Though not a best seller in the United States, the 1997 book Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years did very well in Europe. A French film was made from it called Surviving With Wolves, and in Italy, the harrowing tale was turned into an opera. The story had all the trappings of a great “coming of age” epic. A young Jewish girl is orphaned and living on her own with World War II as the backdrop. She eventually leaves the city, walks 3,000 miles through Europe and lives in the woods. There, she is taken in and raised by a pack of wolves. The protagonist also has the frightening experience of killing a Nazi. Sadly, instead of choosing to turn this into a novel, the author, Misha Defonseca, claimed it to be a true tale of her life. As it turned out, it is not.
Massachusetts-based Judge Marc Kantrowitz has ruled that Defonseca owes $22.5 million to her publisher, an independent company called Mt. Ivy Press. This was the third ruling in this unusual case. Judge Kantrowitz is hoping it is the last. The first was brought by Defonseca’s former co-writer, Vera Lee. The French woman was dismissed from the job before the book was finished. Lee sued for a breach of contract.
In the second case, it was discovered that Mt. Ivy Press and it’s publisher, Jane Daniel, had not only neglected to market the book, but had kept royalty payments as well as secreted funds in offshore accounts. The rights to the book went to Defonseca. She was awarded $32.4 million. However, while Daniel was preparing to appeal that ruling, reality set in for the author.
Defonseca is not Jewish. Nor was she raised by a pack of wolves. There is no evidence of a little girl in the woods having killed a Nazi soldier during World War II either. What is true, and quite sad, is that Defonseca’s parents were active in the resistance movement, were deported and then murdered. After that, the young girl lived with her uncle’s family and went to school in Belgium.
Because the book got so much attention in Europe, it drew some skepticism from historians and naturalists. The historians doubted some of the important dates in the book. The naturalists doubted the veracity of the claim that the young Misha was taken in by wolves. However, their arguments were met with derision. The director of the film version, in defending the story, said that the questions were typical of those who renounce that concentration camps ever existed.
It was the work of an American genealogist, with some cohorts in Belgium, that finally uncovered Defonseca’s truth. Born in Brussels, Monique De Wael went to a Catholic school at the time Misha was supposedly living in the woods with her wolf family. In 2008, when Defonseca admitted the truth of what she had done, sadly, she tried to justify her actions. She said that the story is hers. It may not be reality, but it is her reality; her way of surviving.
by Stacy Lamy