Life as Trauma

An Encounter with Binjamin Wilkomirski in 2008

Noemi Schneider

Illustration by Emma Roulette

“Please don’t,” he says, as I start to take the recording device out of my pocket, “Please don’t.” Then he tells me, “They know nothing about me—everyone thinks I’m a monster!”

I look at him closely. Sitting under a large oil painting of a forest landscape on a Biedermeier sofa in the living room of a 300-year-old Swiss farmhouse is Binjamin Wilkomirski, a man who does not actually exist, has never existed, and is not allowed to exist.

“I’m a musician,” he continues, “a clarinetist. I have given many concerts and worked as a music teacher at Swiss high schools and music schools. Let me tell you a story. Many years ago, three retired ladies asked me to give them clarinet lessons; they were very uncertain as to whether it was at all worthwhile to start learning a musical instrument at their age. I am not one of those musicians who believes that if you did not start learning to play an instrument at age five, then you might as well forget about it. So I gave the three ladies lessons, and after one year they were playing Mozart concertos together. That made me very happy. 

“Then all of that imploded; I was given an early retirement for health reasons. I am telling you this so that you will understand the following story. 

“A few years ago, a man from Konstanz called me and said he had a friend who was celebrating his fortieth birthday in a few weeks, and it had always been his greatest desire to learn to play the clarinet. He asked if he could drop by on the day of the birthday with his friend and his friend’s wife, so I could give him his first clarinet lesson. Yes, we can do that, I said, and I gladly accepted. Many faxes went back and forth. Finally, the man with whom I had corresponded came, bringing the birthday boy and his wife. They were very interested in music and also briefly mentioned my book and said something to the effect of: do not take notice of the accusations levied against you.

“The birthday boy was delighted and showed a lot of talent in his first clarinet lesson. I thought I had found a new student. The next day I got a fax in which the man from Konstanz revealed that he was a documentary filmmaker from ZDF, and he told me that the birthday boy had been an actor from Zurich, and he was only interested in finding out whether I was really a musician. Since then I haven’t allowed anyone else to enter here. Since then I no longer trust anyone.”

In 1995, Bruno Dössekker published the book Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood with Jewish Publishing, a group belonging to Suhrkamp, under the name of Binjamin Wilkomirski. In fragmentary form the book describes memories from the perspective of a Jewish child. The narrator, who was born in Latvia, survived various camps during National Socialism and ends up with no identity in a children’s home in Switzerland. There he becomes a Swiss citizen and is adopted by a couple from Zurich. The book was awarded the National Jewish Book Award and the Prix Mémoire de la Shoah, among others, and translated into nine languages.

In 1998, an article by the author Daniel Ganzfried, himself the son of a Holocaust survivor, appeared in the Swiss weekly Weltwoche under the title “The Borrowed Holocaust Biography.” Ganzfried accused Binjamin Wilkomirski of being a literary impostor, claiming that Wilkomirski was actually Bruno Grosjean and was born in 1941 in Biel, the illegitimate child of Yvonne Grosjean. After staying in an orphanage in Adelboden (Switzerland), he was adopted by the wealthy and childless Dössekker couple from Zurich. Wilkomirski only knew Majdanek and Auschwitz as a tourist; he invented his Holocaust biography, and with it he was mocking the true victims of Nazism.

In his book The Wilkomirski Affair: A Study in Biographical Truth (2000), the Swiss historian Stefan Mächler substantiates that the alleged autobiography of Wilkomirski contradicts the historical facts in all material aspects, and he demonstrates how Wilkomirski, that is, Bruno Grosjean, gradually developed his fictional life story over decades. In a complex process of shifting and reworking, Bruno Dössekker had transformed his own experience into a Shoah children’s biography.

In October 1999, the publisher withdrew Fragments. According to the Liepman agency, almost 13,000 copies in German and nearly 33,000 copies in English had been sold. A three-year criminal investigation by the Zurich District Attorney against Bruno Dössekker for literary fraud and unfair competition was launched. The extensive investigations included a paternity test. The biological father of Bruno Grosjean was located in central Switzerland, and his paternity was established by means of a DNA analysis.

It was the perfect scandal. The heated debates about the book and its author drew fundamental questions of literature and history to the fore. What can literature do, what is it allowed to do, what limits does it have, which truth is the real one, and which identity is one’s own? Which freedoms does literature have and which are not allowed, and by whom? Which story is ours, and how do we learn from it? Do we have to experience what we tell, and how many forms of experience are there?

In early October 2008, I sent a letter to Bruno Dössekker to request an interview. A week later, the phone rang: “This is Wilkomirski. You may come.”

In front of his house stands the only weeping willow in a village of about 500 inhabitants in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. At the gate I find neither name nor bell; instead there is a mezuzah in the upper right corner. The door is locked; I use the iron knocker, and after some time the door opens slowly. An elderly man with thick, curly gray hair and alert eyes behind thick glasses stands before me. He walks with two canes; with a movement of his hand, he gestures to me to enter.

Through a cobbled courtyard, past a fountain and countless flower boxes, we come into an old half-timbered house. The ceilings are low; through a dark hallway we enter a long-forgotten century. In the living areas are antiques and Biedermeier furniture; oil paintings and engravings hang on the wall. Seven-branched candelabras, candles, and books with thick leather bindings, crystal glasses, decanters and flowers. Logs crackle in the tile stove. A wall clock with Hebrew writing ticks.

We sit down at a small table. Binjamin Wilkomirski lights a cigarette. He moves slowly and carefully. It’s like I’m walking on broken glass, he says quietly. He’s been suffering for years from a severe form of osteoporosis, on top of which a polyneuropathy has come. His “medication alarm clock”—a cell phone—is always at hand. Every six hours he must take morphine, which helps him manage the pain somewhat; residual pain remains.

“Sometimes,” he says, “the alarm clock goes off and I’m so busy entering the alarm for the next six hours that I forget to take the morphine.” Now it rings; it is 12:00.

“I hope you’re hungry,” he says, and smiles. “I have prepared something to eat—something salty and something sweet. I do not like to go to a lot of trouble. We used to have a house as busy as a train station; I cooked and baked. Now everything is difficult. Especially running the household,” he says. He injured himself in the workshop, severed two tendons in his left hand. They are slowly healing back together. Six months ago, he could start playing the clarinet again.

He still has two and a half friends, a musician in Switzerland and one in America, and a philosophical chimney sweep who comes twice a year and afterwards remains for coffee and dreams about learning to play the clarinet.

The salty puff pastry with herbs from the garden tastes excellent. “Actually, I always wanted to play the violin. I still want to play the violin, but you cannot hide a violin under the mattress,” he says. His adoptive parents, the Swiss couple Dössekker, envisioned a medical career for him. He decided on music and completed a program in clarinet studies at the conservatory in Geneva. We come to the topic of the book.

“I wrote the Fragments to create order for myself, and perhaps for my children,” he says. He had searched for his identity his whole life, and at some point he thought he had found it. He abruptly changes the subject.

“Let’s take a tour—then you will see that writing is only about ten percent of what I do.” We go in slow motion over to the workshop, a former barn next to the house. He began learning to play the clarinet here thirty years ago as an autodidact. In the lower part there is a workshop; here, neatly arranged, are tools, paints and resins, drills, grinders, engraving machines, almost-finished clarinets—one clarinet has the initials B.W. Building plans hang on the wall; on the table is a box of pearls.

“What are you doing with the pearls?” I ask. He smiles and takes me to the back of the area. Here are countless stones, small, medium, and large ones. He collects and buys stones; he grinds and cuts them, polishes and engraves them, and makes them into pieces of jewelry. Broaches, rings, necklaces, and bracelets.

Why did he start doing that?

“When I could no longer make music and wanted nothing more to do with people, and people wanted nothing to do with me, I turned to the stones.”

In the small kitchen he shows me an old photograph of his former physics teacher from school. A Romanian Jew, a universal genius in a Renaissance sense, who made a deep impression on him. We go up the steep wooden staircase. The space above the workshop is large and bright. Two grand pianos stand there, a violin, several clarinets. On velvet-covered tables are the pieces of jewelry he’s made. I’ve fallen in love with a ring. He could not sell me that one. It is just an attempt, not finished. He gives it to me.

Before we go, he shows me one of his favorite pieces, an old collection box for the synagogue of Riga; there are still some coins in it.

We go back into the house. On the second floor are tinctures and colors. He is currently working on a special solution for gilding. In his study there are piles of old tapes with concert recordings he is digitizing, piece by piece.

In the kitchen we drink strong coffee. The espresso machine from Siena whistles. We eat homemade plum cake. He smokes a lot, and we talk about injuries. He tells me how he met the Polish violinist Wilkomirska in 1968 and for the first time had the feeling of family; of awards and of being arrested; of friends and enemies; of prosecutors and therapists; of hearings and the house search; of people from the media and their methods. The wounds run deep.

I look at my notes. The first question is: “Who are you?” I cross it out. Outside the window, two chickadees compete for sunflower seeds.

“I have a special friend,” he says, “with a wingspan of 1.5 meters. A red kite. He injured his wing as a young bird. The neighboring farmer fed him. Since then, he comes to see me every day; sometimes he flies above me on my way to the supermarket.”

We look at each other. “You can’t write a newspaper article from this,” he says, “it’s not enough.”

We smoke and drink more coffee, in slow motion. He accompanies me to the gate. The fog has lifted.

“You have to come back in the spring,” he says, “everything is in bloom then.”

“Then you’ll have to play for me,” I say.

“I’ll have to practice,” he smiles and walks as though on broken glass slowly back into the house.

I stand, thinking, in front of the weeping willow for a long time.

Could it be that a life lived falsely is still a life?

translated from the German by Julie Winter