Survivors memories underline S.F. service

Wilkomirski, now a professional clarinetist and instrument maker living in Switzerland, began his presentation by playing two wistful pieces that captured the mingled mourning and hope of Holocaust remembrance.

Wilkomirski's "Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood" won the 1996 Jewish Book award for autobiography and memoir.

He was in the Bay Area to speak at Emanu-El and also to give a talk at the College of Notre Dame.

Now 59, the musician was only a toddler when the roundups of Jews in his native Latvia began. As the audience listened in rapt attention, Wilkomirski told of how during those roundups, he witnessed his father's brutal murder by Latvian militia.

Soon he found himself alone, hidden in a Polish farmhouse cellar. Found by SS officers, he was transported to Majdanek death camp, without even his trusted older brother Motti for protection.

Although his young life was perpetually threatened by hunger, cold and physical and psychological torture, Wilkomirski explained that he had no sense of a world beyond the barracks or free from pain.

"We accepted everything that happened as normal," he explained in a heavy accent. "We didn't complain."

When he was rescued years later and delivered to a Swiss orphanage, he still suffered from the fear and despair that had become his very identity. His foster parents and schoolteachers told him that it was only a nightmare; he should forget the war and never speak about what he had seen.

Yet, as Wilkomirski told the audience, this request was both impossible and stifling. Without understanding the legacy of the Holocaust, in which 1.5 million children under 12 years old perished, he could not hope to heal. Instead, he began a lifelong search for truth that resulted in "Fragments," a heartbreaking testament to the atrocities of war and the healing power of memory.

To create the book, Wilkomirski tracked down other child survivors, tapping their memories and working with both psychotherapists and historians to piece together an accurate order of the events of his life. This process not only aided his recovery, but has introduced a model of interdisciplinary therapy for child survivors everywhere.

Wilkomirski said the lessons he learned can be applied to youngsters who have suffered through similar traumas. "We must listen to children. What they say may not correspond to the logic of adults, but that doesn't mean it's wrong. Later, when they understand it, they can translate it into an adult's language."

The event was co-sponsored by Emanu-El, The Holocaust Center of Northern California and The Bay Area Discovery Museum, as one of many public programs centered around their exhibit, "Remember the Children: Daniel's Story." Daniel's Story runs at the Herbst International Exhibition Hall through July. Information: (415) 561-5065.