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

December 12, 1996|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,SUN STAFF

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.

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