I was the proverbial one-armed wallpaper hanger. My daughter, Liza, who had run the office for me when my first publishing company was booming, was now married with a baby, so she was rarely around. She was still the president of the second publishing company, Mt Ivy Press, Inc., my title was Publisher. She signed our contracts and she would come in and write checks to pay Mt Ivy’s bills, but just about everything else fell to me.
Besides writing the book itself, a necessity I had not anticipated, I was overseeing all the steps required to get the book ready to go to press. I wanted to go first class. No paper cover for this project; I wanted a hardcover with a full color dust jacket.
After doing some research I came across an illustrator who did pastels of children with lovely, luminous eyes and engaged him to produce our original cover art. The final drawing depicted the face of a little girl surrounded by wolf pups.
As the word-processed manuscript neared completion, I had the graphic designer pour it into page layouts. Because of the technology of the computer, these looked like typeset text but could be easily altered, if necessary, right up to the minute we went to press. Now I had something that looked more "finished" that could be used for promotional purposes.
I could see immediately that Misha had been warmly embraced by the Jewish community around her. She had recently connected with her Jewish roots for the first time and joined a temple. She had been speaking publicly about her Holocaust experiences to small groups. I met her rabbi and members of her congregation who all expressed wholehearted belief in her remarkable story. She said that she had just recently found the courage to speak her truth and relive the pain of her harrowing childhood fleeing the Nazis. I believed her story, too, but still there was the possibility that others might have doubts.
With this in mind, I knew impressive blurbs for the back cover would be crucial. No one I talked with doubted that she was a bona fide Holocaust survivor. However, her account of living among wolves had the potential to make her story questionable. I wanted to know if that piece of the story was credible so I sent the manuscript to Joni Soffron, Education Director of the North American Wolf Foundation. Joni and her husband ran a small sanctuary in Ipswich Massachusetts with a dozen or so full-blooded wolves. They gave lectures on weekends to educate the public and advocate for the protection of the species.
"Could it be possible that wolves would adopt a human child?" I asked her.
Joni said she had no doubt that it was possible, but very rare.
"The Romulus and Remus myth has captured our imaginations for centuries," she told me. "There are some more modern accounts, but they’re not well documented. "You have to remember," she went on, "humans established settlements in wolves’ habitats and hunted them to the point of extinction. European wolves learned thousands of years ago to steer clear of man. Those that didn’t, didn’t live to pass on their genes. People equate wolves with the mean ones in the Three Little Pigs tale and Little Red Riding Hood. We grow up thinking wolves are bad. But wolves are not aggressive toward humans. It’s just the opposite; wolves avoid humans."
"What about wolves and children?" I asked.
"Because they’re so wary there would no opportunity for a wolf to run across a human child," Joni answered. "Only under bizarre circumstances, such as a war, would a child be alone in the forest far away from protective adults. Wolves are social animals who take very good care of their young. Only the alpha pair breeds but the whole pack looks after the pups. There are virtually no documented accounts of a human being attacked by a wild wolf. And, yes, absolutely, it is possible that a small child might be accepted as a pup."
Joni’s blurb said: "Misha’s loving description of the true nature of wolves will dispel many myths and touch the soul of all who read it."
The next person I thought to ask for a blurb was Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, perhaps the most famous name in Holocaust literature. As it happened, he was teaching at Boston University at the time. I called the main phone number at the school and got the direct number for his office.
"Does Mr. Wiesel give blurbs for books written about the Holocaust?" I asked his secretary.
He does, she replied but he was out of the country, at the time. "If you send me a manuscript, I can give it to him and he will be in touch with you if he feels he can offer some words about your project."
I packed up the page layouts and a color copy of the front cover and sent it off that day, hoping Elie Wiesel would get back to me before the book went to press. He did, about six weeks later. In a short note he said he had read the book and found it "very moving." Yeah! Those were just the words I’d hoped for.
One of the feature articles (not a book review) that I had placed in the Boston Globe had said the book contained "…the miraculous material from which fairy tales are woven." Not exactly an endorsement of the authenticity of the story but a good quote, and it went on the back cover, too.
Leonard Zakim, the Executive Director of the New England Anti-Defamation League, was a much beloved figure in the Jewish community. He was young, in his forties, and had been battling cancer for years. I had met him at some function or other and asked him if he would read the manuscript and give us a blurb. What came back was perfect: "A scary ‘must read’ for anyone interested in the Holocaust. Humans acted ‘like animals’ and animals acted ‘humanely.’ Her story is heartwarming and bone-tingling, all the more so for being true."
Lenny’s was the only review that explicitly endorsed the authenticity of Misha’s account.
Lenny died shortly after the book was published but his name lives on. Boston’s famous "Big Dig," the largest civil engineering project in the world at the time, produced its crown jewel in the form of a magnificent suspension bridge that is named in Lenny’s honor.
I got several other blurbs, one from an author in the Palmer & Dodge stable who had a book that was listed in the N.Y. Times Best Books of the Year, 1990, and another from a rabbi who was the chaplain at Brandeis
There was one more blurb that came back just before press time from a woman author of a Holocaust novel. Unexpectedly and at the last minute, she decided she didn’t want her name associated with this project. She gave as a reason reason that she questioned the truthfulness of Misha’s tale. Unfortunately, the cover was already printed so we had bright yellow stickers printed up that said, "AN INSTANT CLASSIC!" and placed them over her blurb.
I also sent off galleys to two Holocaust historians.
The first, Lawrence Langer taught history at my alma mater, Simmons College. I thought he might be willing to give an alum some feedback. He was away, too, but I mailed off the package with a cover letter explaining that we had a deadline and expressing appreciation for any thoughts he might care to share.
The second Holocaust historian to whom I mailed the book was Deborah Dwork, an associate professor at Yale. She had recently published a book of her own, Children with a Star: Jewish Youth in Nazi Europe. I had a cordial conversation with her about the project I was working on. I had read her book, I told her, and thought it was very interesting. She agreed to read the manuscript and said she’d get back to me.
I also sent a set of the galleys to Vera for her to review before we went to press.
Though it might be several weeks before I heard back from the historians, I could make final adjustments right up to press time so I wasn’t concerned. I now had a finished cover and pretty clean insides, what’s called in the industry "the galleys." The French and German publishers had been waiting impatiently to get the manuscript so they could start on their translations. I ran off more copies and mailed them abroad.
Sandy called me one afternoon to say the German publisher had contacted Palmer & Dodge to ask assistance in setting up an interview for Misha with a writer from Der Spiegal, Gemany’s most influential newspaper. He was flying to the U.S. in a week and the German publisher, Heyne Verlag, was worried. The Germans had the impression that the reporter was going to write an unfavorable article suggesting that the story was a hoax. The German book wasn’t published yet. I later realized the publisher had given the reporter a copy of the galleys in English that I’d recently sent them. The reporter, it turned out, spoke English fluently.
We met him at Misha’s home. Misha and Maurice had prepared a lovely lunch and we ate outside surrounded by many species of birds who also were dining at the assortment of feeders set up around the yard. The man was charming and friendly, but he asked questions, and then follow-up questions, and then follow-ups to follow-ups. I had the uncomfortable feeling that he was doubtful of Misha’s story. We said cordial goodbyes at the end of the afternoon and he went back to Germany. Several weeks later Sandy sent me a copy of the article from Der Spiegel. It was in German but someone had translated it. Heyne Verlag, it said, was soon to release a book about a Holocaust survivor who claimed to have lived with wolves. The story they were about to publish, according to the article, appeared to be a fake.
Misha was angry about the article but she was resigned. "Let them not believe if they want not believe. I don’t care what they think. I know the truth."
I had also sent a set of galleys to the French publisher, Laffont, and I soon learned that there were problems there, too. Just before the layouts were to go to the printer, they faxed a list of historical inaccuracies several pages long. Sandy called me to tell me that Charles Ronsac, the head of Laffont, had himself caught the errors and was concerned lest our book had already gone to press.
"Are they thinking of canceling their book?" I asked, worried.
"No, they’re rewriting those sections right now to make them accurate."
Thank heavens our book hadn’t been printed yet. I studied the list. The discrepancies and glaring errors were mostly related to known historical facts and dates.
For instance, Vera had written: "Germany’s surprise attack on Russia in December 1941..…"
Ronsac caught the error: "This is incorrect. It took place in June 1941. (December 1941 was the date of Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl harbor.)"
And Vera had written: "Belgium, Winter 1945 "The war was still going on…"
Ronsac noted the mistake: "Belgium had been liberated for a long time. Liberation of Brussels, September 3, 1944"
I called Misha. "Did Vera ever plot your path on a map of the countries you passed through?" I asked.
"No, she just write down like I tell her from my memory," Misha replied.
"Did she ever make a timeline of the events going on in those places, like particular battles, at the time you were passing through?" I asked.
"No, I just tell her from what I remember. Sometimes I not remember so good."
I was taken aback. This was the work of a scholar on whom I had relied completely? During the writing of the book Misha and Vera had quarreled over the date when her journey began. Vera insisted that it had to have begun a year earlier than Misha's memory of it. Out of unquestioning trust, I supported Vera. Now I wondered how many more inaccuracies were imbedded in the text.
"We have to make a map and a timeline," I said to Misha. I was again worried about meeting our deadlines. "I’ll go back and check the entire manuscript for discrepancies, not just the ones the French found," I said.
I then attempted to contact Vera. Vera had told me that she spent time at the library doing research but she had not provided me with any of her research materials or even the titles of books she’d used in her research. I got no response from my phone calls and knocks on her door. It appeared that Vera had gone away. I could see her car in the driveway between our houses and it hadn’t moved for days. I would not hear from her for a period of almost six weeks after I sent her the galleys.
I worked day and night on the manuscript and made all the revisions and corrections requested by Laffont with no help from Vera. I fact-checked every tiny detail. I researched the vegetation and animals of the regions Misha traveled as well as animal behavior, the foods available at relevant times and places, the clothing and scenery, farming and weather conditions and survival techniques applicable to extreme conditions. I read Holocaust survivors’ accounts, spoke with survivors themselves, obtained a tape of a TV program based on photos of the Warsaw ghetto and interviewed its producer. I read books on wolves and interviewed more people who worked directly with them.
Maurice agreed to get a map of Europe and trace Misha’s path. I began matching up the map of Misha’s journey with a historical time line. I was surprised at how much documentation I was able to find that coincided with Misha’s story. In one encyclopedia I found a drawing of the Warsaw Ghetto and the surrounding area that showed the Jewish cemetery, the train tracks running nearby, and the lake in which she bathed, exactly as she had described them to me.
Another book, an old, worn tome entitled They Fought Back, described a resistance fighter named Misha Gildenmann. He had operated in the forests of the Ukraine around the time that Misha described meeting up with a camp of resistance fighters led by a man named Misha. (She said she never knew his last name.) I mailed her the book and didn’t hear back from her for almost two weeks. When I finally reached her, she told me she was speechless when she saw the book with a photo of the man whom she so admired. She expressed no interest in trying to contact him, however. Later I was to pursue that line of inquiry myself.
At first I was thrilled to discover all this corroboration. Then it occurred to me that if I so easily could find this information at my local library, Misha could do so as well. She could have used it to fabricate a very convincing story. However, Misha herself barely spoke English, let alone read it. But Maurice, who never left Misha's side during interviews, meetings, or anything connected with the book, was completely fluent, both in spoken and written English.
Everybody who knew of her story called it “incredible.” I heard the word over an over. As time went on I began to realize that the word "incredible" has contradictory meanings. On the one hand it means so extraordinary as to seem (but not to be) impossible; on the other it means not to be believed. Was it possible that people used that word, consciously or not, to hedge their belief in the veracity of the story without seeming to do so? After all, what greater injustice could one inflict upon a Holocaust survivor who bares her soul to bear witness than to disbelieve her?
Misha insisted that her story was the absolute, literal truth. I once asked her if she had ever contacted Yad Vashem, the organization in Israel that maintains a database of over three million victims of the Holocaust. She answered that she didn’t know her family name and thus had no way of searching the records. She only knew her mother was called "Gerusha" and her father was "Reuven". She knew her mother was a Russian Jew, her father a German Jew. But she didn’t know any last names. She was never told her surname, she insisted, because it would have identified her to the Nazis as Jewish. She was called only Mischke, which she later changed to Misha, she said, in honor of the resistance fighter.
She also said she didn’t know her date or place of birth but she "had the impression" that she was seven years old in 1941. After her parents were arrested by the Nazis, she was placed with a family that gave her the name Monique Dewael, which she continued to use after the War for lack of her true name. She said she went to "town hall" to try to research her name but was unsuccessful. In the early 1960s, she had a son by a previous marriage, she said. His surname was Levy.
The absence of any surnames was an insurmountable obstacle to conclusively documenting her story. But that didn’t make it untrue, I thought. Surely in the chaos of the Holocaust many people’s identities were lost. Charles Ronsac, himself a Holocaust survivor, had accepted Misha’s story and gone ahead with publication of the French book as an authentic account. Most of the people who met Misha were persuaded by her charisma and the sheer force of her personality alone.
I didn’t know what to believe. Did she live with wolves? Or were they just big dogs that seemed like wolves to a young child? Did she see and experience all the things she recounted or did she only hear about them second-hand and incorporate them seamlessly into her own memories. What was true? What was not? My truth was that I had no idea what the truth was.