June/July 1998


Binjamin Wilkomirski
Translated from the German by Carol Brown Janeway
Pan Macmillan, 1998, 155pp
ISBN: 0 330 34992 9

review by Ann Skea

So painful and so harrowing are the fragmentary memories Binjamin Wilkomirski reveals in this book that it is hard to recommend that anyone should read it. Yet they should, if only to be reminded of the terrible blackness that hides in the human psyche and which war uncovers in so many seemingly ordinary people.

Binjamin was a tiny child in Krakow when his father was deliberately crushed against a wall by a Latvian militia transport. Binjamin saw this happen and this is part of his earliest memory. Other memories are equally horrific. Of all his family, only the child, Binjamin, survived the death-camps. He learned to trust no-one, especially those who seemed to be nice to him. He learned silence and the guilt of being lucky.

Now, he reconstructs these memory fragments and tells them with the simplicity of a child who understands nothing of the world he must exist in. We see the events through the child's eyes, but with our own knowledge of what was happening at that time. It is not a comfortable experience.

For Wilkomirski, this book is a way of exploring the scraps of memory he has; of regaining his early childhood and, in some sense, setting himself free. It is a way of validating his memories in a world where no-one wants to acknowledge them - a world where he has constantly been told that "children have no memories, children forget quickly, you must forget it, it was just a bad dream". It is a book, also, for others whose memories and experiences are similarly rejected: written so that "They shall know that they are not alone".

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