Atlantic Monthly

Crying Wolves

In Zimbabwe, for a few months during the early stages of the collapse of civil society under Robert Mugabe, I flitted from bookshop to bookshop, happy as a hummingbird in a tropical greenhouse. Paperbacks cost as little as a penny apiece, and hardbacks rarely topped a single US dollar. The inventory consisted largely of remainders or possibly even of books reported by distributors as unsold and destroyed. And one book was everywhere: Fragments, the 1995 Holocaust fraud by Binjamin Wilkomirski.

Wilkomirski’s book and Defonseca’s are equally bogus, and perhaps hers too will end up “reported as destroyed” (by being shipped to Africa). I wonder whether a generation of Zimbabweans will know about the Second World War primarily through lies. (Wilkomirski claimed to have recovered fragments of his sad youth in the ghetto; he had actually spent the whole war on a farm in Switzerland, and had merely convinced himself of his Holocaust.)

What shocked me at the time was less the presence of these copies of Fragments than their bizarre content, seemingly written to be doubted. Wilkomirski’s book is a haze of memories, and a memory of haze. Terrible things happen, but only as the evanescent accounts of wispy memories — not with the indelible vision of evil one would expect. Defonseca’s memoir, too, cries out for scrutiny. Is it really plausible that she would wander Europe alone as a child so extensively? That she would join a wolf-pack in the Warsaw ghetto?

There is some variation to be invoked here on the saw “if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.” In the case of the Holocaust, in which the awfulness amps go up to eleven, one almost has to say, “if it’s too awful to be true, the truth is probably even worse.” But these books, with their flamboyant or psychologically indistinct narratives, are not awful. They are flashy, and they show only that the austere precision of superior memoirs, such as Primo Levi’s, are the mark of the real thing.

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