called Walser-debate, while keeping in mind its implications and relevance for the most current storm over the exhibition on the crimes of the Wehrmacht that cannot be discussed here.
The controversy was unleashed by Martin Walser, a well-known novelist, in a speech he made on being awarded the German publishers Peace Prize in October 1988. Walser expressed growing impatience with what he called the “intrumentalization of the Holocaust” as “a routine threat, a tool of intimidation, a moral cudgel or just a compulsory exercise.” For this he was accused by the leader of the Jewish community in Germany, Ignatz Bubis, a Holocaust survivor, of “mental arson.” The quarrel between these two men became associated with a wider ongoing public controversy over the then still undecided status of the planned Holocaust memorial in Berlin. This project, initiated by former chancellor Helmut Kohl, is seen far less enthusiastically by the present social democratic government and many left-liberal intellectuals. Indeed, the editor of the mass-circulation liberal magazine Der Spiegel, Rudolf Augstein, has dismissed the plan submitted by the (Jewish) American architect Peter Eisenman with the argument that foreigners should not be allowed to “dictate how we deal with memories of the past in our new capital.”
Two issues need to be briefly touched on in this context. First, it has been said that this debate is merely a last ditch effort by the older generation that had still experienced the Third Reich in its youth to have its say on national identity. Indeed, the major voices in the debate, both Walser and Bubis, are past seventy (and Bubis has meanwhile died). Yet it would be naive to think that once the older generation vanishes German preoccupation with the past will simply disappear. German politicians, intellectuals, and scholars who belong to the generation of 1968 and have now reached positions of prominence are no less concerned with the past, even if in different ways. Indeed, what is striking about the new German elite is that it feels much more comfortable in expressing its loyalty to German culture, history, and political interests than its predecessors. The former rebels of the students’ revolt, who demanded to eradicate the remnants of fascism in German society now move in the halls of power, wear fashionable Italian suits, and insist on the need to be liberated from the burden of the past in words that sound remarkably similar to, if not more strident than, those used by their predecessors of the previous generation, of whom Ernst Nolte was the extreme representative in the 1980s and Walser is the more suave representative in the 1990s. Nothing demonstrates the presence of the past more clearly than the persistent calls to do away with it. Hence we should not expect it to disappear from the public agenda any time soon.
Second, the argument regarding the instrumentalization of the Holocaust, which I myself have applied especially regarding the case of Israel, has an entirely different import when it is made in Germany. For the question in this case obviously is, Who are instrumentalizing the Holocaust “against” the Germans, and what price has Germany paid for this alleged instrumentalization of its past crimes? Put in this way, rather than in Walser’s obfuscating manner, one perforce comes up with rather embarrassing answers. Those who instrumentalize the Holocaust in Germany can only be “the Jews,” even if the present political climate does not allow to say this outright. Instead, one speaks of foreigners, the (American) media, greedy (American) lawyers, all of which is (and of course was very much in the past) a veiled reference to Jews. And if it is indeed the Jews who instrumentalize the Holocaust, one must ask what profit do they derive from this exercise and what price are the Germans forced to pay? Here, of course, one thinks first and foremost in monetary terms, and notes the vast amounts of money paid by German governments over the years as restitution payment to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Thus the instrumentalization of the Holocaust is a process whereby Jews are getting German money. To be sure, these funds are intended to compensate Jewish victims for the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis regime. But all this happened half a century ago and hardly any of the Germans living today had anything to do with these crimes. Hence the feeling of being exploited (by the Jews) for acts one cannot be held responsible for. But beyond such mundane monetary issues, there is a sense that the Holocaust is still putting limits on the exercise of German politics, in other words, that by constantly reminding the world of the Nazi period the Jews are preventing the normalization of German existence. That Germany is the most powerful country in Europe, that its flourishing economy still contains numerous firms whose fortunes were greatly expanded through the use of slave labor during the war, for which they never paid any compensation, does not seem to prevent speakers of Walser’s ilk from viewing their nation as a victim of persecution and victimization.
What makes this argument so bizarre is that it expresses a desire both to appropriate the Holocaust and to erase it. Thus Augstein rejects the option of a (Jewish American) foreigner “telling” the Germans how to deal with their past—that is, with their Holocaust—and, at the same time, he rejects the very idea, rather than any specific plan, of a Holocaust memorial. Similarly, Walser criticizes the instrumentalization of the Holocaust and at the same time—just like Gerhard Schroder, the new chancellor and former participant in the 1968 protests—says that it is time for the Germans to put all that behind them and look to the future. In other words, the Holocaust belongs to the Germans so that they can finally do away with it. What Walser finds most objectionable is the attempt to “monumentalize our shame” on the best piece of real estate in the world, a football field-sized plot smack in the center of Berlin. The term Walser used was Schande (disgrace), rather than Scham (shame). Whereas shame is what one feels, disgrace is the act or condition that ought to bring about this feeling. Primo Levi felt shame for the acts of the Germans, for they disgraced the whole of humanity. Walser rejects the notion that foreigners should dictate to the Germans how to feel about the disgrace of their past. It is, to his mind, up to them to decide whether to feel shame and how to express it, and there is no reason why such shame, if they indeed feel it, should be so prominently displayed, right in the center of the new, or rather newly regained, capital.
Walser may not be representative of intellectual opinion in Germany but neither is he a marginal figure. He has been attacked by many in the media and has also found many defenders—especially those who lamented the formulation rather than the content of his argument. But while he might have chosen his words badly, fundamentally, he is not far from Schroder, who for his part is representative of much of the new political, economic, and academic elite in Germany. These middle-aged baby boomers, members of the 1968 protest movement, are no less patriotic than Walser and his generation, and see no reason to be apologetic about it. Patriotism means owning up to your past; it also means forging your past in a manner that would make it possible to be proud of, or at least to be comfortable with, your national identity. The Holocaust stands in the way of this process. And since the Holocaust was about killing Jews and the Jews have not all been done away with, the Jews may appear to some as an obstacle to normalization. Thus the genocide of the Jews remains at the center of German identity whether it is recognized as part of an “unmasterable past” or it is wished away. It is there in the public domain; it is also in the most private. This is where I would like to turn now.
In 1995 two small books were published in German that quickly became international best-sellers, were hailed by critics and scholars as works of unparalleled moral and historical significance, and entered the canon of Holocaust literature from its two polar perspectives: that of the perpetrators and that of the victims. Both books had an obviously autobiographical element that, in the case of one, became the focus of a major scandal whose final outcome is still in doubt. Both books were written by men in their fifties and thus straddle the fine line between personal experience and the second-generation’s often traumatized consciousness. Indeed, the degree of the authors’ personal engagement in the events they describe is both inherent to their books’ impact and reception, and raises questions regarding their authenticity and moral candor. They come at a time when the direct witnesses of Nazism and the Holocaust are quietly leaving the stage, yet also when public fascination, not to say obsession, with this period has reached unprecedented proportions, as evidenced by the tremendous commercial success of these books and the intellectual debate they have triggered. Hence we may examine these texts as indicators of a legacy whose destructive realities are as horrifying as its implications for individual and collective identity are troubling and contentious.
Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, originally published in German and the recipient of several important literary prizes in a number of countries, is the story of a relationship between a “second generation” German man and an older woman who, as it later transpires, was an SS guard in Auschwitz and another camp “near Cracow.” Told in the first person by the man, the story appears to have many autobiographical aspects, although Schlink does not indicate this directly anywhere. Born in Germany in 1944, Schlink is now a professor of law, a practicing judge, and the author of several other novels. His protagonist, Michael Berg, meets Hanna Schmitz when he is fifteen years old and she is thirty-six, and various comments in the book indicate that the meeting takes place in 1959, that is, that Michael was also born in 1944. Moreover, Michael also studies law, and although he refuses to become either a lawyer or a judge and prefers to do research on the history of law, he, too, becomes a published author.
The core of The Reader is an inversion of conventional roles, moral assumptions, and categories. The powerful link between Michael and Hanna is his immense physical attraction to her, since she initiates him into sex as a teenager, and her dependence on him as a reader. For as it turns out later in the novel, Hanna is illiterate. Rather than escaping her past as a perpetrator, the reason she both becomes an SS guard and keeps moving from place to place in postwar Germany is her desperate effort to hide that shameful disability. Her sensuality, as described by Schlink, reminds one of Hanna Schygulla in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979); she is tall, blond, physically strong, and disdainful of sentimentality. But her sexual appeal is also related to her dark, criminal, brutal past. Such links between atrocity and eroticism remind one of Lina Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties (1975) and Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (1973). It is no wonder that all these films were made in the 1970s, when the new German and Italian cinema was engaged in both coming to terms with the past and in exploring its subversive meanings for the present, often by focusing on the aestheticization of violence and the sexual attraction of perversity and sadism. Unlike the case of Ka-Tzetnik, however, what we have here is a view from the outside, by members of a different generation and of a group that belonged to the victimizers or the bystanders, never the victims.
And yet, as The Reader unfolds, we realize that both Hanna and Michael are victims; she of her handicap, he of the helpless shame of belonging to the second generation of the perpetrators. Following a seven-year separation, Michael recognizes Hanna at a trial of SS perpetrators he visits as a law student in 1966. She is then forty-three and he is twenty-two. Now we realize that Hanna has become victim of both postwar German justice and of the other Nazi defendants and their lawyers. Her refusal to concede her illiteracy, along with her relative youth, beauty, and charisma, make her appear as the main culprit. She is thus given a life sentence and spends the next eighteen years in jail. About to be released in 1984, we encounter her as a prematurely aged sixty-one year old, while Michael, despite his professional successes, is a psychologically deeply scarred forty year old. For he, too, is a victim not merely of the fate of his whole generation, but of his inability to emerge from the emotional cul-de-sac of his passion for Hanna and the knowledge of her crime. He is thus the victim of a victim and can only confront this condition by becoming emotionally paralyzed, escaping his feelings for Hanna by escaping from his own self and leading a sterile, empty existence. In this sense both he and she are “inner emigrants,” refugees of their respective handicaps in the midst of an uncomprehending and uncaring society. At the same time, they may represent Schlink’s view of postwar German society as a whole: a sterile, emotionally dead victim of its own crimes. When Michael meets Hanna a few days before her release, her physical deterioration and his emotional paralysis prevent him from showing her any sincere warmth. Not having seen him even once during those eighteen years, but having learned to read and write by listening to readings of literary works he records and sends to her (and apparently by reading on her own memoirs of Holocaust survivors), Hanna hangs herself during her last night in prison.
Schlink’s novel is a tale of emotional numbness and sexual passion. The emotional numbness is associated not only with Michael but also with everyone else—except Hanna, who is the most natural, physical, and emotionally “healthy” character in the novel—and becomes the main trademark of the trial. The barrage of horrors makes all those present at the trial increasingly numb, a numbness which Michael believes was just as characteristic of the reality of atrocity itself. But for Michael there is another emotion during the trial, for as he watches Hanna after a seven-year separation, he cannot help being aroused by her: as the crimes of the SS women are described, he recalls making love to her, she being in physical control, he providing intellectual nourishment by reading her novels. Only now he realizes that in the camp she also had inmates read her stories just before they were sent to be gassed. Did she take them to her to prolong their lives and give them a measure of comfort, or did she send them to be gassed to prevent them from revealing her handicap? Michael prefers to believe the former, yet perceives himself now as one more of Hanna’s victims, whom she might have also sent to die had she not been able to leave him when she sensed that her secret might be revealed. Thus the “now” and “then” become inextricably linked in his mind: as he associates the numbness that engulfs the courtroom with the numbness of both perpetrators and victims in the camps, the courtroom becomes a replica of a concentration camp, in the midst of which his only emotion is a tremendous sexual longing for a woman accused of murder by a man who sees himself as her victim.
Michael’s only encounter with a real victim, one of the only two survivors of the camp in which Hanna “worked,” seems to confirm his assertion that the victims became as numb as the perpetrators. To be sure, as we know—and as Hanna might have also known had she in fact read the survivors’ memoirs he finds in her prison cell after her suicide—his emotional block and their traumatized state are so far apart that the very idea of associating them with each other reflects Michael’s, or Schlink’s, incapacity to envisage the fate of the victims. Indeed, Michael’s view of himself and of Hanna as victims is predicated on entirely excluding Hanna’s victims as complete human beings beyond their role as targets of their victimizers or witnesses of atrocity. It also makes for a confusion of categories, whereby the author links between social or ideological handicaps and victimhood. But while Hanna’s illiteracy makes her first into a perpetrator and then into a victim of justice (as Michael ultimately believes), the handicap of the Nazis’ victims, their Jewishness, spelled an immediate or eventual death sentence. Hanna’s illiteracy makes her into a murderer; her victims’ Jewishness makes them the target of murder.
Michael raises a question about second-generation Germans that was asked—from a polar perspective—by Yehuda Elkana about second-generation Israelis, as we have seen in chapter 4:
What should our generation have done, what should it do with the knowledge of the horrors of the extermination of the Jews? We should not believe we can comprehend the incomprehensible, we may not compare the incomparable, we may not inquire because to inquire is to make the horrors an object of discussion, even if the horrors themselves are not questioned, instead of accepting them as something in the face of which we can only fall silent in revulsion, shame, and guilt. Should we fall silent in revulsion, shame, and guilt? To what purpose?
Sitting through the trial, he asks himself, “that some few would be convicted and punished while we of the second generation were silenced by revulsion, shame, and guilt—was that all there was to it now?
The crime of which Hanna is accused is indeed not comparable to what we know of the Holocaust. She and her comrades failed to unlock the doors of the church in which the inmates of a camp, sent on a death march to Germany, had been put up for the night, even as the church was set on fire by Allied bombers. Of course, SS guards had in fact frequently locked Jews in buildings (usually synagogues) and set them on fire themselves, without the assistance of enemy bombers, but not in Schlink’s book. Moreover, we are never certain whether the SS women had the key, were frightened and confused because their own comrades were also killed or wounded in the bombing raid, or acted out of pure murderous malice. Hanna is obviously (to the reader) no more guilty than anyone else. But since she will not admit her illiteracy, she refuses to submit a writing sample and falsely admits to having written the damning report on the incident that she could not have possibly written. She is thus convicted for the wrong reason. Nor is her sentence—life imprisonment—typical of such trials in 1960s Germany, in which perpetrators with far greater responsibility for far worse crimes, if convicted at all, were regularly given ridiculously light sentences, as Schlink, a judge, clearly knows. And yet she is a perpetrator, and Michael, as her former lover, is a victim of the handicap that made her, too, into a victim, since she joined the SS only to avoid exposure as an illiterate in her work place at Siemens (a German firm that, incidentally, employed slave labor during the war). Indeed, Hanna’s relative innocence is revealed to Michael during the trial. Initially, she exhibits “confusion and helplessness,” and while she wants “to do the right thing,” she has “no sense of the context, of the rules of the game.” But then, when she finally naively asks the judge, “What would you have done?” she reveals the truth, namely, that there was no choice, that anyone in that situation would have done the same, even those who accuse her now. She is a perpetrator, but so would everyone else have been.
Hanna’s specific guilt is thus qualified by the claim of universal potential guilt (guilt in the subjunctive mode), and her helplessness in the camp and in the courtroom shows her as an innocent victim of circumstances. Conversely, the status of the witnesses is made dubious by the fact that their testimony, according to Michael, “was not precise, nor could it be.” To be sure, there is no doubt as to their status as victims, but it is clear that they are in no position to ascertain the identity and guilt of the perpetrators; indeed, they may victimize the innocent, or at least, those who, like Hanna, are “guilty, but not as guilty as it appeared.” Hence, too, the memoir by a survivor and witness of the event, as Michael claims, “exudes the very numbness I have tried to describe,” namely, that of the perpetrators, the lawyers, the judge, the audience. It evokes in him none of the compassion or passion he feels toward Hanna. And because of his love for her and his inability to feel the pain of her victims, he prefers to think of her crime as akin to “a car accident on a lonely road on a cold winter night, with injuries and totaled vehicles, and no one knowing what to do,” or as “a conflict between two equally compelling duties that required action.” But, he says, “nobody was willing to look at it in such terms.” And so, Michael is caught between believing Hanna innocent and knowing she is guilty, while seeing himself as “not guilty because one cannot be guilty of betraying a criminal,” and yet also as “guilty of having loved a criminal.”
But Michael’s awareness of Hanna’s crimes only increases his passion for her: “The worst were the dreams in which a hard, imperious, cruel Hanna aroused me sexually; I woke from them full of longing and shame and rage. And full of fear about who I really was.” He resolves his dilemma by asserting that his dreams “were unfair to the Hanna I had known and still knew.” In retrospect he realizes “how little observation there actually was” of the Holocaust, so that “the imagination was almost static: the shattering fact of the world of the camps seemed properly beyond its operations.” Conversely, he writes, now, after “the television series Holocaust and movies like Schindler’s List,” the imagination “actually moves in it,” “it” being presumably the Holocaust. Hence hearing evidence in the courtroom about Hanna’s crime was numbing intellectually and arousing sexually; seeing “it,” the Holocaust, in Hollywood productions, made it come alive.
Michael wants “simultaneously to understand Hanna’s crime and to condemn it,” but he finds it “impossible to do both.” Eventually, he seems to condemn without understanding and to understand without condemning. What he condemns most strongly is what it did to him: “Would she have sent me to the gas chamber if she hadn’t been able to leave me, but wanted to get rid of me?” And yet he finds her sentence “a miscarriage of justice.” But he fails to tell the judge about Hanna’s secret and instead watches her when the sentence is read: “A proud, wounded, lost, and infinitely tired look. A look that wished to see nothing and no one.”
Soon after Hanna’s imprisonment the 1968 students’ revolt takes place. Although he does not participate, Michael sees it as the expression of a sense of collective guilt:
Pointing at the guilty parties did not free us of shame, but at least it overcame the suffering we went through on account of it. It converted the passive suffering of shame into energy, activity, aggression. And coming to grips with our parents’ guilt took a great deal of energy.
Here, then, is another core theme of the book: Those young Germans who “dissociated themselves from their parents and thus from an entire generation of perpetrators, voyeurs, and the willfully blind, accommodators and accepters, thereby overcoming their suffering because of the shame” and preferring to “parade” their “self-righteousness,” in truth made all this noise merely “to drown the fact that their love for their parents made them irrevocably complicit in their crimes.” Yet Michael’s situation is far worse, for while, as he says, “The pain I went through because of my love for Hanna was, in a way, the fate of my generation, a German fate,” unlike other members of his generation he chose Hanna, indeed, was infatuated with her sexuality, while they had no choice in determining the identity of their parents.
Unlike Schlink, Michael does not become a judge, since “judging was the most grotesque oversimplification of all.” This leads us to assume that the author’s views are more complex than his protagonist’s, or more ready to compromise, come to terms, relent. Michael becomes as stunted as Hanna. He works, publishes books, lectures, has lovers, but his emotional life is dead, his marriage breaks down, his daughter wanders from parent to parent. The only thing that gives meaning to his life is the memory of his relationship with Hanna and the tapes he sends her of himself reading novels. Now both he and Hanna are stunted, handicapped, victims of forces outside their control, somewhat reminiscent of Gunter Grass’s Oskar, the dwarf, in his novel The Tin Drum. And when she dies, the victim of his emotional impotence, he too seems to die, a victim of her handicap, which had in turn made her a victim (and a perpetrator).
This is a remarkable novel, and it cannot be interpreted in a single fashion. Possibly, one reason for its success is that it can be read differently by different people. It is both a kind of coming to terms with the past and an apology, depending on where our sympathies lie, and whether we see Michael as expressing Schlink’s views or as the author’s attempt to create a figure that would manifest how the second generation in Germany became warped by the crimes and complicity of their parents. In this sense it has something in common with Jean-Paul Sartre’s Childhood of a Leader, which reconstructs the making of a fascist youth in 1930s France, or with Louis Malle’s Lacombe Lucien (1974). Yet there are elements in this novel that, precisely because of its effectiveness as a work of literature, are highly disturbing. For this is a book in which the true victims of the period, those who died and those who survived, have no face; their suffering, though conceded, remains abstract and evokes no emotion in the reader. The victims we encounter, and the suffering with which we empathize as readers, belong to the second generation as well as to the innocent, illiterate, choiceless perpetrators, caught in a historical fate they cannot evade. As Schlink (or Michael) puts it unambiguously, second-generation Germans are victims of their shame for the perpetrators and suffer for their love to them, indeed, for their illicit, painful, yet intense passion for them. For true, passionate, authentic sexual pleasure can be derived only from the perpetrators; everything else is numb, lifeless, meaningless. Even the attempt to come to terms with the past, to research it, to try the perpetrators and punish, hate, and disown them is useless. Germany, here, is emasculated, emotionally dead, an automaton making the motions of a living organism without heart or soul. As Michael says at the end of Hanna’s trial: “I felt the numbness with which I had followed the horrors of the trial settling over the emotions and thoughts of the past few weeks. It would be too much to say that I was happy about this. But I felt it was right. It allowed me to return to and continue to live my everyday life.”
The Reader, then, is about Germany as victim. It is a victim of its history of murder, to be sure, but then, even the murderers themselves are victims, and those they ultimately victimize are the next generation of Germans. It is a German fate. Hanna may be reading the memoirs of Primo Levi, Jean Amery, and Tadeusz Borowski, but Michael is suffering his own pain. He cannot comprehend, much as he may try, the pain of those whom Hanna and her likes had tortured, or rather, he can understand only in so far as their fate resembles his own, since, from his perspective, he is ultimately the most comprehensible victim. Indeed, metaphorically, Michael becomes the Jewish victim, both by virtue of his association with Hanna as the reader and thanks to the grace of his late birth, which prevented him from becoming a perpetrator. Yet even as he tilts toward the category of victim, Schlink contextualizes his tale within a framework of emotional numbness and sexual obsession, both of which are above or below morality, since the former is a blank and a void, and the latter is involuntary and uncontrollable. Thus numbness and obsession are a means to avoid responsibility and reject all ethical categories.
This latent self-transformation into a Jewish victim seems to become manifest in Binjamin Wilkomirski’s Fragments. As I write these lines, the scandal that erupted around his book, published originally in German and translated into twelve languages to tremendous critical acclaim and commercial success, has subsided somewhat, but the questions it raised have not been resolved. Indeed, it is possible that we will never know whether the accusations recently leveled at Wilkomirski are true and may even have to accept that there is no truth here in the sense that we would—quite rightly, in this specific case— want to have it. But the debate itself is ultimately of much greater importance than its resolution, if one is ever reached, since it demonstrates the extent to which the mass crimes and profound trauma of this century have undermined our ability to determine the nature of truth, to establish identity, to distinguish between fact and fiction, and to make moral judgments of universal applicability.
Fragments is a devastating memoir by a man in his fifties who was born into the Holocaust. It is unlike any other memoir of the Holocaust because it describes events from the perspective of a very young child, who cannot remember and did not know, the historical events, the names of places, the identities of the protagonists, the realities and fantasies of the period, but who has retained, inscribed in his mind, certain fragments, largely of the most terrifying brutality, of utter inhumanity, of hopelessness, of pain and suffering. In some ways Fragments is reminiscent of Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird, which also describes the fate of a child during the Holocaust, although Kosinski’s protagonist evades the camps and is subject to the brutality of the peasant population. Indeed, the similarity with The Painted Bird does not end with the narrative and the perspective. Kosinski had been accused of having presented a work of fiction as autobiography, since, it was claimed, various indications made it appear that he could not have possibly been the child depicted in his novel. Precisely because of the nature of his book and its commercial success, the possibility that it was fiction (which was never openly denied by Kosinski) created a major stir and ultimately tarnished his name. This is what seems to be happening now with Wilkomirski’s memoir as well.
In August 1998 the popular Swiss weekly Weltwoche published an article by the writer Daniel Ganzfried that accused Wilkomirski of having invented his identity out of thin air. Ganzfried, who was born in 1958 and lives in Zurich, is himself the child of Holocaust survivors and the author of a novel on the difficulties of remembering from the perspective of the second generation. His own background may explain his reluctance to believe Wilkomirski’s version, according to which he was born to a Jewish family in Riga in 1939, spent the first years of his life in the camps, and came to Switzerland only after the war, living first in an orphanage and subsequently being adopted by a childless couple. Ganzfried’s evidence indicated that in fact Wilkomirski was born in Switzerland in 1941 as Bruno Grosjean, the illegitimate (Protestant) son of Yvonne Berthe Grosjean, was adopted in 1945 by a Swiss family, and was registered officially as Bruno Doessekker in 1947 after the name of his adoptive parents. Hence, while the memoir is supposed to tell the true story of a child who lived through the Holocaust, according the Ganzfried, Wilkomirski had been to the camps “only as a tourist.”
There are many possible explanations for this case. The most obvious is that Wilkomirski/Doessekker wrote a work of fiction in which he imagined himself as a child in the Holocaust. What makes this option especially troubling is that, since the publication of his book, Wilkomirski has spoken at numerous public forums as the true embodiment of his protagonist. In this sense he has gone significantly beyond Schlink, since rather than presenting a second-generation German as a victim, he transformed a second-generation Swiss into a Jewish victim. Identification with the victims of genocide, therefore, shattered the limits of identity and truth. But this brings us to a second possible explanation, namely, that Wilkomirski/Doessekker quite candidly believed himself to be that child, creating for himself a fictitious—but for him entirely real—world of memories, culled from Holocaust memoirs, scholarship, documentaries, fiction, film, a world in which he now lives as if it were his own past. Finally, however, it is still possible (though quite unlikely) that Wilkomirski is indeed that child, but that the Swiss authorities who arranged for his adoption provided him with a false identity and erased any record, if any remained, of his previous life. After all, official documents tell only the truth of the officials who issued them and the system they represent.
We are now at a point in time where unmediated memories of the Holocaust are becoming increasingly rare. Within a decade or so, there will be hardly anyone left who experienced the Holocaust as a person old enough to have distinct, more or less articulate memories of the event. Alongside a recent spate of memoirs by survivors—testifying to their sense of urgency about the need to transmit recollections of their experiences to posterity—we are also witnessing an increasing number of works by writers of the second generation, who either imagine themselves into the Holocaust or recount their fate as children of survivors. French Jewish writer Henri Raczymow’s Writing the Book of Esther, Israeli writer David Grossman’s See Under— Love, and Polish (non-Jewish) writer Jaroslaw Rymkiewicz’s The Final Station: Umschlagplatz are but a few examples of this genre. Yet Wilkomirski’s case is far more disturbing and must indeed raise alarm signals as to the uses and abuses of the Holocaust in the late twentieth century’s quest for identity, recognition, fame, even fortune. To be sure, the twists and turns of this affair surely indicate the difficulty—by writers and readers alike—of distinguishing between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy. But while arguments regarding the tenuous nature of such distinctions are part and parcel of the emergence of modern literature and representation, in the case of the Holocaust they may appear facile considering the extremity of the event and the profound moral questions it raises for humanity.
Within a few years, Wilkomirski’s book has become a prominent member in the canon of Holocaust memoirs: Schlink would have added it to Hanna’s bookshelf in her prison cell had she remained there for another decade. What, then, are we to do now with the realization that it may have been a work of fiction? There are various reactions to this revelation. Some historians, such as Raul Hilberg, have argued that they were suspicious from the start, since there were various inconsistencies in the account, and especially errors in the identification of places, dates, and actions. But this kind of criticism is hardly relevant. If Fragments is a true memoir, we could scarcely expect a small child undergoing the most traumatic experiences conceivable to remember the kind of details favored by historians. Indeed, had he got all the facts right, we would have been all the more skeptical of his memoir’s authenticity. In other words, errors of fact may reflect either lapses of memory or a skilled writer’s attempt to make fiction appear authentic.
Another complaint has come from literary critics and writers. Even before the book’s authenticity as a memoir was challenged, some commentators were critical of its prose, finding it an unsuccessful work of literature. But, of course, this did little to diminish its quality as a memoir, as long as one believed it to be one. Ganzfried is much harsher in his literary critique of the book, which he considers to be of inferior quality. He argues that the main, if not the only reason, for the book’s success was that it masqueraded itself as a memoir and that had it been overtly a work of fiction it would have been a commercial failure. This is probably an exaggeration. As publishers know, in recent years books on the Holocaust—whether fiction, memoirs, or scholarship—tend to find a ready market even if their quality is mediocre. For my part, I found Wilkomirski’s text, fiction or not, quite devastating. Nor was I alone in finding it one of the most harrowing memoirs I had ever read. It is true, however, that I would have read it differently, if at all, had I believed it to be fiction.
Scholars are faced now with a painful dilemma. I have cited Wilkomirski’s text in this book and elsewhere, and many other scholars have read, cited, and taught it as a memoir, as the purest form of testimony, that given by the most innocent conceivable victim, a young child. We may have done so even had we thought it to be fiction; after all, there are important works of fiction on the Holocaust that are studied with great profit. Yet we would have made very different use of the book, since it would have been an example of Holocaust fiction, not testimony. Scholars, various media outlets, conference conveners, professional organizations, educational institutions, and so forth, must, as Ganzfried rightly points out, be more careful in the future in accepting texts as testimony that may be fiction. This is all the more important in view of the delight with which those who deny the Holocaust have greeted this scandal as an opportunity to argue that all other Holocaust memoirs are also mere figments of their writers’ imagination. In the case of the Holocaust, then, the danger of presenting fiction as fact is that it legitimizes those who present fact as fiction.
But the main problem lies elsewhere. The question is: Can we say that the Holocaust is a case in which the rules of representation operate differently, in which what is allowed, indeed, what has been almost taken for granted in recent times, should be forbidden? And if the Holocaust is placed beyond the rules and conventions of representation, does this also imply that it is beyond history? Would this not lead us down the perilous path of dehistoricizing the Holocaust and thereby transforming it from a concrete past event into an increasingly malleable myth? Is this not the surest way of ultimately detaching the Holocaust from human experience and morality by making it disappear into the mists of mythology, incomprehension, and ineffability?
If at times we feel betrayed by those who claim to be writing about themselves and are then shown to have written “only” fiction, we often also admire their creative powers all the more. After all, the annals of literature are filled with such cases. The role of the artist, as defined at least since the romantic period, is, precisely, to imagine himself or herself into another life, as another person, and as another identity. Our quest for truth and facts is thus matched by our urge for imagination and fantasy, since it is there that an even higher truth may be found. And yet the phenomenon of a writer who imagines himself into the role of, and who claims publicly to have been, a victim of the Holocaust, yet was never there, fills us with outrage: we feel cheated, morally disarmed, our sensibilities and compassion mocked and violated. For there is a difference between our pain on reading about the suffering of another human being, and our pain on reading about the suffering of a literary character. In the former case, we empathize with the writer; in the latter, with his creatures. Hence a lying writer cheats us of our feelings and abuses our sorrow.
Wilkomirski is not the only one to have—perhaps—written fiction that was read as fact about the Holocaust. Tadeusz Borowski, whose place in the canon of Holocaust memoirs is assured, also wrote fiction. He was not the brutal, cynical Kapo who narrates the horrifying tales of Auschwitz in the first person. Had he been that Kapo, he would not have committed suicide in 1951 but would have continued to grow fat from the suffering of others as his Kapo does in the camp. But, of course, Borowski was in Auschwitz, and Wilkomirski, it is claimed, was not. Hence the point is not merely fiction or truth, but presence or absence. Ida Fink is also a survivor, and yet her stories are fiction, even if obviously influenced by her experience. So is the case of Imre Kertesz, Aharon Appelfeld, and other writers. But we distinguish between fiction by those who were there and fiction by those who were not, just as we distinguish between authentic and assumed identity. And there is an even more disturbing distinction.
For as Primo Levi wrote in his last essays, although he had always striven to provide a truthful report of life in Auschwitz, he ultimately came to view his account as largely false, since he had written it from the perspective of the saved, not of the drowned, who were, after all, the majority, and thus the only true witnesses.
Louis Begley’s Wartime Lies is about falsifying the truth and dissimulating identity as a precondition for survival during the Holocaust. While he calls it a novel, the book has all the marks of a memoir, and yet it cannot be a memoir precisely because it denies the very possibility of truth and authenticity. The child, who along with his aunt survives throughout the war in Poland under an assumed identity, can no longer recover his own self. He has to pick one of several possible identities and hold on to it after the war, make it his own in order to survive survival. From this perspective the issue is not whether Wilkomirski wrote a memoir or “mere” fiction. For while we agree that the Holocaust is unimaginable, we rebel against the thought that it has been imagined, and while we insist on the truthfulness of direct witnesses, we cannot imagine ourselves sharing their experiences. Hence we cannot empathize with them, much as we are horrified by the horrors they recount. And without empathy, the truth they transmit to us cannot become our own but remains a foreign, distant, and yet disturbing, destabilizing, threatening presence.
This is all to say that the Holocaust is at the center of a crisis of identity, whose ramifications range far beyond its chronological boundaries and the life span of its survivors. This crisis has in many ways become the characteristic feature of the twentieth century, originating in World War I and felt with even greater urgency today. It is the crisis of encountering—by way of perpetrating, observing, and being a target of—the annihilatory force of modern violence: massive, all-encompassing, unrelenting, and faceless. It is a crisis that casts doubt on the very definition of identity, on what it means to know who you are, where you come from, what you are capable or incapable of doing, experiencing, imagining. It is a very personal crisis for those of us who would reflect on the implications of the century’s events for our own lives, and it is a collective crisis for those of us aware of our responsibility for humanity. For while we seek the truth about ourselves, our past, the meaning of our identity, we are afraid of what we may discover. We search for the inner core of human existence in an age of mass murder, but we have to turn our gaze away from the spectacle, lest we turn into stone.
I do not know whether Wilkomirski was that child. But the thousands of “children without identity” who came out of the Holocaust are the most extreme manifestation of a period in which humanity itself had lost its identity and, just like those children, was “furnished with false names and often with false papers too,” as he writes. Begley concludes his novel about the child Maciek with the following lines:
And where is Maciek now? He became an embarrassment and slowly died. A man who bears one of the names Maciek used has replaced him. Is there much of Maciek in that man? No: Maciek was a child, and our man has no childhood that he can bear to remember; he has had to invent one.
Should we invent a childhood in the camps where we have never been, or should we invent a bearable childhood, far from the camps, to erase forever the memory of having been there? Should we face up to the truth? Can we know it? Can we bear it? If the truth of atrocity is borne by its witnesses, we must remember Primo Levi’s assertion that the survivors “are not the true witnesses,” since “those who saw the Gorgon, have not returned to tell about it or have returned mute.” If we are willing to face the truth, then we would do well to heed Levi’s words that “what had happened . . . was irrevocable. Never again could it be cleansed; it would prove that man, the human species—we, in short—had the potential to construct an infinite enormity of pain and that pain is the only force created from nothing, without cost and without effort. It is enough not to see, not to listen, not to act.”