Misha Defonseca: A new addition to the Bogus Holocaust Memoirists Hall of Shame
Don't you just love it when your timing is spot-on?
Today I was skimming through some of my notes on suspected literary frauds. These are cases that set off all my B.S. bells, but I can't prove they're bogus: The works usually don't contain enough information to make them debunkable, or the authors salt them with just enough fact to make them believable.
One such case was Misha Defonseca, a Belgian Holocaust survivor whose ghostwritten memoir, Surviving with Wolves (1997) described her nightmarish yet miraculous survival in Nazi-occupied Europe. When her parents were sent to the camps in 1941, 8-year-old Misha was left in the care of a Catholic family that mistreated her. Rather than stay with them, she walked nearly 3000 miles across Belgium, Poland, Germany, France, and Italy to find her parents. On her trek, she was adopted by a pack of wolves; they shared rabbits with her, protected her, and allowed her to look after their pups while they hunted. Because of this experience, Misha is able to communicate with wolves even as an adult.
Misha also had a love affair at age 9 and knifed an SS officer to death at age 10. In 1945, after four years of wandering Europe alone, Misha was discovered and reunited with her grandfather. Both of her parents had been killed in the camps.
Misha's friend and neighbor in Massachusetts, where Misha and her late husband had moved in 1988, was so intrigued by Misha's tale that she offered to ghost-write a book about it and arrange for its publication by Mt. Ivy Press, a small publishing house owned by friend Jane Daniels.
Misha's book became a bestseller in France and Italy, receiving warm reviews and recommendations from the late Leonard P. Zakim, New England Anti-Defamation League director; journalist/historian Padraig O'Malley; and Elie Wiesel. Walt Disney optioned the rights to the story, and Oprah expressed interest in featuring Misha on her show.
In 2001, Defonseca and her ghostwriter, Vera Lee, were awarded a $32 million in damages as a result of their 1998 lawsuit against their publisher. A judge found that that Jane Daniel had, indeed, misrepesented the resources of Mt. Ivy Press and failed to properly market the book overseas as promised. Most significantly, she had withheld overseas royalties from Defonseca and Lee. Defonseca lost her home as a result of the financial misdeeds.
An appeals court upheld the verdict in 2005.
This legal trouble prevented Disney from turning Surviving with Wolves into a feature film, but
French filmmaker Vera Belmont's film Survivre avec des loups opened in Belgium late last year.
So I wondered, what is Misha the Wolf Lady up to these days? Is she still pulling in $10,000 speaker's fees at Dartmouth?
Well, not quite. On February 29th, after doubts about Misha's background were raised by genealogical researcher Sharon Sergeant, she confessed that she did not walk across Europe and never lived among wolves. She's not even Jewish. Her real name is Monique De Wael. Her parents were Catholic members of the Belgian Resistance movement, and they did die in the camps - when Monique was four years old. She remained safely with her grandfather and uncle in Brussels throughout the war.
In a statement issued through her lawyer in Belgium, Monique explained, "Ever since I can remember, I felt Jewish. . . . There are times when I find it difficult to differentiate between reality and my inner world. The story in the book is mine. It is not the actual reality - it was my reality, my way of surviving. At first, I did not want to publish it, but then I was convinced by Jane Daniel. I ask forgiveness from all those who feel betrayed."
"Misha" now officially joins the ranks of the Bogus Holocaust Memoirists Hall of Shame:
- In 2004 the University of Western Australia Press published Stolen Soul, the Holocaust memoir of a 69-year-old mining camp cook named Bernard Holstein. Holstein told heart-rending stories of being experimented upon by Nazi scientists, living with wolves, joining the Resistance, and travelling to Australia as an orphan. Holstein lacked a German accent, but his arm bore a number tattoo. His publisher, Judy Shorrock, had no doubts about his story until she received a phone call from Bernard's brother. Bernard was really Bernard Brougham, son of a Catholic family from New South Wales; he had never been to Europe.
- Binjamin Wilkomirski's 1994 memoir Fragments described his experiences in a Polish concentration camp at age 4. A Swiss historian later uncovered documents showing that Wilkomirksi spent the duration of the war in Switzerland.
- Bizarrely, Wilkomirski's internment in Auschwitz-Birkenau had been corroroborated by a fellow survivor named Laura Grabowski - who turned out to be Laurel Rose Wilson, AKA Lauren Stratford, author of a memoir about horrific ritual abuse suffered at the hand of her adoptive mother's Satanic cult. Satan's Underground had been thoroughly discredited by Cornerstone magazine, and it was clear that Laurel Wilson had spent her entire childhood in Washington state with her Christian adoptive parents.
- Under the alias Helen Demidenko, Australian columnist Helen Dale wrote the novel The Hand That Signed the Paper (1994). It related events of the Holocaust in the Ukraine, which Demidenko claimed to have drawn from the experiences of her Ukrainian family. Indignation erupted when Dale was revealed to be British. Despite the controversy, The Hand That Signed the Paper won the Vogel Award for a first novel in 1994 and Australia's most prestigious literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award, a year later.
- Jerzy Kosinski initially claimed that his novel The Painted Bird was a thinly fictionalized account of his own boyhood experiences. It follows the horrific travails of a young child forced to fend for himself in WWII Poland, hiding from the Nazis, travelling from village to village. He witnesses terrible acts of cruelty inflicted by these villagers upon each other, and falls victim to their violence many times. In reality, Kosinski had spent the war in the care of a Catholic family. Other accusations of plagiarism and deception were periodically leveled against Kosinksi until his suicide in 1991, including allegations that The Painted Bird was not originally written in English, as Kosinksi claimed, but in Polish.
- In the summer of 1941 a book titled My Sister and I became a best-seller in the U.S. It was supposedly the diary of a 12-year-old Dutch boy, Dirk van der Heide, who survived the German invasion of Rotterdam. His mother had been killed by a Luftwaffee bomb and his dad was in the Army, so Kirk and his little sister Keetje made their way to England on their own and ultimately fled to America. In his book Witness to War, Richard Aldrich claims that My Sister and I was an elaborate piece of propaganda created by the Briish secre services, designed to help draw the U.S. into the war.
On the other side of the coin, Holocaust deniers have cast aspersion on many legitimate memoirs, including Olga Lengyl's Five Chimneys, Miklos Nyiszli's Doctor at Auschwitz, Martin Gray's For Those I Loved, and even the Diary of Anne Frank. They point to small inaccuracies or inconsistencies in these books as evidence that they were entirely fabricated, or opine that some of the authors' stories are simply too outlandish to be real. For this reason, accusations of Holocaust-memoir fakery must be approached with great caution. Remember, truth is always stranger...
A fake Holocaust memoir that never even existed
While not strictly a Holocaust memoir hoax, a bizarre prank by novelist Michael Chabon deserves mention here. Chabon is the author of Wonder Boys (1995) and more than half a dozen other highly-praised works of fiction. In his 2003 lectures to Jewish groups, "Golems I Have Known, or Why My Elder Son's Middle Name is Napoleon", Chabon talked about his friendship with Holocaust survivor C.B. Colby. Colby was the author of children's books about firearms and the Fortean collection Strangely Enough! (I once owned a copy of it). He told his audiences that Colby's real name was Joseph Adler, and that he had written a Holocaust memoir entitled The Book of Hell under that name. Then Chabon revealed that this name, too, was a pseudonym; Adler/Colby was actually a Nazi journalist posing as a Jew (complete with a concentration camp number tattooed on his arm). According to Chabon, The Washington Post exposed him as Viktor Fischer.
But C.B. Colby is a real guy from New York who served in the USAF Auxiliary after WWII, and Adler/Fischer never existed. There is no Holocaust memoir titled The Book of Hell. The Washington Post never ran an expose on Colby. It is doubtful that Colby did anything to earn a posthumous reputation as a Nazi; if alive, he would definitely have grounds for a big juicy lawsuit.
Chabon's hoax was unraveled by Paul Maliszewski in the Spring 2005 Bookforum. Readers jumped to Chabon's defense, arguing that his story was intended merely as a tall tale like the others in his speech. A spokesman for one of the lectures' sponsors insisted this was the case, and accused Maliszewski of "stirring up a scandal". Others accused Maliszewski himself of being a hoaxer, and not without reason; in a series for The Baffler, Maliszewki confessed that he used to write bogus letters to the business journal for which he worked in the '90s.
No one spoke up on behalf of Colby.
- "Holocaust Memoir Turns Out to Be Fiction", Compiled by Lawrence Van Gelder, The New York Times, March 3/2008
- "Incredible Journey" by David Mehegan, The Boston Globe, October 31/2001
- "Auschwitz tale is not all that it seems" by Lisa Pryor, The Sydney Morning Herald, December ,