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.