A Child of the Camps Putting memories into words helped release him from their fearful grasp

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK -- His name, he believes, is Binjamin Wilkomirski and his age, he thinks, is about 56.

He does not know who his mother and father were, although he thinks the man he saw crushed to death more than 50 years ago by a Latvian militia truck may have been his father.

And the two boys he knew then as Danny and Motti, they were, he believes, his brothers. He does not know if they are dead or alive or if he had other siblings.

Even now, Binjamin Wilkomirski, a concert musician who lives in Switzerland, knows with certainty few facts about the first decade of his life. With one exception: He is a Jew who at about age 3 was taken to a Nazi concentration camp on the Polish-Ukrainian border; and it was there, in a camp with the musical, lilting name of Majdanek, that the young child formed his view of the world.

Of course, it was a child's-eye view of a nightmare world seen without comprehension or context by a helpless, parentless toddler. Starvation, pain, terror, filth and death: This was the world of 3-year-old Binjamin.

Historians estimate that 360,000 people died in the Majdanek concentration camp; and that there were no survivors from Sector 5, the barracks that housed women and children. Some children, however escaped death by being smuggled out of Sector 5 and into another barracks. Some children, and Binjamin was one of them, left the camps alive.

But that does not mean those who survived left the camps behind.

Half-a-century has passed since Majdanek and, later, Birkenau camp, but Binjamin Wilkomirski, the man, cannot shake the memories of the child who did not know his name and could not speak. Words, in such a situation, were useless. They had no power to turn away such horror or to accurately record it. Still, the memories are stored in his mind; an airtight photographic archive of nightmares to be viewed only in fragments.

"I have mainly visual memories, like film, like pictures," says the soft-spoken Wilkomirski, who still bears on his forehead the scar from being thrown into a wall by a camp guard. "But I cannot always interpret the pictures. Because, you know, as a child, I didn't understand what happened. I just saw things. I did not understand the meaning. I had not this kind of adult or older children's filter where you can, with your intellect already select what you want to take in and where do you want to turn your head aside."

He has recorded his childhood experiences in a memoir, "Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood." It is a deceptively simple title which in no way prepares the reader for the power of the writing nor the pain of a child thrust without warning into the middle of madness.

"I'm not a poet or a writer," Wilkomirski writes near the beginning of his slim book. "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 on to it; with no benefit of perspective or vanishing point. ... If I'm going to write about it, I have to give up the ... logic of grown-ups."

Because his fragments of memory are told in a child's voice, there is a purity, a terrible purity, about all that he recounts: the starving babies who devour the flesh from their own fingers; the sadistic guard who plays kickball with the children and then suddenly smashes the heavy, wooden ball into the skull of a small child, who dies instantly; the night he was made to stay in the dog kennels, among the rats and lice and beetles that crawled into his clothes.

He understood none of this: why such things were being done to him, where he was, who the guards were, what it all meant.

Through a child's eyes

Last week, Wilkomerski's memoir won a National Jewish Book Award. "The judges were overwhelmed by his book," says Carolyn Starman Hessel, executive director of the Jewish Book Council. "It was different than the others read because it is told in the voice of a child."

Deborah Dwork, a professor of Holocaust history at Clark University, calls Wilkomirski's story "a miracle within a miracle. There are few child survivors of the death camps. Only a tiny number survived. When children arrived there, simply the fact of their age meant they were sent to death."

In New York to accept his award, Binjamin Wilkomirski, a gentle, sweet-faced man, speaks haltingly about his experiences as a child in the camps and later, after the war at about the age of 7, in orphanages and then in a foster home in Switzerland.

Life after the camps was tumultuous and confusing for young Binjamin whose name, suddenly, became "Bruno." He did not understand the languages spoken nor the concept of having shoes to wear and enough food to eat. Taunted and shunned, he found himself almost yearning for the familiarity of the camps.

"I knew nothing else," Wilkomirski says, almost apologetically. "It was for me the normality. Because I had no memory of a time before with parents. I don't now. So I thought, that's the world. And I thought the world ended at the fence of the camps. ... New children would come and say their houses were destroyed, their sisters and brothers dead. So I thought the world was gone. That nothing else existed on earth. That was my view as a little child."

He sighs and smiles and is silent. He is a small man with fair hair that circles his head like a nimbus. He speaks in a voice whose accent is hard to place. German, perhaps, but German as the Swiss speak it. His hands are a musician's hands; his fingers elegant and long, stretched out from decades of clarinet playing. Behind his glasses, his eyes sometimes fill with unshed tears. At such times he often glances over at his companion of 14 years, Verena Piller, who has accompanied him to New York.

Silence. A few tears spill out of his eyes. He wipes them away with his hand. The sound of taxi horns and people's voices drift up from Lexington Avenue and spill through the open window of his hotel room. Then he continues:

"Later in Switzerland was when I realized others had different memories, a peaceful life. And then I started to think, 'Why did something so strange happen to me?' "

No talk of the past

His foster parents in Switzerland were Gentile, in their 60s and very old-fashioned, he says. Cold and formal people, they wanted a child who would carry on the father's family tradition of medicine. They refused to speak to him about his past.

"Sometimes I tried to speak to them about it," Wilkomirski says. "And they always said, 'You have to forget. It was only a dream. It didn't happen.' Sometimes I exploded. I thought, 'I cannot forget what I know.' "

Then one day when he was about 11, he saw a newspaper with pictures of buildings destroyed by the war. "I saw pictures of barbed wire," he recalls. "And I started to scream at my foster mother and father, 'Look. That's the place I come from. Tell me, where was it?' And then she started to say the familiar things: You have to forget it; it's only a dream. But I didn't stop screaming until finally my foster mother said, 'I will tell you. The place you come from is so horrible that no one is allowed to talk about it.' "

He shrugs and sighs. "This gave me the feeling that maybe I was so bad that nobody must know. So I started myself to feel this difference. I felt dirty. No matter how much I washed myself I felt I stank compared to other children. And I was very afraid that if the wrong people know, they will send me back."

Fearful and unable to speak of his past, young Binjamin kept secret the terrible emotions and nightmares. He lived in a world of distorted reality -- the flames he sees in his foster family's coal furnace are like the gas ovens of the camps; the wooden shelves in the cellar filled with apples like the wooden bunks in the Sector 5 barracks. He lived alone in this strange world, unable to speak the words that might help him, unable to find the listener who might understand.

At about the age of 13 he found a way to express himself: Through music. When it was discovered that Binjamin had talent, he began his formal study of music. But even there, his past intruded. "My foster parents wanted me to play piano," he says. "But I was very, very afraid of this big, black piano." He doesn't know why. Then a schoolmate lent him an old clarinet. He has played clarinet since.

By late adolescence, however, Binjamin had become a very angry young man. "I got very aggressive," he says. "Just before high school there was one boy who always made fun of me. ... He was a rather fat guy and he had a smile -- a terrible smile. And I thought: 'I know this smile. Somebody who smiles like that kills.'

"Then I exploded and started hitting him. I almost killed him. There was a big scandal at school. It was terrible. And suddenly I felt that I myself could be able to kill somebody. It was really frightening ... I had moments where I thought, 'One day I will take revenge on the whole world for what happened.' " "

Instead, he turned to his clarinet and his studies, eventually attending the music conservatory at the University of Geneva.

"He has a very special way of making music," says Verena Piller, a classical contralto who lives and sometimes performs with him in their studio outside Zurich. "You asked before how he survived, what he did with those emotions. And I think he saved the emotions by making music where he could express himself without words. There is an intensity in his music. He gives everything."

"Music for me was like a sort of self-defense," Wilkomirski says. "I had no audience for words. When I tried to talk the normal reaction was 'You're crazy.' But in the music, without words, I had my audience. Nobody could stop me from telling things."

Still, Binjamin Wilkomirski found his first true listener in Verena. When they met, he was ill with leukemia and a tumor disease. He was preparing to die. She had known him slightly in Zurich years before and now the relationship bloomed.

"It was a difficult time," says Wilkomirski. "There were many, many operations. At that time, when I met Verena, I gave up. I had no hope anymore to survive this illness. But Verena didn't give up. And thanks to her I survived that."

His story spills out

Slowly he began to tell Verena about his early life. "He told me first the story about getting a piece of bread in the barracks from a woman who may have been his mother.

Wilkomirski writes of his surreal encounter with this woman who, the young boy was told by a guard, was his mother:

I bit my lips so as not to cry out. I looked unblinkingly into a face that looked back at me with huge eyes. Was this my mother? ... Now I could see the face more clearly, it was shiny and wet, and I saw that it was crying. Without saying a word she reached out her hand to me and indicated that I should take what she had brought out from under the straw. For a single moment I touched her hand -- it felt hot and damp. I took the object, clutched it against me and went toward the door.

Only later did Binjamin realize her gift to him was a piece of hardened bread. He believes it was this woman who arranged for him to be smuggled out of Sector 5 and into another barracks, an act which probably saved his life.

After hearing this story, Verena realized there must be many other "terrible stories" that Binjamin was holding in. Gradually, she persuaded him to talk about those stories -- not only to her but to close friends. "His fear was that if people knew all these terrible stories, they wouldn't want to have anything to do with him," she says."

Eventually she also persuaded him to enter therapy. "He was having nightmares all the time. And I told him it was important to speak about these dreams with someone and maybe to work with them."

For the last four years he has been seeing a therapist, "a woman who had a lot of experience already in traumatized children ... and who knew you had to take a child's memory seriously."

Reliving the memories, he says, has been very painful but helped him take the next step: Putting his experiences into words on paper.

The book, he says, was not written with the intention to publish. "It was written to order all my memories; and it was written to give to my children who do not know my story," he says, referring to his three adult children from an early marriage.

"I think he went through a tremendous internal struggle writing this book," says editor Carol Brown Janeway who worked closely with Wilkomirski on the book's translation from German into English. "I realized when I started working with Binjamin that if this is what you went through and this is what shaped your mind in childhood, you do not want to put things into words -- because it may be safer to let them remain inchoate."

Binjamin Wilkomirski continues to search for his past. He spends much of his time studying history and the Holocaust -- he prefers the Hebrew term Shoah -- trying to fit together the larger picture with his own personal history. His search has led him back to the Wilkomirski family who lived in Riga in 1927. They were engravers whom he believes may be his grandparents.

Possibilities, not facts, remain the foundation upon which Binjamin Wilkomirski builds his life.

Has he healed?

And what about the possibility of healing? he is asked. Is it possible to go through what he has gone through and heal?

A look of pain crosses his face. He bows his head and falls silent for a long time. There is no sound in the room except the sound of some inner pain that threatens to find a voice and cry out. Instead, he wipes a tear from his eye.

"No," he answers finally. "I can't remember a day I didn't think about what happened. But I feel more secure in my situation now because I am less frightened. Now there are more people who understand." As he says this, he lifts his head and shoots a long glance in the direction of Verena.

He is asked to play the clarinet. "I will play a child's song," he says sweetly, picking up his clarinet.

Then for a few moments he speaks, not in words but in music; speaks of his life, of all that he feels, of all that he knows and all that he will never know.

And for a brief space of time, it feels as though they are reunited: the child of the camps and the man he inhabits.

Book signing

Who: Binjamin Wilkomirski

What: A reading and signing of "Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood"

When: 7:30 tonight

Where: Bibelot, Woodholme Shopping Center, Pikeville

Pub Date: 12/12/96

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