She Wrote a Memoir About Fleeing the Nazis and Being Raised By Wolves. It Was All a Lie.
The new doc “Misha and the Wolves,” premiering at Sundance, examines the case of Misha Defonseca, a woman whose bestselling Holocaust memoir turned out to be bogus. [Spoilers]
It was on Holocaust Remembrance Day that Misha Defonseca chose to share her story of survival for the first time. Surrounded by friends and neighbors, she stood up at the Temple Beth Torah in Holliston, Mass., and told them—through tears—that after her Belgian parents were hauled off by the Nazis, she was placed in the care of a Catholic family who gave her a new name: Monique de Wael. Then, at the age of 7, she embarked on a trek from Belgium to Germany in search of her mother and father. Along her 1,900-mile journey, she witnessed pillaged villages and snuck in and out of the Warsaw Ghetto. When she came across a Nazi soldier attempting to rape a little girl, she swung into action, stabbing him to death with a pocketknife. As the Nazis closed in, she retreated deeper and deeper into the woods, living off entrails and worms. She was eventually adopted by a pack of wolves, who offered her warmth, companionship, and security.
“I had tears in my eyes,” remembers Karen Schulman, a friend of Misha’s. “She was hungry, she was cold, she was lonely, she wanted her parents. How did this person survive?”
Sensing an opportunity, Jane Daniel, who lived near Misha in the tiny town of Millis, Mass., convinced her to turn it into a book—to be published through her small publishing house. Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years was released in 1997 and translated into twenty languages. It became a hit in Europe, where Misha transformed into a minor celebrity, touring her book from country to country. Disney expressed interest in acquiring the rights, and Oprah chose the book for her almighty Book Club, filming a segment of Misha playing with wolves. On the eve of her interview taping with Oprah in Chicago, however, Misha backed out. Her friends and publisher were in shock.
Who in their right mind would turn down the opportunity to go on Oprah and have her plug your book?
The mystery of Misha—and her incredible story—is untangled in Misha and the Wolves, a documentary premiering at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
“I was interested in making a film that was about storytelling,” says Sam Hobkinson, who directed the film. “It was a story-about-a-story where you could explore themes of memory, history, and storytelling.”
With U.S. sales of Misha hovering around 5,000 copies, she (along with her co-writer, Vera Lee) decided to sue Daniel, alleging she’d failed to properly market the book and stiffed her of overseas royalties. (Misha’s lawyer argued that Daniel was diverting profits to a shell company in Turks and Caicos.) The court ruled in Misha’s favor, awarding her $22.5 million (and $11 million to Lee)—prompting Daniel to launch an investigation into the veracity of Misha’s tale.
That’s when things got very strange.
Daniel discovered bank documents signed by Misha revealing her place of birth (Etterbeek, Belgium), birth date (1937), and mother’s maiden name (Donville). This would make Misha 4 years old at the start of her journey, not 7 as she claimed. Evelyne Haendel, a Holocaust survivor in Belgium who herself was a “hidden child,” was hired to track down what had happened to Misha and her family. She examined records, including Nazi deportation lists, but couldn’t find a husband-and-wife pair with the name “de Wael.” After searching long and far, she found out that Misha Defonseca’s real name was Monique de Wael, that she’d been baptized Catholic, and that she was enrolled in school during the Holocaust.
“I felt disgusted,” Haendel says in the film. “I just saw the fake history, the fake identity [as] a way to get money out of the Holocaust. Somebody stole a very painful part of my life. I felt it for myself, for all the hidden children and all the dead children through the Holocaust.”
Hobkinson started pre-production on Misha and the Wolves in January of 2020, scouting locations in Belgium and the U.S. And then COVID struck. “We had a bit of a hiatus, and then we managed to get out to Belgium in the summer as the cases were low, and made the decision to shoot remotely in the States,” Hobkinson explains.
The stateside interviews were shot remotely via the interrotron, a device invented by famed documentarian Errol Morris whereby viewer and subject are essentially looking into a teleprompter-mirror. Hobkinson slipped an iPad into the mirror-contraption and conducted the chats via Zoom. He says he was inspired by films like The Imposter and Stories We Tell.
“If you’re telling the true story of a lie, then everything else is inverted. That freed us up to experiment with the form,” he says, adding, “Everyone’s motivations were quite complex, and that made me fascinated in them as people.”
While Daniel appeared motivated by greed and fame, Misha’s intent is murkier. In 2008, shortly after the release of the film adaptation Survivre avec les loups (Surviving with the Wolves), a journalist for the Belgian broadsheet Le Soir ran an exposé revealing Misha’s own tortured backstory. It turns out that her father, Robert de Wael, was a Belgian resistance officer who, along with his wife and 41 other resistance fighters, were arrested and transported to Brauweiler Prison in Cologne, Germany. Under torture, de Wael agreed to hand over documents on his fellow Belgian resistance fighters in exchange for the chance to see his daughter again, and his and his wife’s freedom. The first wish was granted—but the second was not, and the de Waels were sent to a German concentration camp where they perished. If that weren’t enough, Misha was branded “The Traitor’s Daughter” by her friends and neighbors, who shamed her for her father’s decision.
When Misha finally copped to the ruse in 2008, she issued a statement that read, in part: “They called me ‘The Traitor’s Daughter’ because my father was suspected of having spoken under torture. This book, this story, is mine. It is not the actual reality, but it was my reality, my way of surviving. I ask for forgiveness. All I ever wanted was to exorcise my suffering.”
But it’s hard to feel too bad for Misha given the extent of her con, which included posing as a Jewish “hidden child” of the Holocaust and using her made-up Shoah story to solicit donations from attendees at the Temple Beth Torah, as well as unpaid loans stretching into the tens of thousands from her friends and neighbors in Millis. Once the grift was exposed, Misha had no choice but to move out of Millis.
“We want to believe—and I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” offers Hobkinson. “But we should be careful. We’re in a world now where truth is a very slippery concept, so it should remind people to be more questioning.”