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the credentials that would rescue me: Trauma and the

Fraudulent Survivor
Once a writer is authenticated by publisher and public, he or she obtains an ethical
and historical authority. But if that authentication should fall into doubtif shades of
fiction, adaptation, and imagination become discernablethen, author beware. The
trauma memoir moves from the chaos of experience to the regulation and textual
qualities of an account, and thereby is founded on a contradiction: trauma is a sub-
jective experience, but once it becomes an account, it often is taken as objective

The 1970s and early 1980s were a period of profiles, journal essays, literary awards,
and honorary doctorates for Jerzy Kosinski, who in 1965 had published The Painted
Bird, the near-iconic Holocaust memoir that was later shown to be fiction. But since
his suicide in 1991, Kosinski's life and work have served either as anecdotal evidence
for those who claim that memory of the Holocaust is threatened by the discrediting
of such prominent Holocaust-associated cultural figures, or as occasions for apologia
by those who had previously credited them. James Park Sloan's 1996 biography has
become something of an epigraph, depicting a mendacious storyteller with illicit sex-
ual interests and high-society friends, and a man whose literary output qualifies him
as little better than an also-ran. Today Kosinski surfaces in literary culture either as
caricature (for example in Davey Holmes's 2001 play More Lies About Jerzy) or as ci-
pher for cautionary tales and critical scorn.

Possibly because his memoirBruchstcke (Fragments: Memories of a Childhood,

19391948)was unequivocally embraced, Binjamin Wilkomirski's fall from grace
has been moralistically and academically generative. The past decade has seen a se-
ries of articles on the making and unmaking not only of particular accounts, but also
of particular witnessesindividuals whose deficient output, unfortunately, is by
no means unique (not to mention academics and journalists under pressure to
publish). For book publishers and their audiences, it seems, trauma is not an abstract
personal experience but an asset that lends an author economic and pedagogical
value. The Wilkomirski Affair has quieted since its treatment in Lawrence L. Langer's
Using and Abusing the Holocaust, but it now may be possible to look back at it and at
the Kosinski Affair and to see whether something new can be learned.

In 1995 the Swiss author Binjamin Wilkomirski (born Bruno Grosjean; subsequently
given the name of his adoptive parents, Dssekker) published a successful memoir
that was soon translated into nine languages and widely received as a major testimo-
ny about the Nazi era. It was structured according to the logics of trauma, made up of
fragmentary half-digested images barely sewn together, bound only by an undergird-
ing sense that hostile, impersonal forcesincluding chance, tuchhad swept the
narrator along during his most vulnerable years. The harrowing account, brutal and
plain, was quickly compared to the works of Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi. The memoir
detailed instances of crimes such as medical experimentation long associated with
Nazism, and mentioned stays in Majdanek and Auschwitz. Fragments won several
awards, including America's National Jewish Book Award and France's Prix Mem-
oire de la Shoah (both symbolic of the institutionalization of memory). Holocaust tes-
timony collections such as the Fortunoff Video Archive at Yale soon interviewed the

In 1998, however, this account of a traumatic childhood came under scrutiny. Daniel
Ganzfried, himself the son of a camp survivor, investigated certain inconsistencies in
the author's testimony. The results appeared in the Swiss newspaper Weltwoche, in an
article claiming that Wilkomirskiotherwise known as Swiss clarinet-maker Bruno
Grosjeanknew the camps only as a tourist. In 1999 the author's agent hired histo-
rian Stefan Maechler to independently verify Fragments; his results confirmed much
of Ganzfried's earlier accusations and were published in the 2001 book The Wilkomirs-
ki Affair.

Following his denunciation and all the consequent questions over the exact terms to
assign his infamy, Wilkomirski's apologists have asserted that, despite his having
faked his biography, the author is nonetheless psychologically consistent with some-
one who had suffered severe trauma. The unexpected result of Maechler's investiga-
tion was that while he found Ganzfried's assertions to be trueindeed
Grosjean/Wilkomirski had never even been in Latvia or Poland during World War II
the author's boyhood experiences lined up in other ways with assertions made ear-
lier by his friend and psychiatrist Elitsur Bernstein. Bernstein's claim was that Frag-
ments represents an extreme and fraudulent metonymy, in which an original trauma
(Wilkomirski did in fact suffer a traumatic childhood, but one far less widely dis-
cussed than his fictive one) was fully supplanted rather than amplified or otherwise
altered for public presentation. In such a metonymy a part of a traumatized child's ex-
perience may stand in for the whole; in the present instance this could mean creating
a history to make the personal experience of trauma (the encounter with tuch) sensi-
ble to others.

Wilkomirski stuck to the claim that Fragments was a document of his traumatic
memories. As Maechler points out, Wilkomirski had simply rewritten his childhood
traumasthe traumas of an orphaned Swiss boy in hostile foster family environ-
mentsin the style and imagery of a popular form: the Holocaust survivor narrative.

In order to authenticate his story, Wilkomirski borrowed and begged recognition

from a variety of sources; he cried at survivor conferences and sought to be inter-
viewed by the greatest authorities and at the most important archives; he found other
memoirists who would say they had known him in the camps; he read all the great
works of Holocaust literature; he replaced his Swiss-German name with that of a
famous Polish Jewish violinist chosen because of an apparent physical resemblance;
and he studied, most significantly, the memoir and sophistic justifications of the
late Jerzy Kosinski, by then the paradigmatic pariah in Holocaust literature.

The ambiguous synonymity Kosinski had established between his text and its author,
much like the ambiguity recently employed by drug memoirist James Frey,
stemmed from a conflict between both authors' actual experiences and the greater
possibilities their experiences offered. Just as Frey was in fact a former junkie, Kosins-
ki was a Jewish child survivor of wartime Poland. The disclaimer that now opens
Frey's A Million Little Pieces exemplifies the authorial gamble: my mistake is writ-
ing about the person I created in my mind to help me cope, and not the person who
went through the experience . [This memoir] is a story I could not have written
without having lived the life I've lived.

Emigrating to the United States from Communist Poland in 1953, Kosinski always
found it both easy and advantageous to fabricate a more romantically horrific child-
hood than the one through which he actually had lived. He could constantly rewrite
his terrible past because, as long as the Iron Curtain remained, refutation of his claims
would be all but impossible. Indeed, before publication of The Painted Bird, Kosinski's
testimony was dramatized in the form of a shifting and evolving dinner-party
anecdote. At an migr mixer in 1958 he regaled a journalist with the tale that he
had spent the final four years of World War II alone, wandering amidst a primordial
peasantry. At a diplomat's cocktail party he later stated that he had also been mute
during this time.

Once Kosinski, with the aide of translators and editors found through local want ads,
had transformed this anecdote into a text, he would be dogged by questions about
the amount of fictionalizing in the account. The negotiations between Kosinski and
his publisher that preceded and followed The Painted Bird's success show Kosinski's
awareness that in order for his work to be sufficiently valued he had to appear as a
testifying witness, not as an artist. The book features dozens of rapes, bracketed be-
tween scenes of bestiality and torture, and a panorama of other sadistic and
masochistic spectacles, many as if viewed from just beyond the arc of the blow.
Kosinski's gruesome content illustrates the audacity of his gambit. The man who ac-
cepted Kosinski's manuscript at Houghton Mifflin in November 1964Giorgio de
Santillanahad received it within the context of Kosinski's social bravura. When
Kosinski seemed tentative about a declaration of the book's status as autobiography,
another editor wrote to Kosinski that it is my understanding, that fictional as the
material may sound, it is straight autobiography. For the remainder of his life Kosin-
ski dealt with such strict legalistic questions through idiosyncratic inference, prag-
matic denials, or nuances of metaphor. Officially the text was fiction, though Kosinski
remained publicly synonymous, if not identical, with the persecuted boy of his book:
for the tenth anniversary edition Kosinski insisted the cover image be a photo of him-
self at age five, the narrator's and his own age at the beginning of the war.

In an essay distributed to reviewers and academics on the original publication and

entitled Notes of the Author on The Painted Bird, Kosinski offered a convenient
though eventually untenable ambiguity. The Painted Bird, he stated, was not fiction
but rather the result of the slow unfreezing of a mind long gripped by fear, of isolat-
ed facts that have become interwoven into a tapestry. His characters were based on
real but unverifiable people, both because these were figures lifted from an illiterate
peasantry now at twenty years remove and buried deep in the Soviet bloc, and also
(claimed Kosinski) because the author was presenting the cloth of his experience,
not merely threads.

In an epilogue that appeared only in the version of the book sent to reviewers, Kosin-
ski included specific references to Polish territories to bolster the impression that The
Painted Bird was indeed witness testimony. Ahead of the publication of Elie Wiesel's
glowing review in the New York Times (entitled Everybody's Victim, 1965) Kosinski
went to him and seemingly confessed in confidence, I am the boy. Wiesel subse-
quently wrote that it is as a chronicle that the book achieves its unusual power.

Kosinski's value to himself lay in the autobiographical ambiguity his emigration

enabled, for the witness he could be in the eyes of others. The gruesome details of The
Painted Birdits knowledgehad to be embodied or to go unappreciated. The am-
biguity of the book allowed Kosinski to be published and venerated as a testifying
survivor; this ambiguity, untenable in the long run, allowed him to be the survivor of
a fuller trauma, one far beyond his own.

It was the unassailable status of such full accounts, and not their incredible content,
that led to Kosinski's downfall. In 1982 Elizabeth Pochoda, then editor of The Nation,
told two colleagues that even though Kosinski was deemed unassailable as a person
of higher genius, she found his tale suspicious. Her doubts were weighty enough to
motivate the two Village Voice journalists with whom she was talking to begin the
pursuit of hard facts that eventually goaded the author into an outright lie about his
use of editors and translators, and that would, in turn, call into question much of
what he had ever said or written.

Interestingly, the main accusation of the journalists' pieceJerzy Kosinski's Tainted

Words (June 22, 1982)had little to do with any supposed biographical traumas or
with plagiarism (charges of which did subsequently emerge). Their primary accusa-
tion was that the author made extensive use of editors to rewrite his very poor En-
glish into passable literary style, and not the secondary charge that The Painted Bird
was purely fictional. But while the first accusation called into question his purported
talent, the latter put paid to the myth that the protagonist was really the author.

The construction and exploitation of a trauma narrative binds Kosinski to both Holo-
caust witnesses and (more closely) the postmemory generation, that of their
children. Vladek Spiegelman assumes a similar role when he uses his wartime experi-
ences in Maus, mobilizing the affective possibilities of his history to attract an
audience. In Spiegelman's case the exploitation is an attempt to capture the attention
of his son Art, while in Kosinski's case the audience was a broader and less reluctant
readership. For Kosinski, the unfortunate truth was that the witness had endured
insufficient traumatic experiences; his experiences were factually insufficient to con-
vey the fullest trauma of the times, particularly in comparison to other accounts.
Though in fact he had been in Poland and had been a hidden Jewish child, he could
not lay claim to the kinds of ordeals experienced by other Jewish children hidden in
wartime Poland. In his own memoirs Wiesel admits the lure and quest for suffering
he felt after his liberation; in burnishing his own experience Kosinski signals an aban-
donment of his own life in favor of the far more tragic. Seven years after the Village
Voice scandal, and shortly before his suicide, Kosinski wrote a short and revealing
self-exculpation in which he acknowledged: In my adult life I am trying to trans-
form [my childhood] into something that will touch others, and that is my way of re-
warding myself for my traumatic childhood. Could my childhood during World War
II be anything but traumatic?

Kosinski wrote confidently in imitation of the traumatized, enabled by the warrant

that he technically had been there; all researchers agree he had been a Jewish boy
amongst the Polish peasantry during the Nazi occupation. (Sloan was able to deter-
mine many of the places Kosinski and his parents hid.) Kosinski wrote in imitation of
a hallowed form, hollowing out his experience and replacing it with the attractive
narrative possibilities he had seen in contemporaneous accounts. And yet while his
narrative surpasses his experience, he was in some sense present in the place and
time, and his account differs thereby from postmemory, that is, what someone not
old enough to have been present might write. Present at the crime and yet unscathed
by the terrible drama, Kosinski replaced his real self with a more poignant possible

Kosinski's works have lost much of their large and interested readership. The public
outcry following the Wilkomirski affair in Switzerland caused that author to retreat
from public view and to halt the formerly popular public appearances at which
accompanied by an instrumentalist and other Holocaust paraphernaliahe had
previously read fragments from his memoir (but took no questions). But their
books remain available.

Readers should remain mindful of Jean Baudrillard's suggestion in Simulacra and Sim-
ulations that scandals often serve to normalize other, less tenuous, discourses and
claims. Such scandals make the modest distortions and adaptations of other sur-
vivor accounts seem hardly noticeable, and even make those accounts appear thor-
oughly factual by comparison. Since the Kosinksi and Wilkomirski affairs no one
seems to have pointed out how these scandals reinforce the authority of mainstream
memoirs by affirming their authors as authoritative witnesses, and making their
ways of testifying appear free of the distortion, adaptation, and imagination that
are present to at least some degree in all trauma autobiography, and consequently, all
accounts of Nazi persecution.


In her 1997 book Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory Marianne
Hirsch named and outlined the situation of the postmemory generation solely in the
context of the Holocaust. Her efforts not only offered insight into the familial relating
of this eventshowing how it moved from survivors to their postmemory children
but also illustrated how any generation might be dominated by narratives that pre-
ceded their birth, their own histories evacuated by the stories of the previous
generation. Postmemory children are doubly coded by their parents: composed
out of both their genetic code and the categories and tropes of their historically press-
ing trauamatic memories.

As someone both related to the event and late to itpermanently belatedthe

postmemory individual, being a locus of secondary testimony and re-enactment, also
occupies a position both similar to that of everyday consumer-spectators of historical
events and comparable to that of the testimonial frauds Kosinski and Wilkomirski.
While Wilkomirski's specific claims are counterfeit, the traumatic childhood revealed
by Maechler's research does provide an experiential warrant for his account. We
might say that postmemory testimony is a legitimate form of what became fraud in
the case of these authors.

Postmemory individuals and their traumatized parents return to the same incident,
sharing a permanent belatedness that resonates with the dual meanings of the adjec-
tive belated: in the first sense, the postmemory individual both arrives too late to
experience what needs to be experienced, and stays too long, lingering over the his-
torical incident throughout his or her own life. As in Hirsch's definition, the post-
memory subject feels that the most important knowledge and experience preceded
his or her birth.

In the second sense of belated the relationship between seeing and knowing is in-
verted in the witness, since the survivor also is overtaken by lateness. In her book
Unclaimed Experience psychologist Cathy Caruth argues that the most direct seeing of
a violent event may occur as an absolute inability to know it; that immediacy,
paradoxically, may take the form of belatedness. This disjunction in the witness be-
tween seeing and knowing does not mean that they will never know; but if an inci-
dent is to be traumatic it must neccesarily catch subjects off-guard. The subject
experiences terrible events that cannot be easily assimilated, and then is recalled to
the original wounding again and again, attempting to recount what happened. As
Slavoj Zizek argues in The Sublime Object of Ideology, subsequent sense-making
means that only through witnessing and narration does the witness make the scene
from the past become what it already was. By the same token, only through the at-
tempts of witnesses to articulate what they have been through and what they have
experienced do a sequence of historical events become a named genocide. For those
with either an intimate relation to a witness or an immediate relation to the event, it
seems that the eventsomething that interrupted his or her life, that imposed itself
upon him or hercannot be conclusively or instantly known. And yet, though the in-
cident may not be fully comprehended, one cannot simply leave it behind.

Any traumatic incident marked by a sharp break from previous history or previous
time is always also an accident for the individual. In his examination of repetitious
trauma-related behaviorsin particular the haunting recurrence of traumatized
victims' responses in their subsequent livesLacan utilizes the Aristotelian term
tuch to neutrally describe unforeseen occurrences. Denoting both accident and
chance, tuch is the ambivalently accidental, a usefully uninvolved term amidst the
dramatic lexicon of trauma, meaning simply the happening that easily could not have
happened. Tuch is not necessarily traumatizing since that which just happens to
occur, by chance, can almost always be psychologically integrated. In a secular uni-
verse tuch intervenes constantly and we pay it little attention. However, it is those
accidents that are not integrated into an operating preconception of the possible that
remain disruptively [emphasis mine] accidental. Traumas require attention and
explanation, as they are not merely foresee-able possible misfortunes that regretably
do come to pass. They do not fit within the subject's preexisting ideas of the possible,
and hence they are destined to be re-enacted even though their full meaning inherent-
ly eludes the survivor.

An immediate complication, though, emerges when communicated trauma and

recorded testimony are tied up with an event, in particular when they are catalyzed
or induced by the forces of that event's commemoration. The term Holocaust and
the field of Holocaust studies are, as Peter Novick has argued, the result of a com-
memorative project undertaken by various public and private institutions to docu-
ment the persecutions against Jews by the German government between 1939 and
1945; this is a commemorative project containing both idiosyncratic contributions by
individuals and coordinated efforts by museums, universities, and other institutions.
Naturally, the attempt to document these persecutions also has been an attempt to
define them. The history that has produced the term the Holocaust has, at times,
been a dialetic between differing accounts of the nature and meaning of the events it
names (hence the preference of some to speak of the Shoah).

One consequence of occurrences attaining the status of major events is that though
this status enables the possibility of naming a specific historyof collecting together
causes and effects, of grouping similar experiencesit also undermines the
sovereignty of an individual voice within that history. In the recording of National
Socialism's racial persecutions the different definitions of the deadwhether for in-
stance they are among the six million Jews or five million othersallow the wit-
ness little idiosyncracy or definition. As Art Spiegelman points out, many individuals
who didn't necessarily identify themselves as/with Jews were persecuted and are
commemorated as Jews. Consequently, a person burned in Auschwitz's crematoria is
not necessarily a victim of the Holocaust, depending on which definition of the
event is in play.

In his examination of this commemorative culture, The Holocaust and Collective Memo-
ry, Peter Novick illustrated the same development by drawing attention to photos
gathered by Allied troops upon the liberation of Dachau. These photos have since be-
come reified images: from their shock value in the 1961 film Judgment at Nuremburg,
to their inclusion in various Holocaust museums, they are synonymous with the
camps and the Nazi persecutions of the Jews. As Novick points out, however, at the
time of liberation, only a fifth of the population of Dachau were Jews, most having
been killed or sent elsewhere earlier. Other camps, liberated by the Red Army, had a
higher proportion of Jewish inmates; however the Soviets de-emphasized the nation-
alities of the victims, particularly of the Jews. Now, when we see the Dachau photos
we read the Holocaust. We do not see stand-in victims or body doubles.

The attempt to bring something into discourse by lending it a name also makes it in-
creasingly difficult to differentiate between the commemorative discourse and what
was originally being named. Evolution has come to signify not only a nineteenth-
century ecological theory but also fierce debates about human nature, theology, and
secularization among other things, just as the Holocaust not only represents the
persecution of Jews between 1939 and 1945, but also how those events appear in
museums, their pedagogical employment, and their manifestation in various iconic
moments of Hollywood cinema.

At the level of linguistic analysis we can see a process similar to that illustrated by
Novick's use of the Dachau photographs. In the interview Passagesfrom Trauma-
tism to Promise Jacques Derrida describes the naming of events as both a
wounding and a system of effacement, a kind of transformation that reifies the
chaotic and idiosyncratic. As knowledge about an event increases, an individual ex-
periencewhich is absorbed into a commemorative canonis transformed into an
experience of and within that constructed grand narrative. The survivor is not
sovereign, but rather belongs to the survivors; the liberated deportee was later born
into the Holocaust, associated with a final referent, not to his or her primary ex-
perience but to a collective body of experience known as the event. In his
autobiography, Self-Portrait of a Holocaust Survivor, Werner Weinberg attests: One
survives an earthquake, a shipwreck, but after a while one returns to one's former
identity, despite possible scars left by the calamity. However, Holocaust-survivorship
is terminal . I have been set apart for having been in the Holocaust, while in my
own sight I am a person who lived before and who is living after.

In this way the Holocaust itself has become a reified and sometimes even mistrust-
ed word, referring not only to actual experiences but also to their memorial encoding
and to the institutions that define them. Suspicion of this kind of ideological mechan-
ics can be traced in part to the term's semantically suspicious origin often identified
inaccuratelyas a philological mistake by Elie Wiesel: in the words of Giorgio
Agamben, the coinage atributed to Weisel creates an unacceptable equation between
crematoria and altars. For Holocaust studies the evental name now refers to an au-
thoritative commemorative infrastructure that calls us allwhether survivors, chil-
dren of survivors, or mere spectatorsinto relation. For movie-goers, museum
visitors, university students and many other classes of spectator audience, exposure
to the scale and importance of the event draws each individual into an experience of
the Holocaust's massive formalized body of knowledge.

The imaginative project that potentially results from commemoration institutions' at-
tention to trauma is shown in the work of Jerusalem psychotherapist Dina Wardi, in
particular her 1992 book Memorial Candles. Wardi's work contains some problematic
and dubious methodology, but its attempt to create links between her patients and
the event is illuminating even if it is not a typical example of how postmemory and
commemoration are generally handled. Her findings pertain particularly to the chil-
dren of concentration camp survivors, though they came out of group-therapy ses-
sions with heterogeneous individuals, only some of them the children of
survivors. Wardi believes that many survivors raise their children to become, in her
words, sites of testimony, installing in them a strong awareness of the original

For Wardi, such secondary witnessing does not necessarily require a foundational
connection of experience from within the family. The inspiration to seek a relation to
historical trauma can be drawn from cultural, ethnic, or religious identities. She
writes, I am not actually a daughter of survivors, but, like every member of Euro-
pean Jewry of that period, I too am a daughter of survivors in potential. Indeed, which
member of the Jewish nation is not a child of survivors in potential? This potentiali-
ty of victimhood neatly creates a pool of newly possible historical imaginings from
which Wardi and her patients can draw, and, in the mode of trauma-survivors, re-
turn to again and again. The inserted contingencyhad my parents been in Nazi-
occupied territory, they would have been compelled to become victimsis Wardi's
warrant for her and her patients to imaginatively take part in history.

The text remains vague about her case studies' histories; at center, instead of raw bio-
graphic data, lies their and Wardi's personal sense of belonging to history. This be-
longing justifies the fictional narrations of camp life they evolve in the group therapy
environment. Aided by readings, Wardi's patients combine the coincidence of possi-
bility about the absence of parental detail into an opportunity for fantasy. Wardi
writes that: they live in the fantasies they share with their parents . The survivors
created a myth including past memories, whose purpose was to maintain a traumatic
screen over feelings. Again, Wardi's methodology involves dubious leaps, turning
her case study from a heterogenous group with either biographical or cultural links
to the Holocaust into a homogenous group of postmemory survivors. The dynamics
Wardi establishes have little to do with factually-based family histories and owe al-
most everything to imagination and supplementation through historical research and
the patient's personal sense of belonging.
Consistent with the assertions of Caruth and other trauma-studies scholars, the vic-
tim often provides a mythic screen that shields more repressed material. Parents may
be open about their experiences, historical details may be abundant, but the post-
memory individual still will have room to imagine elements of the experience. As in
the case of many postmemory authorsranging from Art Spiegelman to Haruki Mu-
rakamia dearth, or indeed the impossibility, of information is the most productive
thing. The closure of historical events warrants the opening of all their possibilities.
For those who were not there at the traumatic moment, the parent's experiences (or
might-have-been experiences) could lie only at the same affective edges of horror and
brutality as their children's imaginations; in the words of Zelman Lewenthal, a young
Jew working in the Auschwitz crematoria, in a note hidden under one of the ovens:
the complete truth is far more tragic, far more frightening.

For psychologists and psychoanalysts alike, the parent is more often a reluctant
witness, creating the aforementioned blank screen that calls for their children's
projections; Wardi's patients manufacture the details of their parents' victimization
almost en abyme. One, Itzhak, wondered whether something had happened to his
mother in the sexual sphere. He states that the hard part is thinking about her
submission, her humiliation. Itzhak's imaginings may be emotionally difficult, but
they seem almost inevitable. The gap in parental testimony appearsthanks to both
the dynamics of trauma and the privileged place of the horrifying eventnot as an
absence but as a knowing omission, an omission that can be easily corrected.

Such examples begin to show how the witness comes to be, or is manufactured, via a
relationship to persons outside the primary experience, an audience eager to
understand. In their book Testimony Dori Laub and Shoshana Felman write that for a
testimonial to take place, there needs to be a bonding, the intimate and total presence
of the otherin the position of one who hears. Testimonies are not monologues .
The witnesses are talking to somebody, to somebody they have been waiting for, for a
long time. Laub and Felman's ideal witness seems to be a kind of traumatized indi-
vidual who, only after time and repeated requests, narrates his or her haunting en-
counter with chance, most often in informal, and usually familial, spaces. While this
description does accurately describe the postmemory moment, it is important to note
the assumed role of delay in trauma. In Caruth's descriptions, just as in Laub and
Felman's, a trauma does not appear immediately traumatic; it has to come back to be
a trauma; it has to haunt; the witness and the audience have to wait.

As opposed to the interviews we now see at the sites of major contemporary

catastrophes, where journalists seek to speak to people in shock immediately after
their experience, the element of delay also is integral to the more formalized process-
es such as archiving and publishing by which witnessing becomes testimony. It takes
time for experience to become trauma, just as it takes time to be spoken, narrated and
explained. It takes time for the witness to come into being, just as it takes time for
events to become commemorations; it takes time in which one can imagine, research,
and project, time in which both those at the site of the event and those who feel they
should have been feel the lure and quest for suffering. Within the constellation of cul-
tural forces that bring events into commemoration, the case studies of frauds such as
Kosinski and Wilkomirski illustrate the problematic gap between the witness and his
or her testimonial role, a gap whose origins lie partly in the widespread temptation to
identify with trauma and, ultimately, to exploit its evocative potential.


What to do, then, when accounts that invoke relationships to events turn out to be
false? Do we simply move them from one shelf to another, repositioning the text in
fiction rather than biography or history? Their testimony, while factually false,
seemed realistic, and had real pedagogical, cultural, and emotional effects. Until
exposure, their texts were consistent with a canon, and arguably added new evoca-
tive and affecting scenes, characters, and metaphors to a commemorative discourse in
popular culture. People sympathized. People felt certain they had encountered the
traumatic event. Other survivors recognized their own experiences in these false

In his novel The Garden Next Door, Chilean author Jos Donosoa man who spent the
years of Pinochet's dictatorship in self-imposed exiledepicts the potential crisis of
the survivor making his way in a burgeoning commemorative community. Donoso's
protagonist is Julio, a Chilean who, after a brief stay in one of Pinochet's prisons, emi-
grated to Spain with his wife. Directionless and destitute, he rails against the false
prophets of politically engaged Latin American authors such as Gabriel Garcia Mr-
quez and Mario Vargas Llosa, certain that his fledgling trauma might be spun into
something both harrowing and heroic: How was I to keep my six days in prison
from fading and disappearing ? I had been swept along by the forces of history to
form a part of my country's destiny . Those days were my passport to success, the
credentials that would rescue me from obscurity.

Much as is the case with postmemory, the testimonies that we have often seem not to
have been authored by the most appropriate witnessesas if an understudy stepped
in for someone of higher authority. Giorgio Agamben expressed this sentiment in his
critique of the witness, Remnants of Auschwitz (2000). In order to undercut the de-
ceptive familiarity of texts featuring extreme horror and ruinfor instance that of
Agamben's ideal witness, Primo LeviAgamben draws attention to the protagonist
of this drama: the Nazi gesture, a figurative phrase describing a non-account of the
camps and reflecting the will to total erasure. The inverse of our familiarity with
Auschwitz would thus be the possibility, had Germany won the war and the Nazi
gesture been succesful, that we would not know anything about the camps.
Agamben's metaphor for erasure would seem to have been presaged in Heinrich
Himmler's 1943 Posen speech, the most widely-cited contemporary explicit reference
to the Final Solution. Adressing the SS elite, Himmler spoke of the camps as a page
of glory never mentioned and never to be mentioned.

For Agamben the Nazi gesture is intrinsic to the thinking behind all genocides, past
and future. It is a necessary calculated move by the aggressor and excludes targeted
individuals from the construction of knowledge about what happened; the focus of
genocides is not to produce pariahs or refugees. Ideally, it tolerates no remnants, no
resistant reminders who might want to critique or contradict. The Nazi gesture is a
dissolution of a group that also is a final absolution (i.e., of themselves), an un-
marked omission of millions of individuals. A repetition of this gesture is also dis-
cernable in the intentional conflation, by the Nazis, of the idiosyncratic individual
with an abstract object of homogenized group persecution. Put differently, it is the
mistaking of a Jewish person for the Nazi characterization of the Jew. The gesture
the oppressor's gesture, the camp's gesture, the bullet's gesturethat takes the id-
iosyncratic subject as a representative object is a traumatic inappropriate stealing or,
literally, a mis-taking.

The genocidal gesture, though, is necessarily incomplete. In Maurice Blanchot's

1980 Writing and the Disaster, the author describes disasterand we easily could sub-
stitute the word event hereas an affliction of annihilation, arguing, furthermore,
that there is disaster only because it falls short of disaster. In terms of the present
discussion, there is testimony and there are commemorations only because persecu-
tions are in some way curtailed: the disastrous event is the event with witnesses
and survivors.

Just as in trauma, when incidents often seem to choose an inappropriate witness

over someone better qualified, someone whose involvement was more intimate or
whose involvement was more easily predicted, testimony often seems to come from a
person who is not the best suited to the task. To Agamben, those whom the event
claimed would seem to have been the most important witnesses. Levi's drowned
rather than his saved seem the most licensed to testify to the horror of the Holo-
caust because they experienced its full intended effect: those whose testimony is ab-
sent would have been the crucial witnesses. The totalizing gesture has totally en-
veloped them. This may be a claim against which one immediately wants to object,
butto reword Agambenif the disaster does not claim you, then is your claim on
the disaster not compromised?

In one of Writing and the Disaster's only explicit references to any specific historical
event, Blanchot mentions a type of person broken by the Nazi concentration camps,
wasted by his or her experience, a skeletal figure believed to be beyond the reproach
of shame and self-consciousness; in Agamben's critique, this devastated person reap-
pears as the completethough completely destroyedwitness. Such figures are Pri-
mo Levi's husk-men, known in the camps as Muselmnner (Muslims) for the way
they swayed like Islamic devotees in prayer. To put Blanchot and Agamben's figure
in psychological terms, the Muselmann is pure drive and his very being manifests inti-
mate experience with Nazi intentions. He is a subject reduced to a vessel, a mecha-
nism possessed whose hunger in service of survival is not mitigated, as with the
non-Muselmnner, by personal loyalties or fears of punishment. The Muselmnner
have no voice at any timeStroka writes that their tongues could not touch their
desiccated palates to produce sounds: theoretically, no Muselmann could return and
recount his journey into the dark depths. This is clearly a precarious limit of this lim-
it theory, since theoretically would not a Muselmann be too far beyond social con-
cepts of shame, duty, or rational action to return to the conditions of humanity? If a
person could return, then by definition he would not have reached the abysmal limits
of the Muselmann. This witness cannot report back from the limits.

What develops in Remnants of Auschwitz is a delicate, if practicably inconsistent, con-

ception of the structural contradictions testimony displaysa conception of which
the witness should remain aware. Muselmann can be counted as a name given to a
theoretical locus at the depths of abjection; those who remain alive may only gesture
toward him, the impossible and absent witness who haunts all accounts of events
with his never-to-be articulated personal experiences. There can be an account of
their appearance, but not their subjectivity.

If he is to be used as the archetype of the absolute witness, perhaps it is more accurate

to define the Muselmann not as a staggering corpse, but as the one we cannot see.
In order to avoid confusion between what is a theoretical account of the symbolic
remnants of Auschwitz and those individuals who actually remained, the Musel-
mann, for Agamben, could be better defined as a particularity of events that also con-
tains the impossibility of their representation. The Muselmann, or the situation he
represents, makes testimony both ethically necessary and incapable of conveying the
most horrific reality of the camps.
It is the impossibility of the complete witness, combined with the compelling call for
those who were there to testify to the extremity of their experiences, that binds two
frauds such as Jerzy Kosinski and Binjamin Wilkomirski to more authentic witnesses
and (more fraternally) to the the situation of postmemory individuals. Neither Kosin-
ski nor the postmemory child can abandon the crucial and historically important ex-
periences they will not leave behind, while Wilkomirski, like one of Wardi's descen-
dants of survivors in potential, cannot resist the fulfillment of imaginative and
plainly fraudulent identification. They cannot abandon the affective, self-defining, or
pedagogical potential entailed by their traumas, and therefore represent what com-
memorations in fact ask of those present at the creation of History: enactments and
re-enactments of life beyond all biography; or, in other words, accounts that offer a
fullness of traumatic reality, factionalized evocations of life beyond objective bio-
graphical fact.


Trauma and testimony are intertwined but not wholly compatible; traumatic experi-
ences are experiences that disfigure worldviews and reconfigure the possible, cen-
tering on repeatedly revisited incidents in a process of increasing returns, while testi-
mony creates concrete texts and literal readings. The former points to capricious and
mystifying affective experiences conditioned by belatedness; the later describes con-
crete witnessing that elides its temporality through the repetition of historical
facticity: names, dates, numbers. Testimony's conclusivenessfoundational to dis-
courses of law and historydisguises its conditionality, based as it often is on
trauma's logics of substitution, elaboration, and adaptation. Given the normalizing
and canonizing processes of commemoration outlined in the first half of this essay,
this contradictionconcretized in monuments and chiselled in epigraphsillustrates
the urgent dynamics of trauma in any critique of the witness, be he fraudulent,
factional, or otherwise. The present critique does not forgive the cynical ploys of
the two authors under consideration; but it does examine phenomena underlying im-
portant foundations of the institutions that seem to have inspired the authors, the ad-
vantages the latter aspire to, and, perhaps, the factional nature of trauma to the

Timothy D. Neale is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Cultural Studies at the

University of Melbourne. He has published reviews in the Graduate Journal of Asia-
Pacific Studies and presented papers at university colloquia.