The first work we will read is
Fragments: Memoirs of a Wartime Childhood
, written by Binjamin Wilkomirski. This work was published in 1995. The memoir is aptly titled because the writer presents his childhood memories in fragmented flashbacks. The narrative takes us through different memories from concentration camps, the ghetto, an orphanage, and a foster home. For instance, Wilkomirski remembers when a new boy came into the barracks and had to go to the bathroom. Since the children were not allowed to go at night, Wilkomirski told him to go in his bed. When the Nazis found out this new boy relieved himself in the bed, he was killed in front of all the other children. Wilkomirski also recalls being hid by women and being the only boy left from the hiding place. He remembers seeing someone who he thinks is his mother in the camps. Wilkomirski also recalls being sent to an orphanage and being afraid someone would realize he didn’t belong there and send him back to the camps. He would steal food out of fear of not eating again soon. He also tells of when he was taken in by the Dossekker family. His memories of this time don’t seem happy, as one might think finding a family would be after all he’s been through. Since Wilkomirski was so young during the war, many of the memories don’t make sense to him, or to the reader. They are not in chronological order and leave many questions unanswered.
This story is written about childhood, through the voice of a child. There are various levels of analysis the class will conduct on the text. First, we will explore different types of narratives. According to J. Hillis Miller in
Critical Terms for Literary Study
, “narrative would be a process of ordering or reordering, recounting, telling again what has already happened or is taken to have already happened” (71). The class will analyze the basic elements of narrative, which are that stories have a beginning and an end and a variety of ways to connect them. Miller writes that all narratives have “an initial situation, a sequence leading to a change or reversal of situation” (75). They also are personified either by the written or oral word, bringing the story to life. Lastly, all narratives repeat elements surrounding “a nuclear figure or complex word” (75). We will also look at the different ways to structure narrative. Some examples include tragedy, myth, fairy tales, and comedy.
After a basic understanding of narratives, we will also explore the structure of
. Personally, when I remember my childhood, I only remember specific moments, as if I’m looking through a photo album. Wilkomirski presents his memories this way too. The fact that so much doesn’t make sense immediately to him or to the reader parallels life. Often we don’t understand the meaning of events in our lives until they are in our past and we can reflect on them. It will be after these analytical discussions that I will tell students that the story turns out to be fiction. When this memoir first came out, people thought it was non-fiction; in fact, many experts praised the work as truth. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum had Wilkomirski help fundraise, thinking him a true survivor. Now it appears that BinjaminWilkomirski never existed at all, for no records corroborate Wilkomirski’s story. He fooled many.
“The Memory Thief” by Philip Gourevitch is an article from
The New Yorker’s
June 14, 1999 edition. The article discusses how the work as non-fiction is being contested. I find that students should read these types of texts. It not only exposes them to different types of writing; it also models critical thinking and how to express this in writing. Many students don’t trust their own thinking, and this will possibly help them confirm and articulate their thoughts. Further, students must realize that they must think about the information they receive, whether it be from a book, from a teacher, from TV, from the Internet, or from the media. Too often, it isn’t until a student is a junior or senior in college that they begin to truly think for themselves. Not only do some students not know how to think for themselves; they are often not truly asked to. They take information as rote, without analyzing the validity of it. When we do ask students to think for themselves, they are often insecure about their conclusions. We as educators must take more responsibility in guiding students to think critically.
Wilkomirski is the Swiss-born Bruno Grosjean. He was put up for adoption as an infant and was adopted by the Dossekker family. Wilkomirski himself admits he’s not sure who he is and what his memories are of. He is under psychiatric counsel and many think that he has made up these memories, but that they are very real to him. The problem too is that if he was directly involved in the Holocaust at such a young age, he wouldn’t know who he is or where he comes from. Yet, if he has had psychological problems since childhood, he could very well have created this other life for himself, explaining his lack of identity. Gourevitch’s article supports the notion that Wilkomirski was not malicious in his intent to deceive but rather has serious identity issues. What makes this controversy so pertinent for many is that Wilkomirski is “laying claim to the Holocaust” as Gourevitch says. Wilkomirski replies, “ ‘Who can judge what was possible at the time? Nobody. Because it’s more than you can imagine’” (67). Gourevitch makes the point that Wilkomirski is trying to make the connection that those who doubt his story must also doubt that the Holocaust existed at all. He also points out that Wilkomirski wrote his narrative based on borrowed memories. Historian Stefan Machler conducted research to clear up the debate. He didn’t find any corroborating evidence that there ever was a Binjamin Wilkomirski, and so the publishers withdrew the book.
When students are finished reading both the text and the article, we will explore their feelings about being “lied” to. Is literature ever a lie, since fiction can also convey truth? We will also explore the ramifications for such an action as Wilkomirski’s, both personally and for society. The class will also investigate the motivation for a writer to do this. How might this be a means of survival? Why would it be effective or ineffective psychologically? Is this fair to true survivors, and what does this do to them? Does it even matter that the story is fiction, because so many children lived this life? Is it still considered effective literature? We will also determine why society was so ready to believe in this work as truth. What need does our society have to bear witness for the Holocaust? Why not question the work when it came out?