Publisher, Mt Ivy Press
I’d like thank the thousands of readers of this blog for taking the time to examine the words I have written and the documents I have posted here. Visitors have come from all over the world, from Japan to Australia to Denmark to Thailand and a score of other countries, and many more from Belgium, France and the U.S., and they just keep pouring in.
As many of you know, over the last several days a firestorm has erupted over the confession by Misha Defonseca that her book, MISHA A Memoire of the Holocaust Years, was a hoax. Originally published in the U.S. by my company, Mt Ivy Press, and later to become an international bestseller and the subject of a French movie, the hoax has survived for an astounding two decades.
In the past week, I have been interviewed by the media and contacted informally by people asking for explanations. Several issues in particular get raised over and over, so I’d like to respond to a couple of them here.
The first question goes like this: Why did you publish the book when you knew it was not, or might not be, true? Did you do it because you “smelled the money”?
The second question also revolves around the subject of money, and it goes: When you and your company were sued, the court found that Mt Ivy had hidden money in an offshore account and failed to pay Misha and her ghostwriter, Vera Lee, their royalties. What do you say to that?
The two get lumped together into this notion: Irrespective of what we now know about Misha’s wrongdoing, based on the court’s findings, the publisher must also have done something bad to get hit with a $33 million judgment. In other words, where there’s smoke there’s fire.
I’ll begin with the first question, Why publish when the story might be fake?
Historically, publishers rely on the author’s warranty that all statements of fact are true (see warranty clause from Mt Ivy Press’ publishing agreement on this blog) and by custom there has been little or no obligation on the part of the publisher to vet the manuscript, other than superficially, before publication. There is a good reason for this convention. A publisher may decide to print a book entitled “I Was a Space Alien’s Love Slave”, without a disclaimer as to the tale’s authenticity. Or the book may be more serious, such as “I Was Illegally Targeted by the C.I.A.”, a topic that may be impossible to authenticate if matters of national security are involved.
The publisher tosses a book out into the marketplace and the public is entrusted with the freedom to decide whether to buy it, or to read it, or whether or not to believe it. The system represents the ultimate power to the people and, given the rash of fake autobiographies (such as the whopper told by Margaret “Jones”, published by Penguin) that have recently been exposed, the arrangement works well.
Now, let’s consider the Misha book. According to Slate Magazine, Misha Defonseca had been polishing her invented persona since as early as 1989. At the time I met her in 1994 she had been warmly embraced by the local Jewish community and I, like millions of others to follow, fell under her spell.
Contrary to some people’s assumptions, I did do extensive research in preparing the manuscript for publication as I have earlier recounted on this blog. But, remember, I had no personal information to go on. I had no name, no date or place of birth, no names of anyone who knew the woman who said she had been given a “false” identity when her parents were arrested by the Nazis in 1941. Everyone said there was no way to verify this story. Should that have been a red flag? Not necessarily. My research showed that children who lost their families in war not infrequently lost their identities as well. What if Misha's story of being a "lost child" had been true? Few would suggest that she should have been barred from telling it in print because it could not be verified.
In adopting the persona of an innocent Jewish child, one of the Holocaust’s most heartbreaking victims, Misha had devised a nearly perfect disguise. In her new role as Holocaust survivor, she wrapped herself in a Teflon mantle of moral superiority that few dared to challenge lest they be accused of being anti-Semitic.
How do we know this? Because in Belgium, several who publicly spoke out against her were accused of just that. Serge Aroles, a Belgian surgeon, has divulged that he was so labeled for questioning her account of living with wolves. Le Meuse reported that one of Misha’s childhood friends who tried to alert the media that the story was false was told that she was “jealous” and that she was “playing with fire” for “mocking another person’s misery.” In this country, in more than a decade, only two American journalists publicly questioned Misha’s truthfulness, but neither offered a scrap of concrete evidence to support their views.
In fact, there is a new post on this blog from Marc Metdepenningen, the Belgian journalist who broke the story in Le Soir that Misha’s father, Robert DeWael, was a known traitor to the resistance who sold out his comrades to the Gestapo. This reporter has been subjected to a wave of public hostility, challenging his research and motives, which on March 9 led Le Soir to publish the damning documents that his research unearthed. (See link to Le Soir article on this blog.)
As to why a publisher chooses to publish one particular book or another — of course, we do it based on the expectation that we will make a profit on our choices. A publisher is in business to make money; a publisher is not the gatekeeper of the truth. Does anyone really want to suggest that publishers should decide for us what we should read and what we should believe? The founding fathers placed a high social value on freedom of the press. In light of recent developments, their confidence in the fourth estate appears to have been well founded.
The second question boils down to, “Given the $33 million judgment against them, what did Jane Daniel and Mt Ivy Press do to warrant such an outcome?
The answer is already on this blog. For those of you who have read the entire story so far, that IS what Mt Ivy Press and I DID in the creation of this book, told from the agreed-upon exhibits from the trial. The real question is “What happened AT THE TRIAL to bring about that result?” That’s a long story, enough to fill a book. I will get to it all in due time. The chapters I've posted here end with Mt Ivy's attempts to get Misha to cooperate in appearing on the Oprah show. Here's a hint: There is enough information out there now for readers to figure out why she refused to do Oprah and how this ties in with the hoax.
This much I will tell you now. There was not one penny of money earned by Mt Ivy Press that was not accounted for. Misha herself, and Vera Lee’s lawyer, Frank Frisoli, have made much over the fact that the authors never received royalties. Here is how that happened. When Frank Frisoli, on behalf of his client, Vera Lee, filed a suit against Mt Ivy Press, the complaint included Mt Ivy’s U.S. distributor, Publishers Group West (PGW), and Mt Ivy’s literary agent, Palmer & Dodge, as “reach and apply” defendants. The term reach and apply indicates that these parties were holding money on behalf of Mt Ivy that the plaintiff wanted to claim.
In fact, virtually all of Mt Ivy’s income came through these two sources: book sales in U.S. bookstores from PGW, sales of foreign and subsidiary rights from Palmer & Dodge. Immediately after they were named in the suit, both PGW and Palmer & Dodge dropped their representation of Mt Ivy. Thus, just a year after publication of the book, all of Mt Ivy’s future income was instantly curtailed.
That left whatever was in the pipeline from sales that had already occurred. Mr. Frisoli then filed a motion with the court to have Mt Ivy’s income paid into the court. The motion was granted. But the effect was that the royalties that might have been due Defonseca and Lee were now frozen as well. Both authors filed motions to order Mt Ivy to pay their royalties — which the court denied. So, in fact, the reason they received no royalties was a direct result of actions taken by Vera Lee’s attorney, Frank Frisoli. (The legal proceedings I’ve described here can be found on the docket sheet, MICV 1998-02456, Middlesex Superior Court.)As for the offshore account, you can read about that in the chapters I’ve already posted here. To summarize: All earnings from the book, including those held in the offshore account, were not only NOT hidden, they were reported in the royalty reports prepared for the authors by Mt Ivy Press in accordance with the publishing agreement.
There was money already in the offshore account when the court order freezing Mt Ivy’s earnings went into effect, but the court refused to order Mt Ivy to pay royalties to Defonseca and Lee. That offshore money ultimately went to pay legal fees. Mt Ivy had no profits whatsoever from this book. Frank Frisoli himself acknowledged at trial that I never took a salary. In fact, I never made a penny. On the contrary, I loaned tens of thousands of dollars to the company to pay legal fees, $17,000 of which I never recovered. My lawyer, Molly Sherden, walked me through all the money issues on the witness stand. In his opening statement Mr. Frisoli advised the jury to “follow the money.” In his closing statement, he dropped this advice.
Offshore entities, by the way, are completely legal and are often used for tax purposes by companies doing business internationally. Like a personal retirement account with taxes deferred until you access the money, a company pays taxes on offshore earnings only when they are brought into the U.S. As for money being “hidden”, no author is entitled to know what bank the publisher keeps its money in. Authors are only entitled to know how much of that money is due them. That’s what appeared in Mt Ivy’s royalty reports.
So how DID the huge judgment come about?
Misha fooled the whole world for twenty years. She needed to fool only twelve jurors and one judge for ten days at trial. A Holocaust survivor has the stature of a secular saint in the public eye, on a par with Mother Theresa. In representing herself as a Jewish Holocaust survivor in court she committed perjury. Misha testified that she was cheated by Mt Ivy, and Vera Lee did the same. In effect, they corroborated each others’ version of the money, as well as other counts in the complaint.
I have heard people say, "Well, the appeals court upheld the judgment so that must mean something fishy happened." That view reflects a misunderstanding of the appeal process. In fact, an appeal is not a process for re-examination of the evidence presented at trial. The basis for an appeal is judicial error only, e.g. Did the trial judge follow the proper procedures and apply the relevant laws correctly? In other words, an appeal is about the trial judge, not the litigants. A trial may have an unjust outcome even when a judge follows all the rules to the letter. The basis for the appeal I filed was narrow and technical: subject matter jurisdiction. My appeal alleged that the judge in state court allowed into the trial matters of copyright law that were the exclusive jurisdiction of federal court.
I have consistently maintained that the evidence did not support the judgment. How can any of the findings from this trial be free from the taint of what we now know is a massive and deliberate fraud? Sunlight is the best disinfectant, admonished Justice Brandeis. There is more to this story than what has come out so far. When all the facts are known, it will become clear that Mt Ivy Press and I did nothing, NOTHING, wrong. “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” cuts both ways. Misha threw up a massive smoke screen for two decades, engulfing the trial and the aftermath. Justice was consumed in a blaze of lies.
An interviewer asked me how I felt toward Misha now that she has been exposed. I answered with an expression told to me by one of the investigators in Belgium who helped uncover the evidence: “The day you met Misha was the day you should have fallen and broken your leg when you got out of bed.” I deeply regret whatever part my publishing company and I played, albeit unknowingly, in facilitating Misha’s fraud. It is most unfortunate when an iconic figure abuses the public trust. Truth also has a very high social value.