Psychology and the Credibility of Autobiographical Memory

        Stephanie Berger

The construction of autobiographical memory is an essential part of the human memory capacity that psychologists have been studying for many years. Young children as well as adults have the ability to remember and create an autobiographical script. However, according to researchers in the field of psychology, the memories of children are fundamentally different from that of adults. Binjamin Wilkomirski writes his book Fragments as a biographical account of his own experiences as a child during the Holocaust. In his afterword he writes that he was often told that children have no memories, and therefore he withheld his own story for many years. His story was published in the midst of much criticism, and Stephen Machler goes so far as to say that the experiences in the book do not belong to Wilkomirski. How does Wikomiski’s use of the construct of memory affect the credibility of his text? Does his account need to be logical and ordered in order to be considered legitimate?

Memory is one of the most complex yet most basic functions of the human brain. Memory involves multiple systems that act in coordination with one another in order to encode, consolidate, store, and retrieve information. People have memory for facts, specific events, and episodes of their own lives. Babies have memory too. They remember faces and actions. However, most adults do not report a conscious autobiographical memory until about age three, a phenomenon called infantile amnesia. Psychologists use this as evidence that children have qualitatively different kinds of memory representations that are somehow not accessible during adulthood. Children do not employ the same strategies for remembering that adults do, such as rehearsal or resource allocation. Children are highly vulnerable to alterations in their memory, especially memory for traumatic events, as has been made evident by the dilemma of presenting child testimony in court. Children do not have the same ability as adults to think metacognitively in order to distinguish between what they actually experienced and what they only thought about. Because adults are better metacognitive monitors of their own thoughts, they are less likely to be misled by questions during the recall of their memories. Children do not have good source memory and do not remember where or from whom they obtained certain information. Overall, our autobiographical memory tends to give the gist of what we experience, not the details. This is especially true during childhood and memories need to be reconstructed in order to be retold or written down. This reconstruction often involves some amount of distortion (Goswami 251-293).

For the purpose of this paper, I assume that the experiences presented by Wilkomirsky are legitimately his own. Wilkomirski’s manner in his use of memory in his writing influences the reader’s view of his work as credible or not. Wilkomirski does not give a formal preface or introduction to his work or any statement about its truthfulness. The reader begins with no information on how to interpret the story. In the first sentence the reader learns that the story is being written in the first person. Throughout the book, none of the characters address the protagonist by name, leaving the reader questioning who this young boy is. Is he the paradigmatic orphaned boy of the Holocaust or is he Binjamin Wilkomirski?  I, like many other readers and literary critics, assume that Wilkomirsky is telling his own story.

Wilkomirski begins Fragments with a discussion of his native language. He opens with the disclaimer that, “I have no mother tongue, nor a father tongue either. My language has its roots in the Yiddish of my eldest brother Mordechai, overlaid with the Babel-babble of an assortment of children’s barracks in the Nazi’s death camps in Poland” (377). Psychologists have linked autobiographical memory to language ability. This is one of the rationales that have been used to explain infantile amnesia. By stating that he has no native language, Wilkomirski immediately removes some amount of credibility from his own story. Without language, autobiographical memories are rare, and therefore the story that he is telling may not be his own. By admitting that he has no native language, Wilkomirski also gives some hint as to his age, although this is never explicitly mentioned in the early part of the story. The reader is left to assume that the story begins when he is around two or three years old, when a normal child would develop language. In this passage, Wilkomirski also references the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, when humanity tried to build a tower that would reach the heavens. During this time period, all people spoke the same language. God did not like the people’s intention in building the tower, so He made them all speak different languages. The people were no longer able to work together and were forced to stop building the tower and go their separate ways (JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh, Genesis. 11.1-10). Wilkomirski likens his own language experience to that of the confusion of the people of the Tower of Babel. It is a fitting reference as the name Babel is play on words both in English  (babble) and in Hebrew (balbal, which means confused).

Wilkomirski continues his opening with a confrontation of how ineradicable his childhood memories are.

My early childhood memories are planted, first and foremost, in exact snapshots of my photographic memory and in the feelings imprinted in them, and the physical sensations. Then comes memory of being able to hear, and things I heard, then things I thought, and last of all, memory of things I said (377).

The progression of the things that he remembers follows the pattern of development of language in a child. Children can hear even before they are born. As infants develop, they become aware of their own thought processes, and only later as older toddlers can they attribute a source to their memory. Wilkomirski also touches on the different aspects of memory. Memory for facts, declarative memory, is different from memory for routines, procedural memory. Both of these types of memory are different from autobiographical memory. What then is he remembering? Is he remembering things that he was told about from other people or things that he actually experienced? It is possible that he did not remember the events of his life on his own, but rather that someone close to him told him what happened in enough detail that he believed that the story is actually his own memory. This happens often with childhood memories, especially at such a young age. A person may think that they remember something, but in reality they only remember it because someone else told them about it (Goswami 251-293).

Two paragraphs later, Wilkomirski changes his own conception of his early memories. Now his memories

are a rubble field of isolated images and events. Shards of memory with hard knife-sharp edges, which still cut flesh if touched today. Mostly a chaotic jumble, with very little chronological fit; shards that keep surfacing against the orderly grain of grown-up life and escaping the laws of logic (377).

This back and forth that Wilkomirski uses is troubling for the reader. Are his memories planted in his mind like photographs, or are they confused and intermittent? It is difficult to think of photographs as shards. While photographs can be disturbing, they do not “cut flesh” with “knife-sharp edges.” The reader can only assume that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Some of the events may be photographs, the ones that are regular and mundane and are more difficult for him to remember precisely because they are less salient. Other events may be like shards in his mind. They are the most salient ones, the events that are beyond what a person can imagine is normal or humane. No matter how many times he thinks about them, they still shake him up and are incomprehensible.

The concepts of order and time are often things that children have difficulty with. Children do not have the same concept of time that adults have. They do not yet have the same notions of minutes or hours or even years. Children have trouble waiting their turn or giving up a toy when it is someone else’s turn. For Wilkomirski, turning his story into an ordered logical one would not be possible as he tells the reader clearly: “If I’m going to write about it, I have to give up on the ordering logic of grown-ups; it would only distort what happened” (378). The events that he experienced have no logical order. There is no logical reason why he survived and others did not. Yet as he notes a few sentences later, “…we’re alive. We’re the living contradiction to logic and order” (378). The Nazis had a seemingly logical reason for everything that they did, but even their logic and order failed and people survived. Since these events took place during his childhood, even if there was an order or logic to them, it has eluded him. Now, as an adult, Wilkomirski probably recognizes the presence and importance of order, but he must remove himself from it to convey the thoughts and feelings of his youth. Stirring up controversial sentiments may also be Wilkomirski’s way of telling the world that the Holocaust had no order, rhyme, or reason.

In the last paragraph of this section Wilkomirski addresses his own capability as a writer. “I’m not a poet or a writer.” He confesses. “I can only try to use words to draw as exactly as possible what happened, what I saw; exactly the way my child’s memory has held onto it; with no benefit of perspective or vanishing point” (378). Wilkomirski’s choice of wording here is interesting. He first says that he will tell exactly what happened, as best as he can. Then, within the same sentence he amends his statement to say that he can only tell his story through his memories from when he was a child. Although he does not want to admit it to the reader, he still leaves the readers with the possibility that his childhood memories have been distorted. It is with this admission of his own capability as a writer that Wilkomirski leaves the discussion of his own memory and language and delves into the body of his story.

Authors, scholars, and critics of Holocaust Literature have long debated the questions of who should be allowed to write about the Holocaust and what should be written. Both Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel are survivors who have written about their experiences and gained extreme credibility. Both of these authors include prefaces to their writing in which they discuss their own experiences and their call to bear witness. Does the mere fact that Wilkomirski has no such preface make his work questionable and unfit for publishing? Wlkomisrki closes his afterword by explaining why he wrote his story. He says, “I wrote these fragments of memory to explore both myself and my earliest childhood…And I wrote them with the hope that perhaps other people would find the necessary support and strength to cry out their own traumatic childhood memories…” (496). He does not, however, discuss the same call to witness as a survivor of the Holocaust as Levi and Wiesel do and he even shies away from using the term Holocaust.

Michael Andre Bernstein discusses the issue of narrating the Holocaust in a chapter in his book, Foregone Conclusions, Against Apocalyptic History. He discusses the idea of a new 614th commandment, the commandment that Jews are not allowed to give Hitler another victory posthumously (44). This is the premise for his discussion about whom he feels should be allowed to write and what should be written. Bernstein strongly advocates that anyone is welcome to write about the Holocaust. He explains that,

since the generation of survivors will soon die out, to prohibit anyone who was not actually caught in the Shoah from representing it risks consigning the events to a certain kind of oblivion interrupted only occasionally by the recitation of voices from an increasingly distant past. Any tribal story, if it is to survive as a living part of communal memory, needs regularly to be retold and reinterpreted. To keep silent would be still worse than a necessarily denaturing, because too ‘composed’ speech, since it was precisely with the permanent silence to universal disbelief that the SS used to taunt the Jews in the camps – if any prisoner were to survive, the Nazis boasted, no one would believe their account (45).

According to Bernstein, any story that is part of a collective memory must be continually retold. We find that writers today continue to write about many periods from our historical past including events that happened hundreds of years ago. If writers were to stop writing about these events, the people would become distanced from them and would not be able to connect to then. After enough time, the events would be lost from the collective memory. Therefore, even if Wilkomirski’s story is not one hundred percent factual, it is an important piece of writing because it is his interpretation. Silence, even in writing, is exactly what the Nazis espoused.

            While Bernstein does not directly speak about Fragments, a number of his observations and arguments about Holocaust writers validate and give credibility to Wilkomisrki’s writing. The fragmented nature of Wiklomirski’s writing causes readers to question it, but Bernstein says that this element actually makes his work more believable

since one of the Nazi mechanisms of controlling the prisoners depended on isolating each of them as much and for as long as possible to keep them ignorant of the full scale of their predicament, the testimony of any single survivor, no matter how vivid and thoughtful, will be fragmentary and in need of supplementation from other sources and narratives (46).

Wilkomirski’s work may actually be more believable thanks to Bernstein’s opinion on this matter. The fact that his work is so fragmented, especially since he was a child at the time, brings to light some of the fundamentals of the tactics that the Nazis used in order to deceive the people during the war. A few pages later Bernstein furthers this claim and the credibility of Wilkomirski’s work when he says that

All of the writers of the Shoah speak of its incomprehensibility and basic incommunicability; in fact, though, accounts of the Shoah, even more strictly than narratives of less extreme events, rely on the witness and his listener sharing the same code of values and explanatory models of individual and social behavior in order to render convincing the assertion that something ‘incommunicable’ has been experienced. There is, in other words, no single order of memorable testimony, no transparent paradigm of representation, that can address the different narrative needs of all those gripped by the subject (50).

            Wilkomiski’s work is a unique piece of literature within the genre of Holocaust literature. His work is emotionally laden and controversial. These two aspects of his work force the reader to both question and accept his work at the same time. This is a difficult task for any reader. Even the most skilled, knowledgeable, and critical reader may become polarized to either complete acceptance or complete rejection of his writing. Stefan Maechler’s illumination of Wilkomisrki’s possible alter ego, Bruno Grosjean, only furthers the reader’s rejection of the text. His work cannot be read as a factual history text, or a work of fiction. It is a memoir, and one that has been reconstructed precisely because the events described may one day come to elude him if he does not put them into writing. The event described is unfathomable to most of today’s readers. Who is the reader to judge his experience without having been present himself? But no matter how much the reader is led to disbelieve Wilkomiski, his story is an important link between the survivors of the past and the readers of the future. It is another link in the chain of collective memory that acts merely as a single step in fulfilling the 614th commandment to not give Hitler another posthumous victory, to never forget.

Works Cited

Bernstein, Michael Andre. "Narrating the Shoah." Foregone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History. Berkeley: University of California P, 1994. 42-73.

Goswami, Usha. "The Development of Memory." Cognitive Development: The Learning Brain. New York: Psychology P, 2008. 251-93.

JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh. Gen. 11.1-11.10. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2003. 19.

Wilkomiski, Binjamin. Fragments. The Wilkomirski Affair: A Study in Biographical Truth. By Stefan Maechler. New York: Schocken, 2001.