Saturday, August 8, 2009

Holocaust fabulists offer a new frisson

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With Holocaust literature, as opposed to forthright historiography, we enter into a virtual realm where truth and falsehood are apt to very quickly and easily trade places. Auschwitz survivor and Nobel laureate, Elie Wiesel, once explained how he, too, was not above conjuring the what-might-have-been Holocaust mirage. He said as much with reference to his own writings:

“Things are not that simple, Rebbe. Some events do take place but are not true; others are, although they never occurred.” [1] 

Enter Binjamin Wilkomirski, the Great Pretender, who was able to outWiesel even Elie Wiesel. Hardly any sober students of the Holocaust nowadays believe the Wilkomirski tale; unlike in 1995, when his alleged Holocaust memoir, Fragments, was first published and assumed to be genuine, however improbable its tale of recovered memories of an indescribably painful childhood lived out in Nazi concentration camps. [2]
There's this hilarious scene in the futuristic Woody Allen comedy Sleeper where WA impersonates a robot tasked with having to whip up a chocolate pudding for his mistress. Things get out of hand in the kitchen when the batter he employs quickly bubbles up into the size of a baby beluga. As it wobbles across the kitchen floor toward him, WA’s robotic character is suddenly compelled to brutally clobber it into submission with a broom. An apt metaphor for honest scholars and scholarship desperately fending off sticky-gooey encroachments by Holocaust fabulists like Wilkomirski and Wiesel.

A letter Canadian writer Ann Charney addressed to New Yorker magazine graphically describes some of her frustration with “the Holocaust industry” and its fabulists. Charney:

“Philip Gourevitch's article on Binjamin Wilkomirski and his memoir ‘Fragments’ ("The Memory Thief," June 14th) reveals much about the Holocaust industry.  In 1996, Suhrkamp, also Wilkomirski's publisher, published a German translation of my account of a wartime childhood in Poland. It is entitled ‘Dobryd’ -- an anagram of the name of the real town where the action takes place.  I chose to write it as fiction, because, like Aharon Appelfeld, I did not trust the factual accuracy of my recollections. At the time of publication, it was suggested to me that the book would sell much better if it was reclassified as nonfiction, but I did not accept the suggestion. Though the book has received excellent critical notices, it has never enjoyed the attention given to ‘Fragments.’’’ 

Here the implication is clear: With an eye for the bottomline, Ann Charney’s novel would have rung up more sales, her publisher felt, had it been touted as a memoir; any factual inaccuracy it may have contained being a somewhat lesser consideration. She continues:

“Wilkomirski's success in impersonating a Holocaust survivor confirms my suspicions about the increasingly rapacious nature of the Holocaust industry -- a highly profitable enterprise, be it in tourism or in any of the arts. The steadily expanding business of merchandising dead Jews requires a constant flow of new ideas, new imagery -- hence the frisson of appreciation for the bloody rat emerging from the dead woman's womb. Wilkomirski may have created a new genre, which could attract other practitioners: impersonators more real than the real thing, who thrive as devoted fetishists of suffering.” [3]

Ah! Our suffocating, Byronic need for a new frisson. I am reminded of the aftermath of an accident I witnessed 40 years ago. I was a student travelling north into a blizzard by greyhound coach.

We progressed very slowly. I had been sitting on my ass for ten hours when the bus came to a complete stop. The driver got off and when he returned minutes later asked if there was a priest on board. There was; he sat across the aisle from me. And, when he stood up, I followed him out to the accident site.

Apparently, a school bus had slid into the ditch just alongside the highway and a tow truck had been summoned to drag it out. The steel cable the tow truck attached to it was stretched across the highway when a car, with two men on board, came barrelling along through the opaque veil of drifting snow -- with near zero visibility -- in what proved to be a fatal game of chicken. Later on I learned both men had been drunk.

There were a couple of teenagers brandishing flashlights already at the scene as the priest administered the last rites. I lingered a moment after he returned to the bus to take in the enormity of the destruction. The steel cable had torn away the roof from the oncoming vehicle; the faces of both the driver and his passenger were pulped.

One of the teenagers shone his flashlight on what seemed like a wee white billiard ball amid shattered glass on the seat of car. It was an eyeball. “Hey! Look at that!” he exclaimed in his backwater French, excited by the discovery of this macabre detail.

The calibre of excitement the teenagers experienced on finding the detached eyeball on the car seat is the same, according to researcher Michael Hoffman, as “the reason why the ‘Holocaust’ museum in Washington D.C. is breaking attendance records.”

Not, says Hoffman, “because people want to learn a moral lesson or improve or save anything. They’re going there in the hopes they’ll see a working gas chamber or the whip that ‘Ilsa of the SS’ used, or the boots they claim Himmler made out of the skin of Jewish babies.” [4]

In other words, fueled by morbid fascination, they’re after a new frisson dredged up by a fresh encounter with a grotesque specacle akin to that displayed at the Madame Tussaud Wax Museum; the kind that moves us to slow down and drink in the details of a roadside car crash.

1. Elie Wiesel, Legends of Our Time, New York: Holt, Rinehart, and
Winston: 1968, p. viii. 

2. Martin Daly, “An impossible but true story of the Holocaust,” The Sunday Age , November 8, 1998. 

3. Ann Charney, “The Holocaust's Legacies,” Letters, The New Yorker, July 19, 1999. 

4. Michael A. Hoffman II, Secret Societies and Psychological Warfare, Independent History and Research: Coeur d'Alene, 2001, p. 136.

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