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Holocaust survivors: are they victims of the false recovered memories syndrome?
Why would any writer make up stories about the Holocaust? Melissa Katsoulis explores the strangest corner in the bizarre world of the literary hoax
Researching a book about literary hoaxes led me to investigate a sub-section of the misery-memoir genre which often left me reeling in amazement: the Holocaust hoaxers. Special privilege must be given to those increasingly few witness-writers who survived the Second World War in Europe, but they have certain duties too.
It is their right to write how and when they want (perhaps many decades later, if they are ready) and, as with Elie Wiesel, with their own definitions of truth and fiction. It was he who said that "Some stories are true that never happened."
However, those memoirists who think that they can pretend they were there when they weren't ought to remember that hijacking the experiences of others for selfish ends will only end in ignominy. Their motivations were, as so often in life and letters, a combination of pain, hope and greed, and they were emboldened by a marketplace in thrall to the misery memoir.
Why the huge demand for such books? Perhaps what readers seek in trauma stories is akin to what people look for in pornography: something edgy they have never seen before, followed by a spectacular resolution. And they want to identify (safely) with what they are reading; to try on someone else's crisis for a while and see how it compares to their own. All these hoaxers had difficult childhoods but, feeling that their truth was shamefully small, they sought the grand signifier of the Holocaust to attract the compassion that they desired.
Misha Defonseca's story began to emerge from her adopted Massachusetts in the mid-1990s and was, like many a hoaxer's tale, one which in retrospect seems ridiculously far-fetched. It also had that great asset of the schmaltzy life-story: the love of a four-legged friend.
She told of crossing the wastes of war-torn Europe as a lonely child and not only being adopted by a pack of friendly wolves, but single-handedly murdering a burly German soldier. She gave inspirational talks about her epic journey, smiled sweetly for the camera at a local wolf sanctuary and eventually published her story in 1997.
Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years was an instant success, embodying the vain hope that belief, endurance (and fluffy animals) could mean something even in the face of Hitler's machine. It was money that brought her down. A falling-out about royalties led her publisher to enlist the help of historians to look into what was beginning to seem like a fishy back-story. When zoologists confirmed that no such wolf-woman love could have existed, and photos appeared of her war-time childhood (smiling, well-fed and out shopping with her grandmother), "Misha" knew the game was up.
Last year she finally confessed, admitting that she was in fact a Belgian Christian whose father's work for the Gestapo left her traumatised by the stigma of being a "traitor's child". She said: "It is not the actual reality – it was my reality, my way of surviving".
Binjamin Wilkomirski, who turned out not to be a Latvian-Jewish orphan but a rather comfortably-off Swiss clarinettist, is the most famous example. His spectacular lies were similarly accounted for by the repentant author. He initially claimed he had escaped to Switzerland after nearly dying in the camps, and in Fragments detailed rats feasting on corpses and Nazis crushing men to death. The book won him a host of literray prizes, but survivors noticed that his descriptions of camp life were unconvincing.
Research revealed him to be a local lad, Bruno Grosjean, fostered during the war after his mother gave him up. In her meticulous exposé in Granta, Elena Lappin concluded that as a child Bruno and his mother might have been indentured labourers, but that he had been conflating this with an imagined ghetto past for so long that he had become a "Man with Two Heads".
His humiliation was complete when it was revealed that one of the girls he claimed to have befriended in the camps, Laura Grabowsky, was a fraud herself – an unhinged American serial-hoaxer who had written not only a fake Holocaust memoir but a phoney one about satanic ritual abuse to boot.
The most recent case is Herman Rosenblat, the twinkly-eyed American pensioner who came forward with a story so magical that it lifted the heart of every cynic in New York. As a young boy in Buchenwald, he said, he strolled daily along the perimeter fence to meet a little girl on the outside. She would toss him a shiny apple and in so doing gave him the hope - and the vitamins - to carry on.
Decades later, as he wrote in Angel at the Fence, which very nearly got published earlier this year, he randomly met a woman in New York who had also fled post-war Europe. As they talked, Herman decided that she must be the apple girl. They went on to fall in love and marry.
When his story came out, via appearances on Oprah, it was easy to debunk: anyone approaching the perimeter fence would immediately have been shot. Rosenblat had been promised a comfortable retirement on the proceeds of his late-flowering career as a memoirist, and his claim that he was only trying to spread a little hope with his story fell on deaf ears.
In fact, he really had been in a sub-camp of Buchenwald and the true story of his and his devoted brothers' survival is far more moving than the one he made up. Only nobody wants to listen to that now.
These three had at least been born in or near the theatre of war. But what would make an Australian born in 1972 fabricate a Holocaust story? The case of Helen Demidenko is the most peculiar of them all. Demidenko - real name Darville - was a right-wing student in Brisbane who in 1993 published The Hand That Signed the Paper, about the wartime experiences of the narrator's Ukrainian father and uncle. However, they were not victims of Nazi violence but the perpetrators, having joined the Einsatzgruppen after being terrorised by Russian-Jewish "commissars".
Florid accounts of their life as merry Jew-hating death squad members flowed enthusiastically from her pen, and when she won the Australian/ Vogel Literary Award she began appearing in Ukrainian national dress and speaking in a funny accent. Her unmasking was aided by the ire of the international Jewish community at her sideline as an anti-Israeli journalist. Interviewing David Irving was not her finest hour.
But unlike the other hoaxers, she remained unrepentant, blithely speaking of the "wog accent" she put on and her annoyance at a politically-correct culture whose prejudices she despised.
Darville's case may not be typical of Holocaust hoaxers, but it fits exactly into the mould of the Australian literary hoax. All of them, even the harmless-sounding Ern Malley poetry hoax, whose victim was a radical Jewish poetry editor despised by the young fogies who made up Ern's oeuvre, are characterised by a combination of racial anxiety and anti-intellectualism.
Darville is more than just a juvenile postscript to the strange canon of the Shoah-fantasists. She would never have committed her distasteful hoax had she not picked up on and wanted to subvert that dangerous concept of the "Holocaust bore".
That idea is perpetuated by people – like Defonseca, Wilkomirski and Rosenblat – whose output contributes to the notion of an unregulated Holocaust "industry", where victimhood is rewarded by money and fame.
Yes, the notion of absolute truth in life-writing is notoriously fraught. But when a writer stands before other survivors and gives as scripture what is stolen from the memories of real witnesses, they can expect little sympathy.
Melissa Katsoulis's 'Telling Tales: a history of literary hoaxes' is published this week by Constable
Eck, Thoftne UW-L Journal of Undergraduate Research XI (2008)
Memory Conformity and Eyewitness Testimony
Michelle Eck, Ashley Thoftne
Faculty Sponsor: Bart A. VanVoorhis, Department of Psychology
False eyewitness testimonies are a problem that affects the lives of many defendants. One of the causes of false testimonies is memory conformity. When one witness discusses his or her memory for a past event with another, that information can distort the memories of other witnesses. The present study examined the effects of gender and group size on memory conformity using a videotaped crime scene. Men (n=31) and women (n=30) separately watched two different versions of the same crime scene. Participants were either in a pair consisting of a man and a woman or in a group of men and women. They discussed the scene and filled out a questionnaire detailing the crime scene. Men showed more memory conformity than women when discussion was in groups, but not in pairs. These results are contrary to findings that women conform more than men in traditional conformity studies.
Experts have estimated that most of the time convicted suspects are found innocent it is due to errant eyewitness testimonies (Wright, Self, & Justice, 2000). False eyewitness testimony is often influenced by the fact that witnesses tend to discuss what they saw with each other. However, errors in perception are common. Discussions of errant information among witnesses can lead to distorted memories of the event (Gabbert, Memon, & Wright, 2006).
Memory distortions can occur during eyewitness testimonies, education, and most everyday reminiscing (Wright, Mathews, & Skagerberg, 2005). However, the impact of faulty or errant memories on defendants is particularly troubling in the U.S. judicial system, because it relies heavily on the prosecution’s need to provide evidence. One well-known case of false eyewitness testimony is the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 (Gabbert, Memon, & Allan, 2003). There were three key eyewitnesses who saw the defendant, Timothy McVeigh, on the day of the bombing at Elliott’s Body Shop renting the truck that he used. The secretary and the owner of the truck rental both indicated that McVeigh was alone. However, one of the mechanics who observed McVeigh renting the truck stated that he saw an accomplice with McVeigh. When the primary witnesses conversed with the mechanic, they too came to believe that there was an accomplice. A nation-wide search for this accomplice, known as “John Doe 2” was launched. The FBI now believes that the mechanic was mixing his memory of McVeigh with a memory of another customer that day that had had somebody with him (Wright, Self, & Justice, 2000).
The distortion of memories of past events due to information from other witnesses is referred to as memory conformity (Gabbert, Memon, & Allan, 2003). Social psychologists posit two major motivations for conformity. An informational motivation to conform occurs when an individual simply has a desire to be correct. Therefore, that individual may believe that what another person tells them is correct, and “adopt” this information as his or her own. Normative motivations to conform occur when an individual wants to appear to be in agreement with others to increase his or her chances of being liked. Research suggests that informational motivations may occur more frequently; however, normative motivations may affect an individual’s ability to encode the original information. In contrast to other conformity research, evidence suggests that in memory situations, the individual is largely unaware that he or she is conforming (Gabbert, Memon, & Wright, 2006). Ultimately, this lack of awareness could have more serious implications than situations where an individual is aware of the fact that he or she conformed in order to be correct or well liked.
The information being shared during memory conformity is referred to as post-event information (PEI) (Wright, Self, & Justice, 2000). In an empirical study of PEI, Wright, Self, and Justice (2000) examined the likelihood that one person’s testimony regarding an event would change another’s. Participants viewed a clip of a crime taking place. The clips were identical except for one half of the participants saw an accomplice with the thief and the other half did not. The researchers found that the first participant’s testimony of what they saw influenced what the other
participant said that they saw. In approximately seventy percent of the pairings, participants changed their decision due to their discussion with their partner.
Gabbert, Memon, and Wright (2006) explored factors that influence memory conformity. Four complex scenes were used as the stimuli. Two versions of the four scenes were created that were the same except for two contradictory details. For example, in Version A of one scene, there were two cups and a plate near the sink, whereas in Version B, there were two cups and a teapot near the sink. All participants saw the pictures individually, did a filler task, discussed what they saw with their partner, and then were asked to write down as many details as they could remember. Both participants conformed to each other’s perspectives; however, the participant who reported second conformed the most. Therefore, the one initiating the conversation was the least likely to conform.
Researchers have speculated about the role of gender in the accuracy of remembering details during an eyewitness testimony. Empirical results have been mixed. Casiere and Ashton (1996) found that women were more accurate than men at remembering information by examining their recall of a four-minute video of a passersby in front of a grocery store. Shaw and Skolnick (1999) found gender differences but only under specific conditions such that men recalled other male behavior better and women recalled other female behavior better when the behavior was stereotypic. Other studies found no differences between men and women (Butts, Mixon, Madhuri, & Bringmann (1995). Eagly and Carli (1981) also found that in group settings, women tend to conform more than men. In addition, because men have more perceived social power than women (Powers & Reiser, 2005), women tend to be more likely to conform to men than are men to women.
Another factor of interest to conformity research is group size. Asch (1955) studies suggest that group conformity increases as the group increases; however, he also found that conformity reaches its peak at three to four people. Asch’s studies utilized confederates who acted the part of a group unanimous in their opinion regarding the correct answer.
The current study explores the role of gender and group size on memory conformity in regard to eyewitness testimony. Our first hypothesis was that women would conform more than men. Our second hypothesis was that participants would conform more in groups than in pairs. Our final hypothesis was that the group that will show the highest conformity is when women are in groups with men.
Interestingly, our results were in the opposite direction than predicted in that men showed more memory conformity than women. Possibly, participants who remember more information are less likely to show memory conformity. Prior research has shown that women remembered more information in a video than men did (Casiere & Ashton, 1996). Therefore, women may have been less likely to conform because they remembered the events in the video better. Further research could measure memory for the event to see if better memory correlated with lower memory conformity.
In addition, according to the study done by Gabbert, Memon, and Wright (2006), participants conformed less when they were the first person to speak. Although we did not specifically measure this phenomenon, it was apparent that women were more likely to initiate conversation. Therefore, future research could examine this trend further.
Our findings suggest that proper precautions should be taken so that witnesses do not discuss their memories with other witnesses. By studying various factors such as the effects of gender and group size on memory conformity, it can further the knowledge needed in our U.S. judicial system so that fewer innocent victims are convicted. Eyewitness testimonies are a very important factor in determining a verdict. Therefore, when information given by such influential sources is incorrect, it could have vast implications. Juries must be informed of the fallibility of witnesses’ memories.
Asch, S. E. (1955). Opinions and social pressure. [Electronic version] Scientific American, 193(5), 31-35.
Butts, S. J., & Mixon, K. D., & Mulekar, M. S., & Bringmann, W. G. (1995). Gender differences in eyewitness testimony. [Electronic version] Perceptual and Motor Skills, 80, 59-63.
Casiere, D. A., & Ashton, N. L. (1996). Eyewitness accuracy and gender. [Electronic version] Perceptual and Motor Skills, 83, 914.
Eagly, A. H., & Carli, L. L. (1981). Sex of researchers and sex-typed communications as determinants of sex differences in influenceability: A meta-analysis of social influence studies. [Electronic version] Psychological Bulletin, 90, 1-20.
Gabbert, F., & Memon, A., & Allan, K. (2003). Memory conformity: Can eyewitnesses influence each other’s memories for an event? [Electronic version] Applied Cognitive Psychology, 17, 533-543.
Gabbert, F., & Memon, A., & Wright, D. B. (2006). Memory conformity: Disentangling the steps toward influence during a discussion. [Electronic version] Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 13(3), 480-485.
Powers, R. S., & Reiser, C. (2005). Gender and self-perceptions of social power. [Electronic version] Social Behavior and Personality, 33(6), 553-568.
Shaw, J. I., & Skolnick, P. (1999). Weapon focus and gender differences in eyewitness accuracy: Arousal versus salience. [Electronic version] Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 29(11), 2328-2341.
Wright, D. B., & Self, G., & Justice, C. (2000). Memory conformity: Exploring misinformation effects when presented by another person. [Electronic version] British Journal of Psychology, 91(2), 189-202.
Eck, Thoftne UW-L Journal of Undergraduate Research XI (2008)
Wright, D. B., & Mathews, S. A., & Skagerberg, E. M. (2005). Social recognition memory: The effect of other people’s responses for previously seen and unseen items. [Electronic version] Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 11(3), 200-209.