by Natalie Lampert
OSWIECIM, Poland – After a week of travels that included a meeting with a Holocaust survivor and a visit to the death camp at Auschwitz, our group had to confront an uncomfortable question: do journalists have an obligation to fact-check a Holocaust survivor?
“Every survivor will tell you about his or her own Auschwitz,” Paweł Sawicki, our guide at the German concentration camp, told us the day before. Who are we to question?
Our discussion centered on the case of Binjamin Wilkomirski, a Swiss musician who wrote “Fragments” (“Bruchstücke”), a falsified “memoir” that describes a childhood spent in concentration camps. Published as non-fiction in Germany in 1995, “Fragments” received international acclaim and was compared to the masterpieces of Anne Frank and Primo Levi.
In 1998, however, articles began to surface that questioned the book’s veracity and the author’s claim of surviving the Holocaust. The book’s publisher commissioned Swiss historian Stefan Maechler to fully investigate Wilkomirski’s life, and he eventually determined the book to be one of almost total fabrication.
Maechler exposed Wilkomirski in an investigative report, and used a quote from Jewish-Romanian writer Norman Manea to stress the impact of telling a false story.
“It’s a huge event, the Holocaust, so trivialization, commercialization, false memory and imposters are inevitably going to arise,” Manea wrote. “But one must impose standards.”
The Wilkomirski case reminded us that the Holocaust is not a rhetorical device; the Shoah is not a metaphor. For a reporter to automatically accept a Holocaust survivor’s testimony is to risk going against a journalist’s highest creed: seek the truth. As journalists, it’s our job to represent opposing points of view, challenge authority and above all, ask difficult questions of our sources — and of ourselves.
By mid-morning, our discussion had shifted to a recurring topic: the powerful — and often positive — role emotions play in journalism.
“To understand others, you have to understand what’s important to them,” FASPE journalism faculty member Ari Goldman said in discussing an article on “empathetic objectivity.” Dale Cannon, a former professor of philosophy and religious studies at Western Oregon University, wrote the piece. According to Cannon, empathy begins with understanding the “symbols” of a group other than one’s own. Such symbols include foods, languages, dress, rituals and a group’s understanding of time. What symbols, Ari asked, had we encountered in our travels?
For journalism fellow Matt Beagle, the prayer shawls and cooking pans on display at Auschwitz served as a powerful reminder of how unaware the Jewish prisoners arriving at Auschwitz were about their fate.
“It’s heartbreaking how throughout it all, they tried to maintain a sense of home, community and faith,” Matt said. “The thought of [the Jews] bringing religious and household items, even kosher pots and pans, illustrates the strength of their traditions — and the depth of the deception.”
At the heart of empathetic objectivity is a journalist’s ability to mitigate emotion on the page by relying on rigorous reporting and a vigorous, clear-eyed approach to complex issues. In “The Empathy Exams,” essayist Leslie Jamison characterizes an aspect of this tension: “…but I hear the connective tissue of imagining — how, faced with a tragedy, you want to put the pieces together any way they might fit.”
As our morning session came to a close, several journalism fellows expressed their frustration with the industry’s low standards when it comes to accuracy and fact checking. Fellow Christine Rushton offered an encouraging thought:
“When I look around this room, I see the reporters and editors of the future,” she said. “One day, we’ll be the deciders and we’ll choose the standards of how we live, write and publish by.”
After lunch, the group boarded the bus headed to Kraków. An afternoon thunderstorm arrived the same time we did, and so we raced through the rain from the bus stop to the hotel, suitcases in tow.
Later in the evening, the journalism fellows enjoyed a leisurely dinner at Dynia, an eclectic, cozy restaurant east of the city center. Over pumpkin lemonade and asparagus ice cream, we talked about “windows of vulnerability” and FASPE’s charge for its fellows to step into the shoes of the lawyers, business managers and journalists who perpetrated the Holocaust.
As I glanced around our festive table, Joseph Conrad’s words came to mind: “My task, which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see.”