Eleven years after the publication of her best-selling Holocaust memoir - a heartwarming tale of a small Jewish girl trekking across Europe and living with wolves - the Massachusetts author yesterday admitted the whole story was a hoax.
In a statement issued by her Belgian lawyer, Misha Defonseca of Dudley, whose book, "Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years," has been translated into 18 languages and is the basis for a new French movie, "Survivre avec les Loups" ("Surviving With the Wolves"), confessed that she is not Jewish and that she spent the war safely in Brussels.
The 1997 book was the center of a multimillion-dollar legal battle pitting Defonseca and her coauthor, Vera Lee of Newton, against publisher Jane Daniel of Gloucester. The book was a bestseller in Europe and Canada, and attracted attention from
Daniel's imprint, Mt. Ivy Press, was a one-woman operation when she met Defonseca in the mid-1990s, heard her story, and suggested that she write a book. In 2001, a Middlesex Superior Court jury issued a $7.5 million breach-of-contract judgment against Daniel after Defonseca and Lee alleged that she had failed to publicize the book as promised and had hidden profits. The judge in the case tripled the damages to $22.5 million, and an appeals court upheld the verdict in 2005.
Yesterday's confession follows a week of intense publicity in French and Belgian media, prompted by disclosure of documents unearthed by Waltham-based genealogical researcher Sharon Sergeant showing that Monique De Wael (Defonseca's real maiden name) was baptized in a Brussels Catholic church in September 1937 and that she was enrolled in a Brussels primary school in 1943-44. The researcher also discovered that Defonseca's parents, Robert and Josephine De Wael, were members of the Belgian resistance and were arrested and executed by the Nazis.
In her statement, approximately translated from the French, Defonseca said: "Yes, my name is Monique De Wael, but I have wanted to forget it since I was 4 years old. My parents were arrested and I was taken in by my grandfather, Ernest De Wael, and my uncle, Maurice De Wael. I was called 'daughter of a traitor' because my father was suspected of having spoken under torture in the prison of Saint-Gilles. Ever since I can remember, I felt Jewish. . . . There are times when I find it difficult to differentiate between reality and my inner world. The story in the book is mine. It is not the actual reality - it was my reality, my way of surviving. At first, I did not want to publish it, but then I was convinced by Jane Daniel. I ask forgiveness from all those who feel betrayed."
In the book, 6-year-old Misha is rescued at school in 1941 when her parents are arrested and deported. She is spirited away to the De Wael family and given a new name, Monique. Unhappy with her host family, she runs away in hopes of finding her parents. Over the next four years she wanders alone across Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Romania, Yugoslavia, across the Adriatic Sea by boat to Italy, then through Italy across the Alps to France and back to Belgium. Along the way, she is sheltered by packs of wolves, kills a German soldier, witnesses an eastbound freight train full of Jews, wanders into the Warsaw Ghetto, and escapes. A 2001 story in The Boston Globe raised questions about the book's veracity, but Defonseca insisted that it was all true.
"I am flabbergasted," Daniel said yesterday. "It's like something from heaven. I feel like the weight of the world has been lifted from my shoulders." She said she hopes to challenge the Middlesex judgment on grounds that the author's original contract had warranted the truth of the story, and that therefore the publisher had been defrauded before the book was published.
Reached yesterday, Defonseca's husband, Maurice, said his wife would not come to the phone, and he referred all questions to the Brussels lawyer. Vera Lee's lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.
A spokeswoman for Vera Belmont, the French director of "Survivre avec les Loups," said in an e-mail: "Vera is not making any comment. Her movie is a fiction from the book. No matter if it's true or not - she believes it is, anyway - she just thinks it's a beautiful story."
David Mehegan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.