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?

MIsha

In 2002, I published a book about a man who called himself Binjamin Wilkomirski, the author of Fragments, an acclaimed but, it turned out, bogus Holocaust memoir. Wilkomirski—his actual name was Bruno Doessekker—used my own family history (my great-grandmother was a Wilkomirski) to concoct a Jewish identity for himself.

While researching the Wilkomirski case, I came across Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years, by Misha Defonseca. Published in 1997, Misha is about a Jewish girl from Brussels who walked across Europe by herself during World War II and spent months living in the forest. Like Fragments, it's the story of a vulnerable child, alone in the world, who travels great distances and faces perils as chilling as they are difficult to verify. Even if you forget for a moment that Defonseca has two prolonged encounters with wolves in war-torn Europe, her story strains credulity: She walks from Belgium to Ukraine, sneaks into and out of the Warsaw Ghetto, and stabs to death a Nazi rapist who attacks her—all between ages 7 and 11.

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Now, 11 years after publishing her memoir and almost two decades since she went public with her story, Defonseca has admitted that she is actually Monique De Wael, the orphaned daughter of two Catholic members of the Belgian resistance. Yesterday, through her lawyer, she released a statement to the Brussels newspaper Le Soir. The story of Misha, she said, "is not actual reality, but was my reality, my way of surviving."

Why did people take her seriously for so long? Raising questions about the authenticity of someone's Holocaust testimony, however implausible it seems, is a joyless task and one that puts you in unsavory company. In this case, however, Misha's story so strained credulity that historian Debórah Dwork ( Children With a Star) and literary scholar Lawrence L. Langer ( Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory) raised questions about the book even before it had been published. Both had been asked to blurb Misha, and both warned the publisher that Defonseca's story was a fantasy.

The book was published anyway, with blurbs from Elie Wiesel and from the head of the North American Wolf Foundation. Press accounts of the book invariably included the caveat that nobody knew whether the story was true, and yet no one had debunked it. When Defonseca's lawyer heard I'd been sniffing around Misha and planned to discuss it in the context of Fragments, she came to New York to try to scare me off the trail. But absent the kind of evidence that unmasked Bruno Doessekker—documents in sealed government archives that allowed for the reconstruction of the author's early years—I couldn't say anything conclusive. Misha Defonseca's story thus hung around for more than a decade, hovering between the two meanings of incredible: amazing and unbelievable. In this suspended state, her story was translated into 18 languages, became the basis of an Italian opera, and, last month, a feature film released in France.

The genesis of Misha is almost as bizarre as the memoir itself. Defonseca, who has lived outside Boston since the mid-'80s, first told the story of Misha at Temple Beth Torah in Holliston in 1989 or 1990. "When Holocaust Memorial Day came around, I asked her if she would speak to the congregation," said Rabbi Joanne Yocheved Heiligman. The memorial service involved the lighting of six candles, Heiligman said. "She asked to light one of them for animals; I thought that was out on a limb but said, 'OK.' And everybody was very moved." Defonseca's intense feelings for animals also led her to commission a two-hour-long video tribute to her dead dog, Jimmy. Jane Daniel, who was doing PR for the studio that assembled the memorial video, also had a small publishing company, and when she heard Defonseca's story, Daniel signed her up to write a memoir. She asked Vera Lee, a French-speaking friend, to be Defonseca's co-author.

In the United States, the story never quite hit the big time. Published by Daniel's Mt. Ivy Press in April 1997, Misha sold only about 5,000 copies here. Disney had an option on the film rights but let it lapse. Oprah taped a segment with the author at a wolf preserve, but it never aired. Vera Lee, who had been fired before the manuscript was finished, filed a breach-of-contract suit. A Massachusetts jury found that Daniel and Mt. Ivy had withheld royalty payments, hidden money in offshore accounts, and failed to market the book. All rights reverted to Defonseca, and in 2002, the judge tripled the damages and told Mt. Ivy to pay Defonseca and Lee $32.4 million. You'd think that an eight-figure judgment against a publisher would have become cocktail chatter among midlist writers, but Mt. Ivy was not exactly Random House—all told, it published a half-dozen books, including such titles as Main Dish Salads and Gigolos.

Misha never became a best-seller in the United States, but Daniel had enlisted Boston's Palmer & Dodge literary agency to sell the foreign rights. In France and Italy, the memoir sold more than 30,000 copies. Survivre Avec les Loups, a feature film based on the memoir by the French-Jewish filmmaker Véra Belmont, opened in January to praise for its red-haired heroine, Mathilde Goffart. (The film hasn't found an American distributor, but here's the trailer.)

When Ha'aretz interviewed Belmont and mentioned historians who doubt Misha's veracity, she said: "That is exactly like the people who deny the existence of concentration camps. This is a true story. Everything that happened during the Holocaust is unbelievable and impossible to grasp." But the film brought Defonseca's story into the realm of popular culture and prompted scrutiny from new corners. Serge Aroles, a French surgeon who has written a book-length study of feral children, called out Defonseca for recycling "the usual surrealist clichés" about children who live with wolves. He challenged her information on the animals (wolf saliva: not an antiseptic) and flagged discrepancies between her story and the history of World War II. And last week, appearing on Belgian television, Maxime Steinberg, a respected historian of the Holocaust in Belgium, challenged Defonseca's claim that she left Brussels in search of her deported parents in the spring of 1941. Deportations of Belgian Jews, he said, did not begin until August of 1942.

Meanwhile, Jane Daniel, having exhausted her appeals, had taken to the Internet to debunk the story that she had helped bring into the world. In August, she launched "Best-Seller," a blog that began as a windy retelling of Daniel's misadventures in publishing Misha. The blog changed course after Sharon Sergeant, a Massachusetts genealogist, stumbled onto it. "I contacted her, and I said, 'I think this case can be solved,' " Sergeant says.

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