Why did it take so long for a far-fetched Holocaust memoir to be debunked?

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Feb. 29 2008 6:32 PM

Crying Wolf

Why did it take so long for a far-fetched Holocaust memoir to be debunked?

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Most Defonseca doubters had focused on passages that were was logically or historically implausible, but Sergeant assumed the story was false and instead scoured the various versions of the text for clues to the author's real identity. The American edition mentions the name Monique De Wael; the U.K. edition includes a date of birth—May 12, 1937—and the fact that Misha's father worked at the town hall. Sergeant plugged these data points into genealogical databases and found researchers in Belgium to help look for information.

Last week, Daniel posted a baptismal certificate from a Brussels church for a Monique De Wael, born to Robert De Wael and Josephine Donvil on May 12, 1937. She also posted a register from an elementary school near the De Waels' home that shows Monique enrolled there in September 1943—two years after Misha claimed to have left Brussels. In the school register, Robert De Wael is identified as a municipal employee. The Belgian newspaper Le Soir reported these developments and added that Monique's parents—Catholic resisters—had been arrested, deported, and killed.

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In the face of this mounting evidence, Defonseca confessed. In a statement released through a Brussels attorney, she tries to head off the questions that swirled around Bruno Doessekker: whether her alter ego was a delusion or a conscious scam for which she may bear legal liability. In her statement, Defonseca continues to paint herself as a victim:

My parents were arrested when I was four. I was taken in by my grandfather, Ernest De Wael, then by my uncle, Maurice De Wael. They called me "the traitor's daughter" because my father was suspected of talking under torture at St. Gilles Prison. Other than my grandfather, I hated those who took me in. They treated me badly.

Defonseca also claims she was the victim of her publisher. "At first, I didn't want to publish, and then I let myself be talked into it by Jane Daniel. She made me believe, and I believed it." Daniel may have persuaded Defonseca to publish Misha, but Rabbi Heiligman says that the core of Defonseca's story did not change since the first time she told her story, years before Defonseca met Daniel. And Daniel had no hand in the U.K. edition or Véra Belmont's film.

Defonseca is no innocent, but she could not have made Misha into an international phenomenon on her own. When the historian Debórah Dwork told Daniel that Misha was not authentic testimony, that didn't stop Daniel from publishing the book. Nor did these questions keep Véra Belmont from making her film and comparing those who dared question its authenticity to Holocaust deniers.

Since Defonseca came clean, Rabbi Heiligman told me, "I wish she had published it as fiction—it's a compelling story." And a spokesman for Belmont told the Boston Globe, "No matter if it's true or not—she believes it is, anyway—she just thinks it's a beautiful story." In her statement, Defonseca says,

I always felt different. It's true that, since forever, I felt Jewish and later in life could come to terms with myself by being welcomed by part of this community.

Defonseca has suffered greatly at the hands of the Nazis. But her empathy with Jewish suffering went too far, and "feeling Jewish" does not give her license for such narcissistic disregard for the suffering of actual Jews. For others to continue telling the story of Misha, especially now that she acknowledges it's a fable, is an affront to those authentic Holocaust survivors with sad but not otherworldly stories, to the memory of those who did not live to document their own fate, and to those who take the study of history seriously.

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