Holocaust Memoir Fraud Inspires Novel

Ben Stein's Great Book Challenges Sentimental Link to History


By Joshua Furst

Published October 15, 2012, issue of October 19, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

The Canvas
By Benjamin Stein
Translated by Brian Zumhagen
Open Letter Paper, 342 pages, $16.95

In 1995, a man named Binjamin Wilkomirski published a memoir called “Fragments,” in which he described the horrors of his childhood in Poland during the Holocaust. The book was a big deal. It was heaped with laurels, including the National Jewish Book Award, and was universally hailed as the Holocaust book we’d all hoped and feared we might see one day, the book that revealed (finally and definitively) the true depths of the Third Reich’s merciless and savage wrath toward even the smallest, the weakest among us. Maybe you remember it. If so, you also remember how Wilkomirski was exposed as a fraud.

It turned out that Wilkomirski had been ensconced in Switzerland throughout his childhood. He’d never set foot in Poland until long after the war was over. His name wasn’t Binjamin Wilkomirski, and he wasn’t even Jewish. This was way back when fake memoirs were still scandalous, and, what with the Holocaust content and the awards, you don’t need me to tell you what happened next.

Read post on the Arty Semite blog about the Top 10 Jewish Literary Scandals

The ink of public outrage, not to mention indignation and handwringing — by people with and without a vested interest in the book, its subject and what it might possibly mean that the memory of the Holocaust could be abused for purely capitalistic ends — ran so thick that it blotted out the book itself. And why wouldn’t it? This was troubling stuff that cut right to the spleen of contemporary Jewish identity.

A literary hoax almost identical to the Wilkomirski scandal is at the center of Benjamin Stein’s new novel, “The Canvas” (translated from the German by Brian Zumhagen), but he has no interest in passing judgment yet again on some goy who dared to co-opt our sacred pain. Instead, he wants to poke at and stir up all the troubling stuff the scandal briefly revealed. He understands that the scandal had less to do with the memory of the Holocaust than with the politics of contemporary Judaism, and he views the response to the scandal as a symptom of a larger divide in the Jewish self. This divide is embedded in the very structure of the book.

Although the story revolves around a false memoirist whose details mirror almost exactly those of Wilkomirski — here he’s named Minsky — he is in no way the central character. That role is split between two people whose lives have been altered by Minsky: Jan Weschler, the journalist/novelist who uncovered the hoax, and Amnon Zichroni, the psychoanalyst who first encouraged Minsky to write his memories down on paper. The book is divided evenly between them, and to read each of their stories, one must flip the book over and over again because, as the jacket copy says, the “protagonists… recount their own version of the truth from opposite ends of this book, with their stories leading to the ultimate showdown right in the middle.”

Not incidentally, both these men are Jews, and, as they each tell their stories, they evoke nearly incompatible visions of what being Jewish means.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.