I am making a promise to myself as the year 2009 begins: This is the year I will reclaim my good name.
For eleven years, my reputation has been dragged through the mud by people who practice Lee Atwater-style slime-slinging for their own financial gain. I will have much to say on this subject in the coming weeks, but I’ll start here.
In time, certain truths become self-evident. With the exposure in 2008 of the Defonseca/Lee Holocaust memoire hoax, the $33 million judgment the co-authors obtained against their publishing company and me appears even more bizarre, and all kinds of questions remain unanswered.
Three prominent memoire hoaxes were exposed last year, the Misha Defonseca/Vera Lee hoax “Misha A Memoire of the Holocaust Years” (a.k.a. “Survival with Wolves”), the Margaret Seltzer/Jones hoax, “Love and Consequences,” and the most recent to come to light, “Angel at the Fence” by Herman Rosenblat. All were successful before they were debunked.
Two of the three were set against the background of the Holocaust, and for a reason. More than sixty years after it ended, the Holocaust lingers on as a highly charged emotional current in our collective consciousness. Thus, to a storyteller, the Holocaust is a powerful dramatic device. Misha’s tale of a child searching for her lost parents and living with wolves in the forest would have been far less compelling had it been set in uneventful times and billed as a work of fiction.
Rosenblat’s account of a little girl who threw him apples over the concentration camp wall, whom he met up with years later and married, would have been humdrum if the setting had been peacetime and the wall had been that of a tough boarding school.
The Holocaust is a lens through which ordinary events, silhouetted against incomprehensible human suffering, rise to the kind of high drama that illuminates the heart of darkness. So powerful is the Holocaust to deeply move us that Oprah called Rosenblat’s the “most beautiful love story” she had ever presented in her 22 years on television.
Last summer I was back in court on a complaint, based on Misha Defonseca’s fraud on the court, to overturn the $33 million judgment against me. The outcome was yet another shocking moment for me. Judge Feeley ruled that the fact that Misha Defonseca lied to the court in representing herself as a Holocaust survivor did not prevent me from receiving a fair trial.
For many observers, this notion flies in the face of what is intuitively obvious. For me, it flies in the face of reality; I was there: At trial, I was depicted as the publisher who heartlessly exploited a Holocaust victim by, among other things, causing her to be so impoverished she lost her house to foreclosure. In fact, public records indicate she sold her house for a profit shortly before the trial.
But that was just one lie; the trial was built on a mountain of lies. In the same week that she told The Boston Globe she was eating dog food because of her publisher, subpoenaed records indicate Defonseca withdrew $10,000 in cash from one of three bank accounts. At the time of trial she had earned over $150,000 directly from publication of the American book.
This information was presented; the jury simply disregarded it. The immense sympathy and credibility afforded Misha as a Holocaust victim supported the characterization of me as a Nazi-like villain. Every lie Misha told was accepted as absolute truth — and Misha lied about EVERYTHING, especially the money. (I’ll deal more with the money issue in a later post.)
Vera Lee (the self-described ghostwriter) benefited from the reflected pathos of Misha’s victimhood. Despite the absence of any such requirement in any contract, the jury affirmed Lee’s claim that she was entitled to have her name on the cover of the book. (Huh? you say. Isn’t a ghostwriter supposed to be invisible? Yep, that’s what the dictionary says, too.) The jury awarded Lee $2 million for not getting her name on the cover (though she was given attribution inside the book); the judge trebled it to $6 million!
There were other similarly incomprehensible findings that resulted in more huge monetary awards, totaling over $33 million. I have no doubt that the jury and the court, in handing down that judgment against me, believed they were driving a stake into the heart of darkness and righting sixty-year-old crimes.
During the hearing last summer on my action to overturn the judgment, Judge Feeley, discussing the enormous monetary awards to Lee and Defonseca, questioned whether the memoire’s value was diminished by its being a hoax. Lee’s attorney argued that the value was unaffected and thus the damages were appropriate and should stand.
There’s no need for speculation here; there’s a track record of the fate of recent hoax memoires. The fact is: A hoax has no value to a publisher. For instance:
° Binjamin Wilkomirski’s Holocaust memoire “Fragments,” winner of the 1997 National Jewish Book Award, was recalled by its prestigious Jewish publisher, Shoken Books.
° Penguin (twice burned by hoaxes) recalled Seltzer’s book and canceled publication plans for Rosenblat’s book.
° Random House recalled James Frey’s hoax, “A Million Little Pieces,” and offered purchasers a refund.
° The French feature film “Survivre avec les loups,” based on Defonseca’s scam memoire, was canceled all over Europe.
It’s not clear what, if anything, Vera Lee contributed to the actual manufacture of the hoax from which she profited so immensely. The question was not raised in the lawsuit because the book was not then known to be a fake. Lee was the first to record Misha’s “memories” and organize them into a narrative. What can be said is that, in her role as ghostwriter, she had the means and the opportunity to be complicit. Here is an excerpt from the trial transcript of Lee being questioned by her own attorney:
Question: Were there any gaps in Misha’s memory?
Vera Lee: Oh, yes.
Question: Are there gaps in the book?
Vera Lee: I don’t think so. No.
Question: So you listened to Misha and filled in the gaps yourself and said to Misha, Does this sound accurate?
Vera Lee: Yes.
Vera Lee has made contradictory statements to the press regarding her role in the creation of the book. In 2001, soon after the trial ended, she told The Boston Globe, “There were doubts, but so much seemed credible that I couldn’t just throw doubt on the whole thing.”
In March 2008, after the hoax was revealed, she said, “Misha always said that this was the truth as she recalled it, and I trusted that that was the case.”
In several interviews she says that she was so “worried” by Misha’s story that she consulted someone (whose name, she says, she can’t remember) at Facing History and Ourselves, the nonprofit that develops Holocaust curricula for schools. She has said she informed me of her concerns, but I brushed them aside.
Disney optioned the dramatic rights with the understanding that the book was based on a true story. Questions about authenticity, however, likely would have led to the demise of the project, along with prospects of fame and fortune for the authors. So there’s an issue around Vera Lee’s motives: Would she have done whatever it took to get her name on the cover of a book that was associated with Disney?
In legal matters; there are records of everything. In this case, there are four, 4-inch-thick binders of trial exhibits containing several hundred pages of documents, including dozens of pages of correspondence between Vera and me.
I’ve been through all of those documents in the course of writing “Bestseller! There is no record of Vera Lee alerting me to her concerns about Misha’s truthfulness. But don’t take my word for it; I suggest the next reporter who interviews her might ask for concrete evidence, such as one of those stamped trial exhibits, of her oft-repeated concern for the truth.
At the moment, Vera Lee continues her relentless efforts to collect money awarded to her for a hoax book. She has said “it’s not about the money,” and recently, she offered her altruistic reason for continuing to pursue me in court. “I’d like Daniel to be stopped. I wouldn’t like to see others drawn into her net.”
How kind of her.
—MORE TO COME