Wilkomirski the adoptee

Wilkomirski the adoptee – Review

Betty Jean Lifton

* The Wilkomirski Affair: A Study in Biographical Truth, by Stefan Maechler Schocken Books, 2001.

The riddle of the true identity of Binjamin Wilkomirski, an adoptee and author of the once-acclaimed memoir Fragments, was finally solved in March by a DNA test that reveals him to be the son of a birth father he never knew. The test proves conclusively what legal documents couldn’t: that he is not the Jewish child survivor of the Holocaust he claimed to be, but rather the Swiss Protestant boy, Bruno Grosjean, relinquished by his single, working class birth mother at the age of two.

Until the DNA blew his cover, Wilkomirski had insisted that his papers were switched with the real Bruno Grosjean, a four year old who looked just like him, when they were residents in a Swiss children’s home. It was that boy who was born to Yvonne Grosjean on December 12, 1941, while, he, Binjamin Wilkomirski, was born in Riga, Latvia, a few years earlier.

Now we know that there was no switch. But DNA can only solve genetic riddles while the psychological ones remain. Why would a Swiss Protestant musician claim the identity of a Jewish Holocaust survivor? Does that make him an impostor, a fraud, a liar?

Yes, Wilkomirski may be all of these, but he is also an adoptee and, as such, is another kind of child survivor. As a psychologist, who is also an adopted person, I have observed that adoptees who have lost their birth parents and all their birth family members often feel like survivors, though they usually do not know what it is they have survived. Moreover, the secrecy around their origins suggests dark and illicit happenings, which leaves them feeling like survivors without honor. They are not seen by the outside world as motherless children who have suffered a psychic trauma they need to mourn, but rather as throw-aways, who are fortunate to have been rescued by their adoptive parents. I am not trying to equate what I call cumulative adoption trauma with the cumulative trauma of child survivors of the Holocaust–they are different–but to a young child the pain and deprivation may feel similar. They share a feeling of being abandoned, alone, and powerless.

Certainly little Bruno Grosjean had had enough trauma for a lifetime even before he was adopted. Separated by the child welfare system at the age of two from a devoted mother who could not support him, he must have been overwhelmed with grief and panic at her sudden disappearance. He was shunted about for the next two and half years from three foster homes to a children’s home, as surely as his book’s narrator was shunted from one concentration camp to another. His nine traumatizing months with one abusive and demented foster mother may be an important psychological source of the horrific experiences that he describes in Fragments. But even parting from his birth mother each time she paid brief visits to the foster homes must have been devastating. She was in the hospital recovering from a botched abortion attempt when he was abruptly taken from the children’s home to become Bruno Dossekker, the adopted son of a prominent, but formal, Swiss couple, As for so many adoptees, there was no explanation as to why his mother disappeared forever from his life. He was left to face the world alone, just as Binjamin Wilkomirski is alone in the memoir.

Binjamin writes that he does not know what the word “mother” means. But adoptees are mother-haunted children, and Fragments is a mother-haunted book. The boy is told by other children in the camp (who sound something like the Lost Boys in Peter Pan) that “everyone has a mother” and “if you have a mother she belongs just to you!” His own lost mother makes a cameo appearance in the memoir as a dying woman in Majdanek. He is taken to her by a camp guard who warns him not to speak to or about her, or he will be killed. His mother, shrouded in a blanket on the floor, holds out a precious piece of stale bread to him so that he can survive. It is another gift of life. She is both the idealized, self- sacrificing mother here, as well as the abandoner who leaves him yet again on his own.

In exposing Wilkomirski as a fraud, a Swiss newspaper said that he had spent his wartime years in the “safety” of his neutral homeland. But safety is a relative term. Although he was considered lucky to be taken in by the wealthy Dossekkers, the boy never felt safe or that he belonged there. It was a bad match: Dr. Dossekker, who was old enough to be his grandfather, wanted a son to carry on the medical tradition of the family–an expectation that was dashed when Bruno turned to music. And Bruno seems never to have accepted Mrs. Dossekker as his replacement mother, perhaps out of the divided loyalty that adoptees feel toward the missing birth mother. (“You’re not my mother!” Binjamin cries out to her in the memoir.) Another factor might he that despite giving Bruno their name, and presenting him as their son, the Dossekkers waited twelve years before legalizing the adoption because the grandparents could not accept the boy.

Like many adoptees, Bruno would speak of himself as being a “good actor,” “playing the rules of the game,” not feeling real. He hid his former identity as Bruno Grosjean, the illegitimate Protestant working-class kid, from his wealthy friends, and even from his first wife, for fear of being discovered as the impostor he felt himself to be. But he also felt like an impostor as Bruno Dossekker, the Protestant upper-class kid. And so eventually he would morph himself into Binjamin Wilkomirski, the Jewish child survivor, even though that identity made him a real impostor.

Adoptees have a hard time shaking off their impostor self. The writer and adoptee Harold Brodkey, who also lost his mother at the age of two, once told me in an interview: “I am only equivocally Harold Brodkey.” When we consider that the original self shares its identity with the adopted self, it is easy to see why doubling comes naturally to adoptees. In Wilkomirski’s case, even the double’s double has a double in the form of the imaginary Swiss boy whose documents he insisted were switched with his. But why would Bruno want to invent such an outlandish story?

Perhaps he began to crave that identity during his eight months in the children’s home, where he lived among Jewish refugee children who were brought from the camps to regain their health. They were treated as special, while he was just a poor Swiss orphan. He must have sensed they knew a darkness like his. Perhaps one group came from the Baltics, because from the time he was in high school, he told his friends that he was a Jewish refugee from there. Over the years, he experimented with names and identities until he finally settled on Binjamin Wilkomirski, who hailed from Riga, Latvia. But he did not put Binjamin in the death camps until after something unforeseen happened in 1981.

On that day Bruno Dossekker received a letter from a lawyer that Yvonne Grosjean, his birth mother, had died. He was not left anything in the will, but he had the right as her son to make a claim on her modest estate, which be did. The legal procedure involved going to her apartment with the lawyer. What it was like to enter that ghostly realm and reconnect with his mother and his original self he has not articulated in his writing or interviews. But it must have been like falling through a time machine into the dark place in his psyche that was left when he lost his mother. He reconnected not only with his mother, but with the unresolved trauma of losing her. He was ill after that for years with various maladies that he told his friends were fatal. During this period, his marriage fell apart and his adoptive parents died, losses that must have re-activated his early loss.

When he was finally able to function again, Binjamin Wilkomirski had buried Bruno Grosjean and Bruno Dossekker. Slowly with the help of a new woman friend and a therapist, he began translating his past traumas into the harrowing memories of little Binjamin in the death camps. In the process, he came to believe that he was the little boy who narrated the book, and he was able to convince child survivor groups and Holocaust experts throughout Europe and this country. He had grown into Binjamin, like an author who has turned into his character. Binjamin could express the pain better than Bruno, whom nobody had heard or taken seriously. As the Swiss historian Stefan Maechler wrote in his comprehensive expose of Wilkomirski’s life and work: The Wilkomirski Affair: A Study in Biographical Truth (Schocken, 2001): “Bruno Grosjean has probably fallen silent forever–that is unless it is he who is speaking through Wilkomirski’s words.”

When he was first challenged on his identity as Binjamin Wilkomirski, the only comfortable role he ever played, he responded in an afterword to his memoir: “Legally accredited truth is one thing–the truth of a life is another.” Binjamin wanted to have his “imposed identity annulled.” He hoped that his memoir would help other people in the same situation to find the necessary support and strength to cry out their own traumatic childhood memories,” He wanted them to know “that they are not alone.”

Now that the DNA test has sided with the legally accredited truth, Bruno Grosjean/Dosseker is once again alone. Yet, in an interview with a Swiss newspaper, he still clung to his belief in his “memories.” He spoke of having “medical proof” that he had been abused as a child and declared that it didn’t matter if this abuse happened “in a camp or in a barn.”

As shocking as this statement is, we have to take it seriously. A witness has verified that Bruno Grosjean was traumatized as a child during one foster care placement. But Bruno also suffered the trauma of so many adopted children who are separated from their birth mothers and are nor able to resolve their grief. Of course, most adoptees do not reinvent themselves in such an extreme way. But if Bruno Grosjean/Dossekker/Wilkomirski’s story tells us anything, it is that adoptees cannot build an authentic sense of self when society does not recognize their trauma of being cut off from their origins.

When the narrator in Wilkomirski’s fictional memoir is told that he cannot speak to or about his dying birth mother in the camp under penalty of death, the author is literalizing the taboo that he, as an adoptee, lived under: Thou Shalt Not Know or Speak of Thy Birth Mother. Wilkomirski’s book is a cry of pain against that taboo: a pain known to all children who try to survive losing their mothers, no matter the circumstances.

Betty Jean Lifton, Ph.D., is an adoption counselor in Cambridge, MA, and New York City. She is the author of Journey of the Adopted Self and The King of Children: A Biography of Janusz Korczak bjkappa@aol.com

COPYRIGHT 2002 Institute for Labor and Mental Health

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