Article in Today's Jewish Advocate....

Defonseca fallout still felt months after revelation of inauthenticity

Panel formed to discuss memoir hoax's aftermath

By Lorne Bell - Friday May 16 2008

When Dudley, Mass. resident Misha Defonseca admitted last February that her Holocaust memoir, “Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years,” was a fake, Jews in Greater Boston and across Europe were shocked.

And although Defonseca’s book sold only 5,000 copies in the U.S., her elaborate deception continues to have far-reaching effects. Jane Daniel, the original publisher of Defonseca’s book, has recently joined Waltham-based genealogist Sharon Sergeant; historian and Holocaust author Susie Davidson; and local Holocaust survivor Rosian Zerner to discuss the book’s fallout as part of a series of panel discussions titled, “Deception and its Aftermath.”

“Misha mined the Jewish community and left behind her a wake of trauma,” said Daniel. “A lot of people are still in a state of shock, and feel wounded and betrayed. It is chutzpah beyond all measure.”
Defonseca’s fraudulence was revealed this winter, when Sergeant posted a response on Daniel’s Web log offering to help her uncover the author’s true past. Defonseca had already won a lawsuit against Daniel’s small publishing company, Mt. Ivy Press, in 2001, in which she claimed Daniel had withheld royalties and failed to adequately promote the book. Daniel has since filed a countersuit to overturn the court’s decision, based in part on the original contract’s presumption that Defonseca’s story was not a fictional account.
“I e-mailed Jane [Daniel] and said that I thought this case could be solved, that [Defonseca’s] identity could be verified,” said Sergeant.

Sergeant would soon reveal the truth behind the author’s fabricated story, disproving Defonseca’s claims that she had trekked across Europe as a wartime orphan, wandered in and out of the Warsaw Ghetto and taken refuge with a pack of wolves. Instead, Defonseca, whose real name was Monique De Wael, lived in Belgium with her uncle and grandfather during the war. And she is not Jewish.
“There’s so much in [the book] that’s convoluted and doesn’t have anything to do with reality,” said Sergeant. “She’s not who she said she was, and whatever her initial motivation, this became what I call a Misha Money Machine – it became a business.”

That “business” has wiped out Daniel’s own, after the 2001 ruling required Mt. Ivy Press to pay Defonseca and her French ghostwriter, Vera Lee, $32.4 million in damages.
“That’s how shnookered the court was,” Daniel said.

But the deception stretches far beyond the court and Mt. Ivy Press. After hearing that Defonseca and her husband’s Millis home was being foreclosed in 2001, Karen Schulman, a 62-year-old Jewish resident of Milford, took the couple and their 22 cats into her ranch home. “All I could think was that here is this woman who went through the Holocaust and now she is losing more – this time her home,” Schulman said. “Never in my life did I think that this was a scam.”

Defonseca and her husband, a high-level computer company executive, lived with Schulman for more than two years before she finally asked them to leave. Although she said the couple insisted on paying her $500 each month, they also reportedly purchased two new cars and, unbeknownst to Schulman, a new home in nearby Dudley. “I kept telling myself that she would not do this to me – look at what I have done for her,” said Schulman. “But she is a clever little fox. In my opinion, she needs to go to prison.”
Defonseca’s tale has also cast unfair doubts upon the credibility of true Holocaust survivors, according to Zerner. “It amazes me that there are still people who rationalize and sidestep the deception and essence of what she has done,” said Zerner. “She stole our identities as survivors. It is an offense beyond what is tolerable.”

Zerner’s own story closely resembles the fabricated past that Defonseca claimed in her book (although she never lived with wolves). As a child she was corralled into the Kovno Ghetto in Lithuania, and was shuffled from one hiding spot to another during the war. She said she hopes the panel discussion can help to alleviate concerns of other survivors and those who might doubt their stories.
Davidson, whose 2005 book, “I Refused to Die,” documents the lives of 20 survivors and concentration camp liberators, agreed. “Somebody said that to survive the Holocaust, your story had to be incredible and unbelievable,” said Davidson. “But [this incident] should not disauthenticate those experiences of true survivors whose stories are just as incredible and unimaginable and show the bravery, ingenuity and in many cases the shear luck that allowed these people to rise above the odds and survive.”

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