Mark Pendergrast, author of Victims of Memory: Incest Accusations and Shattered Lives, concludes that false memory syndrome is probably behind an award-winning 'memoir' of the Holocaust
'Then he gave me a great swing and lifted me on to his shoulders... I was so happy, I couldn't even describe it...But suddenly he began to run crazily straight ahead, and I got frightened. He broke through the circle of amazed children, running for the wall that marked off our playground, took tighter hold of my feet, lifted me up over his head, and came to a stop for a moment at the wall. He was still holding on to my feet in the air and I flew forward like a loose bundle, clean over his head, until my forehead hit the stone. That's when he let go of me and went away. He was still laughing.'
Binjamin Wilkomirski, Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood
In the spring of 1998 I read the passage above with sympathetic horror. I had taught a college course on the Holocaust, and I had helped to edit The Aftermath, a Holocaust Memoir by Henry Lilienheim. Here, in Fragments, was further testament to man's inhumanity during that terrible time.
Wilkomirski wrote movingly of his childhood in the concentration camps of Majdanek and Auschwitz. 'Rarely has a time of ultimate horrors been depicted with so searing a child-eye's simplicity', wrote one critic, 'coupled with adult emotions stripped naked by experiences beyond all reason'. In the New York Times Julie Salamon wrote that Wilkomirski injected 'well-documented events with fresh terror and poignancy. Constructed like flashes of memory, the book unfolds in bursts of association, the way children tell stories'. Fragments won the award for non-fiction given by the Jewish Quarterly and has been hailed by critics around the world.
As I read, however, I couldn't help wondering about some passages, including the one above, in which the young Wilkomirski - apparently only two or three years old - survived having his head bashed into a wall. Then I read the back cover of the book. 'Only in adulthood did [Wilkomirski] find a way to recover his memories.' Oh no! I thought. Recovered memories! I realised that I was probably reading a book filled with false memories of the Holocaust - not necessarily lies, but perhaps delusions, created either alone or with the help of psychotherapy.
In the course of several years' research into recovered memory therapy, I learned a great deal about human memory and concluded that so-called 'massive repression' - in which years of traumatic childhood events are completely forgotten, then recalled later in adulthood - is probably a myth. Unless people suffer massive organic brain damage, they do not forget the worst events of their lives, particularly if the traumatic events were repeated for years (see 'Memories are made of this').
But during the late 1980s and early 1990s a troubling form of psychotherapy convinced many people that they had been raped during their childhoods and had completely repressed the memories. These therapists encouraged patients to 'remember' hypothetical traumatic events through pseudoscientific methods such as hypnosis, sodium amytal interviews, dreams, or misinterpretation of panic attacks or vague bodily pains. Memories retrieved under hypnosis or sodium amytal are often contaminated mixtures of fantasy and truth. In many cases, outright 'confabulations' - the psychologists' term for illusory memories - result.
Knowing this, I was extremely concerned about the Wilkomirski book, particularly because the author appeared to believe in many myths about memory - that it can be massively repressed, that clear visualisations equal reality, that memory is pristine, that fragmentary images must be real. 'My early childhood memories are planted', he wrote, 'first and foremost in exact snapshots of my photographic memory and in the feelings imprinted in them, and the physical sensations'.
Wilkomirski was in personal psychotherapy and has espoused (and taught) recovered memory therapy. His therapist may have helped him visualise these scenes and to create so-called 'body memories' (physical sensations interpreted as memories) to accompany them. His earliest memories are, as Wilkomirski puts it, 'a rubble field of isolated images and events...mostly a chaotic jumble, with very little chronological fit'. But with effort, Wilkomirski has taken these 'isolated images' and formed them into a coherent narrative, billing his book as non-fiction rather than as a work of the imagination.
On 20 April 1998, I wrote identical letters to Holocaust scholars Elie Wiesel, Lawrence Langer, Raul Hilberg and David Scrase, expressing my doubts about Fragments. 'The book quite possibly contains a mixture of real and confabulated memory, but most of it appears to be confabulated', I wrote. 'We learn at the end of the book that his birth certificate says that he was born on February 12, 1941. It may be incorrect, but I imagine it is probably close to his real birth date. That would mean that he was barely four when he was liberated from the camps. Consequently, he would be subject to the period of infantile amnesia [the time before the age of three, when nobody recalls anything] during most of the time he purportedly recalls here in fragments. Therefore, it is unlikely that he remembers much about his time in the camps - assuming he really was in the camps, for which we have only his word.'
I concluded my letter: 'I would very much appreciate it if you would have a look at the book and render your opinion...It is important that Holocaust scholars cast light on claims such as this, which dilute the reality of the real horror by turning it into the stuff of fiction.'
Raul Hilberg called me. Only days after receiving my letter, he said, he had attended a Notre Dame Holocaust symposium at which Binjamin Wilkomirski spoke. In the speech, Wilkomirski touted a method used to recover memories that purportedly enabled people to remember accurately back to one year of age. 'I was the only one who sat on my hands during the standing ovation', Hilberg told me. Hilberg expressed grave doubts about several historical aspects of the book, but he wanted to study the German edition before going public with his concerns, in case inaccuracies had been introduced into the translation.
On 27 August 1998, Swiss writer Daniel Ganzfried - himself the son of a Jewish Holocaust survivor - published an article in the Zurich paper, Die Weltwoche, in which he revealed that Wilkomirski was born in Switzerland in 1941 as Bruno Grosjean, the illegitimate son of Yvonne Berthe Grosjean, a Christian. He was given up for adoption in 1945, taking the name of his adoptive parents, Doessekker. Ganzfried found pictures of the young Bruno at a villa in Zurichberg in 1946, two years before he supposedly came to Switzerland. Thus, Wilkomirski/ Doessekker was adopted, as he wrote in his book, but he apparently had loving adoptive parents, not the unfeeling foster parents described in Fragments.
Doessekker studied the Holocaust intensively, collecting an impressive library and interviewing many survivors. In the afterword to Fragments the author described his 'years of research, many journeys back to the places where I remember things happened, and countless conversations with specialists and historians [which] helped me to clarify many previously inexplicable shreds of memory'. He had visited Majdanek and Auschwitz, but only as a tourist. In the midst of a mid-life crisis and severe depression, Bruno Doessekker had sought therapy. Somewhere in the process, like those who recover memories of 'past lives', Doessekker created a new past and identity based on his extensive research.
Since I began my investigations, and since the publication of Ganzfried's article, it has become widely recognised that Fragments is a work of fiction. But it is unclear whether Wilkomirski/Doessekker was perpetrating an intentional hoax or - as I suspect - he truly has come to believe in his recovered 'memories', having rehearsed them so thoroughly that they have become real to him.
Daniel Ganzfried believes that the story is a simple lie. He points out that Wilkomirski/Doessekker hired a lawyer who attempted to block research into his real past. Raul Hilberg agrees that this is a case of conscious fraud, since Doessekker accepted money from the Swiss state when his biological mother died, indicating that he was aware of his true origins. 'I believe he is just using the whole recovered memory as a tool', Hilberg told me, 'not that he believes it necessarily'.
Nonetheless, I doubt that Wilkomirski/Doessekker is consciously lying. It is probable that he has rehearsed his memories so thoroughly that they have become real to him. He has unconsciously incorporated many elements from books and interviews, just as many who incorrectly identify themselves as having multiple personalities often include scenes from the movie Sybil in their own 'memories'. His primary therapist was Monika Matta, a Zurich practitioner who believes in 'eclectic' method. In addition, Wilkomirski/Doessekker may have also entered therapy with Elitsur Bernstein, who lived in Zurich before departing for Israel, and who is an exponent of recovered memory therapy.
Now that Fragments has been publicly debunked, Wilkomirski/ Doessekker won't submit to interviews, but he apparently claims, via third parties, that he has always recalled these horrors. Yes, he was in therapy, but only for personal problems. Such an assertion is highly suspect, probably a rationalisation and yet another rewriting of the more recent past. If he has always remembered all of this, why would he allow the publisher to call them recovered memories on the book's back cover? Why would he stress the fragmentary, chaotic nature of his 'memories', writing about how 'the first pictures surface one by one, like upbeats'? Why would he have referred to recovered memories in speeches?
It does not surprise me that Wilkomirski/Doessekker would actively try to avoid facing his real past. During my research for Victims of Memory, I found cases in which women were medically examined and found to be virgins - yet they still insist that their 'memories' of childhood rapes were accurate. Rationality is not one of the hallmarks of recovered memory. When people invest in a belief system and base their very identity on it, it is astonishing how difficult it is to shake them up, even with the best logic.
Wilkomirski/Doessekker is not unique in casting himself in the role of false historical victim. Psychiatrists treating Second World War veterans found that leading patients to dramatically 'relive' fictional events seemed to help them as much as recalling a real trauma. One man who had been in a tank regiment vividly visualised being trapped in a burning tank. 'This had never actually happened, though it must have been a persistent fear of his throughout the campaign', his doctor noted. Psychologist Michael Yapko reports a case in which a man convinced his wife, therapist and apparently himself that he was experiencing excruciating flashbacks to his imprisonment in a Vietcong bamboo cage. After he committed suicide his widow tried to locate his official military record and discovered that he had never been in Vietnam.
In researching Victims of Memory I contacted Elie Wiesel, Lawrence Langer and Raul Hilberg to ask whether they had ever encountered cases of massive repression in which Holocaust survivors had totally blocked memories and did not recall their time in the camps at all. None had. In time, I hope that Wilkomirski/Doessekker will be able to reclaim his real past and embrace his adoptive parents, whom he has apparently vilified unjustly as part of his revision of his personal past.
It is almost impossible to discuss the mechanisms of memory without employing misleading metaphors, like presenting the mind as a giant filing cabinet, videotape or computer. The trouble with all such comparisons is the implication that we remember everything that has ever happened to us - every smell, sound, sensation, joy or trauma has been encoded somewhere in the brain, and, if only the proper command or button is pushed, it will all come flooding back.
But the brain does not function that way, as modern memory researchers know. 'One of the most widely held, but wrong beliefs that people have about memory is that "memories" exist, somewhere in the brain, like books exist in a library, or packages of soap on the supermarket shelves', says psychologist Endel Tulving, 'and that remembering is equivalent to somehow retrieving them. The whole concept of repression is built on this misconception'.
The human species has evolved a brain that is adaptable, nimble, versatile and imaginative, but not always accurate. We literally 're-member', patching together the puzzle bits of our past. When we picture what happened, we are engaging in 're-vision'.
By and large our memories serve us relatively well. We may not get all the details precisely correct, but we generally recall major events accurately. We tend to remember best the worst and the best events of our lives: we recall the good things to attempt to replicate them, and the bad to try to avoid them in the future. Indeed, there is evidence that far from repressing traumatic events, we tend to recall these better than others. Strong emotions (whether positive or negative) produce strong memories, less subject to distortion and decay than normal memory.
We do not remember every terrible thing that ever happened to us. People who have undergone prolonged trauma never forget the experience - they know very well what happened to them in general - but they probably do not recall every horrific episode, since they all tend to blend together. Those who were victims of prolonged sexual abuse, or who endured years in concentration camps, may not recall everything that happened, but they certainly know what happened to them in general - without needing to 'recover' their memories with the help of therapists.
Reproduced from LM issue 118, March 1999