May 13, 2014

From a dog video to an internet geneologist: How Jane Daniel cracked the truth about that Holocaust memoir


wolvesSit back and let us tell you a haunted tale of publishing law suits, wolf packs, ghostwriters and commemorative dog videos. Misha Defonseca‘s memoir, Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years, has been revealed as a fake. It was based on the false premise that she was Jewish (she isn’t) and escaped the Holocaust to live with a pack of wolves (she wasn’t).

But this story broke after fifteen years of legal disputes with her publisher, and in the end, it was her publisher who exposed the holes in her story. This is the stuff of publishing nightmares.

You’d expect questions to come up when a memoir writer claims she wandered through Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Romania and the Balkans, then walking back to Belgium via France, all as a seven-year-old little girl traveling alone (though she was sometimes with wolves?). The author was four when these events purportedly took place. This is far from the craziest part of the story.

David Mehegan of the Boston Globe wrote in 2001 that Defonseca “makes a compelling impression, and does not sound like an untruthful person.” When he asked  why she thinks people are skeptical of her story, she said, ”Because it is with animals. People are afraid of animals.”

At the time of that story, she was living with two dogs and twenty-three cats. (Dogs are an important part of this odd story.) In 2008, a major piece on this case ran in Boston Magazine, but her husband Maurice told the reporter she was busy undergoing therapy and could not be interviewed.

The earliest account of Misha’s story reported so far is from her Rabbi in Holliston, told to Boston Magazine in 2008:

“[Defonseca] said she was a survivor. She was obviously very traumatized, but she had never talked about it,” says Rabbi Joanne Yocheved Heiligman, who spent two years at Temple Beth Torah. “She wasn’t pushing to tell the story—she told the story when I asked her.” In 1989 or 1990, Defonseca told Heiligman that she had been “saved by animals.” It was an amazing tale, but there are many stories of improbable survival from the Holocaust: “I have a cousin who rode around Europe under railroad cars,” the rabbi says.

A couple of weeks later, Heiligman invited Defonseca to ascend the bimah—the platform from which the Torah is read—on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, and bear witness in public for the first time. The congregation lit six memorial candles; Defonseca made the unusual request that one be dedicated to the animals. The rabbi acquiesced. She says the congregation found it moving.

Her path would soon cross Jane Daniel’s. Daniel was self-publishing a book, How to Protect Your Life Savings from Catastrophic Illness and Nursing Homes, with Harley Gordon, a Boston lawyer. They set up a toll free number for book orders, and Simon and Schuster showed interest in taking on the book after they’d sold a fair sum. Daniel realized she could profit by running her own publishing company, and set up Mount Ivy Press in 1993.

Daniel was living in Newton, England, and working in public relations for Play It Again Video, a company that makes keepsake tapes from family photos. One customer ordered a two-hour video made about her late dog, Jimmy. That dog-lover was Defonseca.

Daniel thought the video could get the business some publicity, and took Defonesca out to lunch. As Defonesca began to tell Daniel about her life, Daniel asked her to consider writing a book.  “First she said it would be very painful,” Daniel said in a phone interview with the Boston Globe in 2001, “and then she said she would like to do it for her son.” Daniels offered her a deal with Mt. Ivy Press in 1995, with no advance but royalties based on sales, foreign rights, and film rights.

Defonseca was fluent in French, so she needed a co-writer for the English language edition. She worked with neighbor and longtime friend Vera Lee, who worked as a professor of romance languages at Boston College. Her neighbor was hesitant to take on the project, but Defonesca told Lee she was the only one she could trust. She finally agreed. (Lee would say of the book in 2001, “There were doubts, but so much seemed credible that I couldn’t just throw doubt on the whole thing.”)

The arrangement was this: Defonseca told her story on tape, and Lee wrote chapters for her to approve or change. Lee found herself searching for details, struggling to describe the taste of mud or raw meat. Lee said, “She wanted me to taste raw meat, which I did after she assured me it was from Bread and Circus.” She said:

“We did a lot of talking. [The events in the book happened] over 50 years ago and she had some very vivid recollections of certain episodes and scenes, but naturally there were certain loopholes. I was trying to piece it together in a way that was as true to life as possible. In other word, there had to be transitions: She went to a country, we had to know how did she get to the next one? How did she do her traveling?

”So I would write and bring it back to Misha and very often it would jog her memory. This was a child — she was not going to have an exact memory of every single thing that happened, yet you had to make a book. And it had to be true to Misha.”

The Boston Globe reported that Daniel took a more active writing role, and that she and Lee fought about the content. Daniel wanted the book to be longer, with more sentimental content. She also wanted a romantic twist, or at least a love interest.

“Misha objected to this,” Lee said, “This wasn’t the way it was at all, but the publisher wanted this love interest. On every page, I would say ‘not Misha, not Misha,’ but she would keep it in.”

The manuscript was also delivered behind schedule and shorter than they’d agreed. In court, Daniel said the manuscript “contained numerous historical errors… and the style of writing was too juvenile.” She took on more writing responsibilities out of necessity.

In 1996, Daniel told Lee their business relationship wasn’t working. Lee could be paid for the work she had done so far (Lee said the book was about eighty percent complete), or take out the parts she had written. In the end, Misha was published under Defonesca’s name.

Here’s one baffling story from the Boston Globe:

During an interview with the Boston Globe… [Defonseca] repeated the story in her book about how, when she was taken in by two single women after the war, she wrote an account of her odyssey, but the women did not believe it and forced her to burn it. However, she added that she had written it all down again in a diary that she began to keep in her teens. After the French version of her book appeared, ”the French book was so much my real story, the way I am, that I don’t need all these fragments and papers. I burned them in a ceremony because, for me, it was accomplished.”

Listening to this, Lee appeared to be surprised. When asked if she had used these diaries in preparing the book, she said, ”I didn’t know they existed.”

This sounds like the worst ghostwriting job in the world, doesn’t it? The author has diaries of these accounts and doesn’t mention them until she’s talking to the press?

Henryk Broder, a German journalist, wrote a skeptical article about the book for Der Spiegel.

Anyway, the book was published in France by Editions Laffont, where it sold more than 30,000 copies. Longanesi published it in Italy, selling more than 37,000. It was published in Dutch and Japanese, and Verlag bought the German rights for six figures (though it was never put into print). It was also a bestseller in Quebec.

U.S. sales were around 5,000 copies, no great success, though Walt Disney paid for a six-month option to the film rights. The authors blamed Mt. Ivy for poor sales, since it terminated marketing efforts, according to one source. No one reported exactly when this split happened or why, but it’s clear the publishing relationship was fraught (to say the least). A segment was filmed for Oprah, and never aired.

Lee hired a lawyer and filed for breach-of-contract in May 1998, and Defonesca sided with her co-author. Together they sued Daniel and Mt. Ivy for “highly improper representations and activities.”

Mt. Ivy routinely channeled foreign rights payments to an offshore corporation called Mt. Ivy Press International, which was based in the Turks and Caicos, which Daniel said were for tax purposes. In August 2001, the jury ruled that Daniel and Mt. Ivy had withheld royalties from the authors, and had caused Defonseca “severe emotional distress.”

Daniel and Mt. Ivy were on the hook for $7.5 million due to Defonseca, and another $3.3 million for Lee.

Midway through the trial, in 1999, Binjamin Wilkomirski‘s memoir Fragments became a scandal. The author wasn’t Polish, and he wasn’t Jewish. “It sent a shudder through the industry,” Daniel told the Globe. “Up until then, publishers had never been called upon to vet their stories.” (Of course there have been other fraudulent memoirs hitting headlines since, including James Frey‘s A Million Little Pieces in 2006.)

May of 1998 to August 2001 is a long time. Because of the allegations, Defonseca couldn’t receive any funds from the publisher. Congregation Agudath Achim in Medway tried to help. “Misha is in very poor health and her financial situation is dire,” stated a letter from the president of the congregation. “She is currently offering her furniture for sale just to survive.”

It went on to say Daniel “refuses to even give Misha a case of books that Misha could sell and get money for food and gas.” And film rights had been sold for about $1.5 million. “However, Misha cannot enter into any deal until the rights to her story are clear.” Her neighbors and friends stepped up to help her family with bills and pet-sitting. Their family filed for bankruptcy in February 2001.

In April 17, 2002, the judge in the case decided to triple the award, giving $22.5 million to Defonseca and $9.9 million to Lee. “Mt. Ivy and Daniel’s business dealings with Defonseca and Lee were clearly outside the penumbra of any established concept of fairness,” wrote the judge, Elizabeth Fahey.

In the words of Paul Collins, “Whoa, whoa . . . $32.4 million? Cared for by a pack of wolves?”

Daniel and Mt. Ivy counterclaimed, alleging “breach of contract, defamation, and trade disparagement.”

In 2007, a geneologist named Sharon Sergeant stumbled on Daniel’s blog, Bestseller! She wrote to the publisher, “I think this case can be solved.”

She found a document that included Defonseca’s date and place of birth, as well as her mother’s maiden name. Daniels traveled to Belgium in search of Defonseca’s baptismal records, which corroborated the bank information. Defonseca’s real name is Monica (or Monique) Ernestine Josephine De Wael, and she was attending a Brussels school in 1943, not living with wolves.

A researcher who assisted Daniel also “discovered that Defonseca’s parents… were arrested and executed by the Nazis,” according to Courthouse News, not because they were Jewish, but because her father was suspected of revealing information while he was tortured in a Saint-Gilles prison.

Le Soir confronted the author with mounting evidence against her. In a statement, she responded, “Yes, my name is Monique De Wael, but I’ve wanted to forget that since I was four years old. [The story] is not actual reality, but it was my reality, my way of surviving…. I ask forgiveness of all those who feel betrayed, but I beg them to put themselves in the place of a four-year-old girl who had lost everything, who had to survive, who fell into an abyss of solitude, and to understand that I never wanted anything other than to ease my suffering.”

In 2010, the Massachusetts Court of Appeals struck down the $22.5 million suit against Mt. Ivy and Daniels, as we reported here at MobyLives. Daniels’s lawyer said, “There are some falsehoods that are so emotionally inflammatory that they impede the jury’s ability impartially to evaluate facts and adjudicate a case.”

The final judgment arrived on April 29. Judge Marc Kantrowitz said, “Here, we express no opinion as to whether Defonseca’s belief in the veracity of her story was reasonable. However, we agree with the second motion judge that, whether Defonseca’s belief was reasonable or not, the introduction in evidence of the actual facts of her history at the trial underlying Mt. Ivy I could have made a significant difference in the jury’s deliberations.”

The publisher has written her own book on the ongoing saga, titled Bestseller! (She published it herself.) Now who will release that dog video? Two hours about Jimmy the dog. That sounds like a winner. We’re looking at you, Disney.


Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.