Boston author’s book a Holocaust hoax
01:00 AM EDT on Sunday, April 27, 2008
The Providence Journal / RACHEL RITCHIE
On Holocaust Memorial Day this Thursday, there will be fewer eyewitness testimonies than the year before. Within the lifetimes of most people reading these words, there will be none. That is the work of time, and unalterable.
Each passing year brings greater and greater reliance on memoirs, therefore — written memories of atrocities, unspeakable crimes, incredible survival stories by those who experienced them. The vast majority are the sacred truth. But some, we are learning, are the work of frauds who would alter history for their own benefit.
The latest revelation came as a personal shock, because I had been an unwitting accomplice.
In 1997, in one of my first author profiles as books editor, I wrote about Misha Defonseca, of Millis, Mass., and her then-new book, Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years. I had heard her speak before reading the book, and had fallen under the spell of her story.
As she told it, she was seven years old in 1941, living in Brussels, Belgium, when the Nazis came to her home and arrested her Jewish parents. Misha had been hustled off to live with another family, but instead she set off on foot, alone and with only a tiny compass to guide her way eastward, to find her parents.
“Thus began a terrible odyssey,” I wrote 11 years ago. “Wandering alone on her hopeless quest for four years, clear across occupied Europe, through Germany, into Russia and back again, Misha witnessed greater horrors than most soldiers experienced on the front lines.” She wrote of entering and then escaping from the Warsaw Ghetto; living for days in midwinter without food or shelter; stabbing a Nazi soldier to death; and, perhaps most incredibly, living with a pack of wolves.
It was a wonderful story, and in fact I wondered. It “strains credulity,” I wrote, adding: “Misha offers no proof. There is none, she says. Perhaps, she says, one of the nameless people she encountered in those years will see her book and remember, and get in touch with her. She hopes so.”
That brief caveat having been delivered, I turned back to the absorbing “facts” as Defonseca related them into my tape recorder there in the living room of her modest house outside Boston.
The book, produced on a shoestring by tiny Mt. Ivy Press, had modest sales here, despite a glowing endorsement from none other than Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Prize-winning Holocaust survivor and scholar. It achieved a new life in Europe, however, where it sold more than 30,000 copies in France and Italy, was translated into 18 languages, and turned into a film, Survivre Avec les Loups (Living With Wolves), which opened in Paris in January.
Suspicions were raised almost from the first, but Defonseca had covered her tracks well. Not until the film was released did experts on wolf behavior and the Holocaust in Belgium publicly question details. Meanwhile, a genealogist in Massachusetts, working with colleagues in Brussels, found the smoking-gun evidence about her parents that finally prompted Defonseca to confess.
It was all a lie, she told the Associated Press last month. Her real name, until she married her husband, Maurice Defonseca, was Monique De Wael. She was, indeed, orphaned when her parents, who were in the Belgian resistance, were put to death by the Nazis. But they were Catholic, not Jewish, and Defonseca was raised, uneventfully, by relatives, not wolves.
In a statement released through her lawyer, Defonseca said, “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.”
The story of her relationship with Daniel, who published the book more or less single-handedly, is nearly as depressing as her own fraudulent account.
The short version: Daniel was sued by the book’s ghostwriter, Vera Lee, for illegally withholding proceeds from the book’s sales from Lee and Defonseca. In 2002, she was found guilty. The judgment was for nearly $33 million.
Daniel, who reportedly published the book despite warnings from two experts who doubted its veracity, has been among the most ardent of the debunkers since the suit was filed against her. Now she has countersued, claiming the writers should get nothing because they breached the contract, which required them to be truthful. That suit is pending.
Meanwhile, thoughtful people inside and outside the Jewish community are responding with expressions ranging from outrage to sorrow.
“It is sad. It’s just very sad,” said Elie Wiesel, who heads the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies at Boston University. Reached by phone in New York last week, he told the Journal that the most important thing to note is that “very few” of the hundreds of Holocaust memoirs published in recent years have been hoaxes. But each one is a blow.
“In truth, I don’t recall reading it,” he said of Defonseca’s book, which he described as “very moving” when asked to endorse it in 1997.
“You see, when I speak with Holocaust survivors, I am always urging them to write, write, write. So whenever I receive a memoir, I am willing to say something about it. But it doesn’t mean I have read every page.”
Others have been more outspoken.
“What happened to the Jews was the worst atrocity in history, and people who exploit it for profit, by posing as Jews or lying about being part of the experience, insult those who went through it,” Lawrence L. Langer, an authority on Holocaust narratives at Simmons College, in Boston, told the Boston Globe. Langer identified himself as one of those experts who originally counseled Daniel not to publish Defonseca’s memoir. “It is as bad as saying the Holocaust never happened,” he concluded.
Which brings up the most damning aspect of the entire episode: the fact that Defonseca’s hoax is now being used as ammunition by those who would deny, or play down, the Holocaust for their own reasons.
Here’s what David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, had to say on his Web site:
“This case must cast doubt on many other ridiculously impossible Holocaust tales that have been sold as ‘true stories’ to a trusting public. The fact that the media would shamelessly promote a patently ridiculous story of a young girl trudging 5,000 kilometers through Europe with a pack of wolves shows the uncritical attitude of the media to all things ‘Holocaust.’ ”
I ended my story of 11 years ago with a quote from Defonseca. Little did I know then how ironic it would seem now.
She told her story, she said, because “bigotry and prejudice and hatred — they have not disappeared. And I do it for this reason.
“But I have not confidence in the human race. Not at all.”