Jessica Brody, Save the Cat! Writes a Novel takes lessons from screenwriters.. The Hero’s journey. The ‘shard of glass’. ‘A psychological wound that has been festering beneath the surface of your hero for a long time.’
The moron’s moron, for example, a narcissistic psychopath with a troubled childhood that lies, lies and lies again. He hooks up a band of far-right fundamentalist Christians and other far-right hate groups until he begins to believe everything he says must be true because they’re saying it too. Find support from the Russian dictator, Vladimir Putin, and Kremlin backed ability to produce propaganda and hatebomb through Facebook, predominantly. And he gets elected the 45th American President.
Misha Defonseca stood up in her local synagogue in the early 1990s and told an extraordinary story about Holocaust survival and triumph. The shard of glass was shown, and people wept. Jane Daniel owned a small publishing company in Millis. She urged Misha to write her story down. For around two years Misha refused, but then the true hero finds his/her truth, and she writes her extraordinary story.
Jane Daniel’s recognised its potential for commercial value. Because not only was it Holocaust literature, which generally sold well, but it had a Save-the- Cat-type twist. Misha, the seven-year-old heroine, trudged from her Belgian home in search of her parents. She was befriended by a she-wolf in the forest and became part of the wolf pack living off scraps of meat, and distrustful of humans.
Misha and the Wolves published April 1997, Mt. Ivy Press, Boston. It sells reasonably well internationally and at home. Oprah Winfrey comes calling. A spot on Oprah’s Book Club, Jane Daniel’s explains guarantees over a million sales. Disney talk about making a film of the book. A virtuous circle of sales and publicity. Win-win.
Lose-lose. Misha balks at going on Oprah. She sues Jane Daniels for return of her book rights.
Middlesex Superior Court, Massachusetts, August 2001. Jane Daniels is shown to have deposited money in the tax haven of Turks Cacao (beloved of crooks and internet giants) which she never paid royalties, and which she disputes. After a ten-day trial, the jury found for Misha on all counts and awarded her $22.5 million damages.
The Hero may not be as simple as you think, Save the Cat advises writers.
ACT 2. The Hero decides to accept the call to action. The Hero ‘shard of glass’ is the court judgement against her. Jane Daniel takes on the world of Misha and the Wolves. She assembles a team and cast of characters to help her.
ACT 3. Setbacks and false defeats. The HERO triumphs. But there is a sting in the tale. Trump gets elected President, fails to win re-election and commits treason. His supporters attempt to stage a right-wing coup.
Misha does not go to live with the wolves, but is fed to the wolves.
Deborah Dwork (The Holocaust Historian) I think we would like to believe that [the moron’s moron Donald Trump] Misha Defonseca believed. That [he]she was a survivor of the Holocaust [electoral fraud]. I think we would like to believe that we were not so naïve. That we believed it, because she believed it. And we would even like to believe that this narrative has a redemptive purpose. Because it made right the wrong of her childhood. I think it’s nonsense. There is no redemptive purpose. We were so naïve. It was all a fabrication.
Evelyne Haendel: ‘It’s human to believe. Creditability is something else. It’s your need to question things or not that will help you discern what’s true and what’s not.’
There’s a saying in Millis, small-town big family. We became friends with Maurice and Misha. Belgian refugees. Eccentric personality. I never saw anybody that had such a relationship with animals and had so many cats. She told me about her life, during the war.
Misha was waiting for her father to pick her up from school. And he never came. A woman tapped her on the shoulder and said ‘Come with me’. She was taken into a family that she didn’t know. She was given a new name and different clothes.
When she was only seven years old she walked alone through Nazi occupied countries. Across thousands of miles in search of her deported parents.
Misha: ‘I never discovered my parents or where they went to. To this day, I do not know’
I was asked to speak about my story. Temple Beth Torah. My husband convinced me to do it. Saying it would free me. When I went up to the Beema. I realised I was going to speak for the first time. I burst into tears. And slowly, snatches. I began to tell.
The dramatic tale of a woman whose Holocaust memoir took the world by storm, but a fallout with her publisher – who turned detective – revealed an audacious deception created to hide a darker truth.
Karen Schulman (The Friend) I was mesmerised. I had tears in my eyes. She was hungry. She was thirsty. She was cold. She wanted her parents. How did this person (this little girl) survive?
‘If they think I’m alive, I can’t let them down. I have to keep going.’
You could hear a pin drop. Everyone was entranced with her story. I never expected to hear what I heard. When Misha was seven her parents were arrested by the Nazis. And she was told they’d been deported. She was place in the care of a Catholic family. Called De Wael. It was a safe place. They gave her a new identity. Monique De Wael. The deception saved her, but she felt very alienated there.
‘I ended up in a family that didn’t love me. That’s the least you could say. They hated me there. They would call me ‘worthless’ ’.
There was a grandfather in the family that was kindly. ‘He told me, my parents were in Germany.’
‘He showed me with a compass, that Germany was in the East. So Germany didn’t seem that far.’
At that point Misha made a tremendous decision. It turned her life upside down.
She decided at the age of seven to walk to Germany, to find her parents.
So she took her compass and some supplies and started walking. Heading East.
‘I know exactly what to do. I need the basic. I need food. Something to drink. To have a light for protection. ‘
‘The first night I slept under a bridge. It was not far from home.’
‘Each time I approach a village, I see the station.’
She had to hide from the Nazis. Being alone in the forest. Having to steal food. Freezing temperatures. She had been traumatised by this.
‘Killing. I saw killing. The dead people. It was really desperate. I dreamed of seeing my parents. So I stayed deep in the woods. Away from the war.’
When she was away from the woods, she was away from people being sent to concentration camps. She was away from the horror that was happening in the cities. She was with birds and flowers. She said that was what saved her.
‘I completely gave into the wild life. I saw animals living normally. Eating just what they need. Not more than they need.’
‘With animals I didn’t need any words. We were near each other, in silence. And understood, without words.’
Jane Daniel. (The publisher). I was thinking this would make a fascinating book. I had a small publishing company. And I mean tiny. And I was looking around for new project. I was the one that said, can we take this public? Take it to another level?
I could make something big out of this. There’s a market for this story. Because it had an amazing twist.
‘I remember, I’d just been called by a farmer who saw me stealing food from his farm. I run away, full of fear. When you run away, you run very hard. Suddenly, I had the impression somebody was watching me. I turn around and see this magnificent animal. To me it was like a huge dog. The wolf seemed alone. And I needed a companion. It was a beautiful grey she-wolf. I look in my bag for something to eat. And I give a piece to the wolf, which it doesn’t take.
It takes a long time. But after a while, we would walk in parallel. I was able to see its generosity. To see the strength it had. I was able to live with it. She was like a mother to me.
Much later, it was a whole pack of wolves. I don’t know how long I was with them. They accepted and protected me.’
Jonni Soffron. The Wolf Expert. Wow, this is quite a story. Misha was very different from most people I met. She should have been an animal. Or her spirit is an animal. We talked about being accepted by the pack, but treated as a low-ranking member. And she had to exhibit low-ranking behaviour, in order to be with them.
Misha said, typically, the alpha male would eat first. The others would lay around the carcase waiting for their turn. They would leave little scraps, in close proximity to where she was, when they were finished.
‘Wolves eat 10kg, in one meal. The leftovers were more than enough for me.’
We became very good friends. She visited multiple times. She would hand-feed them the pieces of meat. I think they sensed in Misha, she was a friend, as opposed to a foe. She had such a sense of being with them. It was as if she belonged in there.
‘I had no reason to stop walking. It’s what I done every day. Day after day. Month after month. I hoped to find my parents. Figuring, if I’d survived as a child. My parents must have survived. This belief helps me continue.’
Jane Daniel, Publisher. This is a moral narrative The battle between good and evil. The innocent child and the evil Nazis. And the child survived. It had mythic qualities. It could take my little publishing company to a world-wide happening. So I asked Misha if she would be interested in publishing her stories.
‘With everything I went through, I learned to mistrust people.’
I don’t think she was very impressed with me. There was no reason she should be. The only book I’d published before was a legal-financial book. Not exactly her thing.
‘For more than 2 years I refused. But my friends and community said to me “Misha, do it” for future generations.’
‘I found myself in hell, again.’
It was a painful process, but it was as if she was compelled to tell her story. As if it was some kind of catharsis. Everyone was stepping up. All over the world we were selling the translation rights. My agent came back from California and said “Disney wants this. Period”. This was the case of a hot property.
When the book was published April 1997, Mt. Ivy Press, Boston. I said, let’s see if we can get Oprah to do this. Oprah had her book club. If you were one of her books, you had a guaranteed sale of one million books. They said they were interested. So that’s a big, big deal. And we’re beginning to say, we’re heading into a monster bestseller here. (Misha, The Memoir of the Holocaust Years)
Jonni Soffron. The Wolf Expert. Jane Daniels said they (Oprah) wanted to send a crew and film Misha in the wolves. So I said , yeh. (Wolf Hollow in Ipswich). I told Misha before we went into the enclosue, “This is an adult wolf. He’s a very big boy. His name is Pedro.’
Jane Daniel, Publisher. Nobody went in but Misha. The sound man had his boom over the fence. Misha squatted down and she’s feed the wolf. Everything is going fine. The wolf is very friendly. And then the wolf decided to put its paws up on her shoulders.
Jonni Soffron. Pedro was much taller than she.
Jane Daniel. Then all of a sudden, very quickly opened his mouth and put her whole head in his mouth. Very gently. Fangs on both temples.
‘I had no fear. Nobody talk about the big bad wolf to me.’
Jane Daniel: The wolf held her head for a minute. We stopped breathing. Then just as fast as it happened, it was over. At that point, Misha appears and lets out a big howl. At this point I get goosebumps. Way back in the pen, we hear an owww coming back.
Jonni Soffron. When she howled, they immediately howled back.
Jane Daniel: There it was, you could immediately see the connection between the human and wolf. I saw it. It was amazing. A shocking moment. So they got a really lot of interesting footage. I thought this is going to make a great Oprah show. The next step was she was to go to Chicago for the studio portion.
Jonni Soffron. Things were going swimmingly well. Then I began to see some tension between Misha and Jane.
Karen Schulman (The Friend) It wasn’t very pleasant as time went on. The book wasn’t selling very well. She kept saying “I have no money. I have nothing. Jane Daniels is no good.” I felt saddened. But Misha was sitting at my table one night and said to me: “She didn’t want to go on Oprah Winfrey”. I said, gee Misha. I don’t understand that.
Pat Cunnigham. (The Neighbour). Well Misha and Maurice were having financial difficulties. Then she started selling things from her house. I felt bad, they were losing everything.
Jane Daniel: All of a sudden Misha is not co-operative. Had one objection after another. Doesn’t return phone calls. She doesn’t want to go. It’s inconvenient. She needs somebody to take care of her animals at home.
‘Jane made me so mad. So insecure. My husband said many times. “We’re a survivor. You don’t use that kind of attitude”.
Jane Daniel. Come on, it’s Oprah. You find a dog sitter or pet sitter, or whatever. You make yourself available. “No!”
‘The bad memory came back. I had a nightmare. I was very anxious.’
I tried everything. I wrote her notes: This is a million sales. “No, No, No”. I thought this is crazy. Any other author would be falling over themselves to do this. It never happened.
A year after the book came out, there’s a knock on the door. And I’m handed a big package. It’s Misha filing a lawsuit against me. Everything stopped. No other country wanted to do business with us. We had a lawsuit attached to this project.
Romana Hamblin (The Attorney) The first time I met Misha, I felt very compelled by the circumstances of the case. It was clear to me that several things had been done that were improper, illegal, fraudulent.
Misha was asking for return of the copyright. And for all of the royalties which she was due for book sales.
‘Jane Daniels saw in my life a goldmine. And she took advantage of it.’
Romana Hamblin (The Attorney) There was so much anger and bitterness by the time I got involved. There was not much room for negotiation.
Jane Daniels It was clear we were going to trial. It wasn’t going to settle out of court.
Middlesex Superior Court, Massachusetts, August 2001.
Jonni Soffron :The sense in the courtroom was a lot of drama. The atmosphere was pretty tense. Then, of course, the money comes up.
Romana Hamblin (The Attorney) We found that Jane Daniels had set up a company in Turks Cacao so that contracts that came from overseas came directly into her account and she never paid royalties.
Jane Daniels, We had documents to show that she’d been paid. We had cancelled cheques to show that she’d been paid. So everything she was saying, we had documentation to refute.
Jonni Soffron but she could speak no falsehood. Where’s the money? Jury was very sympathetic.
Romana Hamblin, The jury was riveted. Here was a person in front of you that had survived the Holocaust. They were engaged and absolutely enthralled by this story.
Misha was a good witness.
‘Oh what I live is…because it’s my life.’
Jane Daniels: It just made me look like a monster. And I thought. This is not going well.
‘Jane was always fighting. She fought for what she wanted.’
There was a 10 day trial and it was gruelling.
JD: The Judge asks the jury, how do you find on count one?
Romana Hamblin: The jury found unanimously for Misha on all counts.
JD: I mean, ultimately they came in for a massive judgement against me.
Jonni Soffron. It was kind of mind-boggling to hear the number. I was blown away. I said, ‘are you kidding me?’
Romana Hamblin, $22.5m. It was a very large verdict.
JD: I’m an optimistic person. But that hit me like a ton of bricks.
RH: The money damages against JD was largely based on JD’s testimony. This was going to be on Oprah. There was some contract with Disney. There were thing JD testified to that really elevated the level of damages. Well beyond what would seem supportable to a book like this. So everybody paid attention. People love a big verdict.
JD. Disney had fallen through. Oprah had fallen through. There was no millions of dollars. It’s an untenable position to be in. A cruel exploited of an innocent Holocaust survivor. Your world falls apart at that point.
After the trial. This was the lowest point in my life. I ended up going into therapy and being diagnosed with PTSD. I had horrible insomnia. I was hanging on by my fingernails. My publishing company was gone. My copyright was taken away. I mean, I was destroyed at that point.
I ended up doing a post-mortem on what had happened. Looking at it piece by piece by piece. I was in my lawyer’s office going through old records and documents. I had no idea what I was going to find. I opened a bank account. And it’s in Misha’s writing. And it’s her signature card. And on there it says, date and place of birth, 5/12/37, ETERBEEK. And mother’s maiden name: DONVILLE.
All of a sudden I get a flash. She knows who she is. She knows where she was born. She knows who her mother was. This was stuff she supposedly didn’t know She lost her identity in the war. This doesn’t add up. Clearly, she know a lot more about who she was than what she had told me. What else might not be true? I had be owned by courts and lawyers. My life had been turned upside down. I wanted my life back. If I can prove she’s not who she said she is, I can overturn this judgement.
It was the dead of winter. The days were short. I was standing in my kitchen. And I thought, I have to do something.
I started recalling all the things that had happened. How I’d met her. What had happened there. What happened and how did the law suit come about? And then I thought, I’ll write a book about the case. I’ll do it as a blog. I was writing my memoir of her memoir. And maybe somebody will read it. Talk about a long shot.
The next day, I get up. I turn on my computer and there’s an email. The email says,
Sharon Sergeant. (The Genealogist)I think I may be able to help find out what’s the real story. I did a timeline of Misha from a variety of photographs. First from the book. Then from other images on the internet. So I could get a sense of her life.
JD: I wanted to know who she was. Who is this person who has just ruined my life.
Sharon Sergeant: Each photograph I tried to analyse to find out what kind of information I could squeeze out of it. The first clue was Misha claimed she was 7 years old, when she was taken in by this foster family. In the American book there was what are called polyphonic images. And the poly photos were taken at that time. And I looked at the photos and thought, No, this doesn’t look like a 7 year old. This looks like a toddler. 3-4 years old. Big bow in her hair, chubby, chubby cheeks, frilly clothes. Something’s wrong.
ERNEST and MARTHEW.
The next picture I looked at was who Misha said was her forster grandfather and grandmother. According to the narrative, he’s a rustic, farm man. I did a close-up of the hands of grandfather, which were manicured (nails). Did not look like a farm person’s hands. And he had a ring on one of his fingers. Not the kind of thing a farmer would wear.
And the little dog on grandmother’s lap, that looks like a little house dog. Not a farm dog. I thought, jeez, that’s strange.
And that’s when I started comparing the French and American books. I was looking at names and places and dates. [De Wael, grandmother and grandmother]. That was the big red flag.
JD. She called me and said, did you notice Misha’s name is different in the French from the one she used in the American book?
In the American book the name she was given by the foster parents was De Wael. The foster family gave her the name Mme Valle. Why would you have two different names?
Sharon Sergeant. There’s too many discrepancies between the name changes and the pictures and so on. Fishy, yeh. Definitely seemed fishy.
JDaniels. If her story were true and I was doubting it there was something particularly vicious about doubting somebody that is telling the truth about something that’s happened. The callousness to say I don’t believe you. And the harm you can cause. That was in my mind. On the other hand, so many discrepancies. Why would you be saying things that aren’t true? Maybe she’s so traumatised she’s just lost her grip on reality. How much did that explain, I didn’t know. I needed a lot of answers at that point.
We need boots on the ground. In Belguim. (Brussels).
Sharon had a connection with a Belgian genealogist, who was herself a Holocaust survivor? As it turned out, she grew up in the area Misha claimed to have lived in.
Evelyne Haendel (The Holocaust Survivor) During the war, I myself was a hidden child. I went to a Catholic school. And I became a very good little Catholic girl. I have no recollection of anybody telling me what happened to my parents. I have no memory at all. I was about 40 and I went through a sort of terrible breakdown, which led me to find what happened to me, in fact. And what happened to my parents. And my family. And I started to make research.
I found out my father was deported to Auschwitz in September 1942. My mother was arrested in October in Brussels. And deported to Auschwitz. I was told they didn’t come back. So, I went by car to Auschwitz. I saw the camp. Where there was not a single soul. The chambers. The gas chambers were exploded. I found some candles we call ‘yeseh?’ still burning the rubble of the gas chambers. Before evening, I had a Star of David done in dried flowers. I just didn’t know where to put it. I couldn’t put it at the monument. So, finally, I choose the little pond. It floated there. And I think that was the time that I…Sorry…put my parents to rest. My parents. My grandmother, my cousin.
JR. Evelyne is a Holocaust survivor whose story is very much like Misha’s. So she was the perfect person to find out what was going on.
Sharon Sergeant. In the French book the foster family had a surname of Valle. In the American book the surname was De Wael.
Royal Library of Belgium. To reconcile the name changes Evelyne went through the city directories for the 1930 and 1940s.
Evelyne Haendel. I came for three days, searching for the De Wael and the Valle’s. The name Valle was not in the phone books. Valle name didn’t exist. De Wael, yes. Many, many.
Jane Daniels: Now you start to think the French book was distributed in Belgium. If something about Misha’s story wasn’t true, it would be important for her not to put her real name in that book. There would be somebody over there who would say, ‘I know the De Wael family. I know whether or not she was around or disappeared during the war’.
Sharon Sergeant, The fact that she changed the name in France and Belguim from DeWael to Ville suggest to me she’s trying to hide something.
JD: Sharon and I both looked at this and said. ‘Something’s really wrong with this story’.
So at this point, the book had been taken over by a French publisher. And it was a huge hit. I was published in 20 languages. She was speaking to school children, all over the French speaking world.
Marie-Claire Mommer. (The School teacher) In 2005, I was planning on creating a professor of psychology, a project on this young child who experienced all these adventures. The project became a huge magnificent exhibition. Then we had the idea of to try and bring her to Belgium.
We watched her get out of the train. It was a fascinating sight. She was dressed in blue, like a shining canary, with all its colours. With two, no three, big suitcases.
She came towards me all radiant and beaming. Right away, she exhibits a very dynamic character. Very welcoming. And very generous.
When Misha entered the exhibition she collapsed.
‘I was not warned of this. So when I visited the exhibition, I burst into tears. Because it touched me very deeply.’
She was so delighted to be there. But on the other hand, we saw the sadness come out. And the tears, the tears, the tears. It was very emotional.
JR: in the book, Misha says her parents were arrested by the Nazis and deported. Although she didn’t know their surname. Their names were GERUSHA and REUVEN. Evelyne? Said I have access to the Nazi records of deportation. I’ll take those records and see if I can find them. If they were deported, almost simultaneously with those names.
. When we examined the deportation list, we found they were not deported as a husband and wife.
War Victims Archive, Brussels.
Evelyne Haendel, During the war, the French/Belgian committee had made a list of hidden children. With the name of their rescuer and the name of their parents. There was a real, real, risk these archives would be taken by the Nazis. Children would be found. And killed. But it was quite clever. There were four different booklets. You needed all four to find the child. But all four of them were in different places. If any Nazi found a single booklet, they would not be able to trace the child. But, at the end of the war, with the four different booklets, there would have been a way to find whose child it was. And so I searched for Misha’s parents. No names of the parents. So, I knew there was something wrong. And in the list of hidden children, they didn’t have Misha. And they didn’t have DeWael. That is for sure. She was not mentioned.
Marie-Claire Mommer. (The School teacher) Misha’s book had a snowball effect. Already millions of books had been sold. Thereafter we had to work to prepare the conferences. And get her to them. So we were always together. At that time, she would often come back to our home. She would eat with us. She was like a member of the family. We had dozens of events. Of course, we took her to them. She was always welcomed by the organisers. And always with a lot of friendliness and kindness. Everyone left the conferences dazzled by this character.
War Victims Archive, Brussels.
Evelyne Haendel. I was stuck, really. No findings. But no proof. So that was the point that I thought that she could have been undocumented. Some children were hidden. But not necessarily through organisations. As extraordinary as her story was, I had to keep in mind she might have been a Jewish, hidden child.
Jane Daniels. So now the stakes go up. I will feel a lot of guilt, if this story is true. I’m digging into her past. And what if it is true. How unfair to challenge her. And even if it’s mostly true, but not quite…How unfair to disrespect what she’s been through. I felt I’d been cast in a play, I didn’t audition for. I didn’t want the part. I didn’t want to be in the play. It was devouring me. This had taken over my own life. But I’ve had this judgement hanging over my head for quite a while, I’d lost the appeal. I was looking at the possibility of being completely wiped out. So it was starting to get pretty uncomfortable. But I needed to get to the truth. So when we had no Jewish records to support her story, the question is, maybe she’s not even Jewish?
Evelyne Haendel, If she’s not Jewish, then she’s most likely Catholic.
Jane Daniels. If she was Catholic, perhaps she was baptised.
Sharon Sergeant, Misha’s bank records from the trial, said she was born in 1937, her mother’s maiden name was Donneville. And she was born in Etterb. A suburb of Brussels.
Evelyne Haendel: So in Etterb, I searched for different churches.
JD. The first, the second, the third had burned to the ground. I thought, we’re probably sunk now. Because the records were probably destroyed in the fire.
Evelyne Haendel. But the office of the Presbytery was in an adjoining street.
JD. They were preserved. So Evelyne was looking date by date by date. All the children born in that parish.
Evelyne Haendel, I knew two things, her date of birth, 12th May 1937. And the mother’s name. And in that book, I found her. Monique Emesfina Josipshiux De Wael. Daughter of Roberti Floneca Ernesti and Josiphina Germane Barbashei Donil.
JD the revelation was that Misha’s father’s name was De Wael. So her real name was Monique De Wael. It wasn’t a name given to her by foster parents to hide her from the Nazis. It seems she was born Monique De Wael. She was a Catholic. She was baptised Catholic. Her father was De Wael. However, it wasn’t proof conclusive. Because in those days they used to take names of dead children and give them to Jewish children, by way of hiding them.
Sharon Sergeant. It was possible that the DeWaels had taken in a Jewish child and their own child had died.
Evelyne Haendel. I needed further proof.
[what did you do next?]
Off the record, this is a good question.
JR. Evelyne figured out, where can I find this proof?
Evelyne Haendel. She would have gone to school.
Sharon Sergeant: I tried to find the school, in the tram track she mentioned in her book.
Evelyne Haendel: And as I walked by, I had the school. The door was open. I walked in and asked if they had any someone with the name of Monique De Wael.
JR. So, we’re biting our fingernails to the point where they’re actually bleeding, waiting for this information. Either we’ve got the records or we don’t. (2/9/37). That was the final proof. Both the Baptismal certificate and her attendance in the school.
JR. I got to the phone and I picked up the phone and it was Sharon. And Sharon could hardly contain her excitement. Practically, screamed into the phone, we’ve got the records. We’ve got the records. That was the smoking gun. Now I’ve caught her in a lie. My life had been contaminated by a whole spiderweb of lies. And here it is. Exposed as a hoax. Now, I thought, the whole story she tells in the book, falls apart. At that point I knew she was not who she said she was. Not only was she not a Jewish child hiding in the forest from the Nazis. She was a Catholic child, safely enrolled in school. She wasn’t anywhere near wolves. She was playing to an audience. She knew exactly what she was doing. Now we can see this not just a little white fib. This is a massive conspiracy over 20 years to propagate what was a complete falsehood. This was not the real Misha.
Evelyne Haendel: I had many feelings. I felt angry. I felt disgusted. I just saw the fake history. The fake identity. A way to get money out of the Holocaust. Somebody stole a very painful part of my life. I felt it for myself. And for all the hidden children. The dead children. Through the Holocaust. For all the parents. For my parents. But, in fact, for all the Jewish community.
JR. At the point we got the records, the book was a huge bestseller, all over Europe. And the book had just came out. And the movie was called. ‘Surviving with Wolves’.
It had Premiered in Paris, ‘Based on a true story’. And here we’re holding these documents. So we said, let’s go with this. Let’s put it on my blog. And email somebody over in Belgium.
The next morning it had broken, front page of all the newspapers. We had fired a truth bomb. It had landed. The whole fake thing blew up.
Jonni Soffron, I went home. Put her name on my computer. And there it was. And it felt like my blood just drained from my body. You know, how can this possibly be? I was angry. I was sad. I was hurt. I felt betrayed. I felt used. She became that close to me that when we had a litter of pubs born, we named one, Misha. It was just heart-breaking. Absolutely heart-breaking. We were duped. Just like the rest of you.
Karen Schulman. That fact that she lied, made me cry. Misha played on sympathy. That’s how she became a wonderful storyteller. Sympathy. That’s how Misha was able to fool people. Sympathy.
Pat Cunnigham: I burst into tears. I felt so taken advantage of and lied to. The lies and bitterness came out. Some of my neighbours did give her quite large sums of money. We’re talking $25000, $30 000. To help her save the house. She’d go to the Rabbis and ask for donations from the temple. The entire community. The neighbours than knew her. Nobody talked to, that I know of. Everybody felt betrayed. Yeh…
Marie-Claire Mommer. There was a kind of anger that rose up in me, which never left me. The students that took part in the project. The day I entered the class there was a state of revolt. You have to imagine a pack in revolt. Rants. Tears. Cries. They were standing up on the benches. I was no longer in control. And I usually contained my students very well. I contacted Misha straight away. I wanted to be honest and authentic with her. But she said, ‘Don’t worry, it must be the doing of the publisher in America.’
Jane Daniels. And then came the next twist in the story. It couldn’t have got more bizarre. I said to myself I could never make up this plot, if I did, they would say, this is preposterous. This would not happen.
Marc Metdepinnigen (The Journalist) Every journalist dreams of a scoop. The question for me was if the story was false, what is the real story? What I did was simply go through the Brussel’s phone book, where there are approximately 400 De Waels. So I started going through them. One after the other. And at the forty-third or forty-forth, I stumbled across a woman Emma De Wael. My meeting with Emma, Misha’s aunt was extraordinary.
Marc Metdepinnigen :She didn’t go in search of her parents?
Emma De Wael: Good god, no. Her grandfather and grandmother
Marc Metdepinnigen. She told me her niece had always been delusional. That she would create imaginary worlds for herself.
Emma De Wael: I went and fetched her regularly with the number 56 tram to Anderlecht and brought her to Schaerbeek. In the evenings I took her back to Uncle Ernest.
Marc Metdepinnigen, Emma De Wael told the truth about what happens during war. What happened to Robert, Misha Defonseca’s father.
Jean-Philippe Tondeur (Military Historian) Robert De Wael worked at Schaerbeek Town Hall. He was really very patriotic. And very engaged with his role as a reserve officer.
Marc Metdepinnigen, I met Jean-Philippe Tondeur by chance. But he had a lot of documentation on Misha Defonseca’s father. So I went to consult Robert De Wael’s file.
On 10th May, 1940. Germans invade Belgium. They crush the Belgian army during an 18 day campaign. The king surrenders. And Belgium is occupied. Robert De Wael joins the Resistance. And begins to recruit resistance fighters. As a resistance fighter, Robert DeWael was involved in gathering weapons. Activating intelligence networks. And transmitting intelligence to the Belgian government which had gone to London.
Jean-Philippe Tondeur (Military Historian) Robert De Wael wasn’t very discrete about his activities for the resistance.
Emma De Wael, he had a loose tongue, because he was proud of what he was doing. Because I knew he had secret documents. He even showed them to us at home. My father told him to be careful. That he was becoming careless. He risked address.
Marc Metdepinnigen. He was denounced by a Nazi collaborator. And was quickly arrested. Robert DeWael, his wife and 41 resistance fighters were arrested. And are deported to Germany. And sent to Bruweiler prison in Cologne. The Cologne prison had a very harsh regime. He’s interrogated by the Gestapo.
Jean-Philippe Tondeur (Military Historian) Robert De Wael starts to scream. He cracks. He made a deal in the Cologne prison. This deal involved him handing over the names of his fellow resistance fighters in exchange for his wife being protected. And to once again see his daughter, Misha.
In 1942, after betraying his fellow officers, as the Germans demanded of him. Robert De Wael got one last opportunity to see his daughter. And that would be the end for Robert De Wael. He would later be deported. Robert and his wife Germaine would die in the camps.
Emma De Wael. We called her the traitor’s daughter. Because it was said that her father sided with the Germans.
Jean-Philippe Tondeur (Military Historian) The Municipal would prescribe a plaque with the resistance fighters who died during the war. Robert De Wael, whose name was listed last, was later erased.
Marc Metdepinnigen, on 28th February 2008, when things became very clear, we published Robert De Wael’s whole story. The betrayal. The falseness of the story. Misha Defonseca’s account. And in the hours that followed a statement was issued. This was Misha Defonseca’s statement:
‘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 forgiveness. All I ever wanted was to exorcise my suffering.’
‘I felt so rejected. But I could not explain it to myself. Neither to my grandmother of my grandfather. I am not the girl I thought, but there are times I hesitate. I say to myself, “Did I or did I not, experience it?” I have to think.’
‘Particularly, with animals, I can still see myself, rolling on the ground with wolves.’
‘Have you seen my lovely picture with wolves? They will always be my wolves. I will be at their side. Even if I know the truth now. I am at their side. I got into a bubble. A world of my own. And this world of mine was filled with animals. Animals that defended me against humans.
Candy O’Terre. The Radio Host. Listening back to this intro the first words in this were ‘sometimes a story is so astonishing, it’s unbelievable. That’s very astonishing. Those were the first words. Then it turns out, it’s not true.’
I believed her. I didn’t see anything in those eyes that made me think she wasn’t telling me the truth. All I was doing was looking for more truth to confirm what I already believed. In hindsight, it’s chilling. But for me, at that moment, I was so respectful of someone’s experience of what we think of as citizens of the world will recognise was the darkest time of the history of the world. Far be it from me to question her.
Deborah Dwork (The Holocaust Historian) When it comes to questioning Holocaust survivors, one brings a great deal of diffidence to those claims. But the danger of believing everything puts history and the historical reality of genuine survivors at risk.
In December 1996, I got a letter and a manuscript from Jane Daniel. That manuscript was Misha (a memoir) during the Holocaust. I called Jane Daniel to explain why this narrative just didn’t work. I said to her, I would not publish this book. I have thought over the years why Jane Daniels decided to go forward with publication. She clearly hoped that the manuscript was true. But she clearly worried, it was not. I think it was greed that powered her, this narrative. For Misha and Jane Daniels. And then, as those sales’ figures rose, more and more people accepted the memoir as real. As true.
JD: I admit it. I created this monster. I created this monster with enormous sympathy as a character. Somebody that had suffered terribly. Somebody that deserved respect. In fact. Awe. And nobody wants to admit they were tricked. And I admit it, I was tricked by her. I believed her. Everybody was seduced. The American jurisprudence system. The judges. The juries. We were all seduced by this story.
Evelyne Haendel: It’s human to believe. Creditability is something else. It’s your need to question things or not that will help you discern what’s true and what’s not.
Marie-Claire Mommer: I have enough distance to take a more analytical look at Misha’s character. Misha created a world for herself. A world of her own belief. Misha sought refuge in fantasy and with time she slowly becomes a character in her own story.
Deborah Dwork (The Holocaust Historian) I think we would like to believe that Misha Defonseca believed. That she was a survivor of the Holocaust. I think we would like to believe that we were not so naïve. That we believed it, because she believed it. And we would even like to believe that this narrative has a redemptive purpose. Because it made right the wrong of her childhood. I think it’s nonsense. There is no redemptive purpose. We were so naïve. It was all a fabrication.
Evelyne Haendel: I feel about her today, (shrug) mixed emotions. I think she was a protagonist in the story but she was not alone. There were other people that helped to make this biography be a bestseller. Just talking about her right now, the search and the years that went by- some pity, ah, some repulsion, maybe it’s too hard a word, but I’m feeling some understanding. As a child it must have been very difficult for her after the war. The fact her father was called a traitor. A collaborator. She is both the victim and the villain. She’s both. She is both in the story.
The real Misha Defonseca still lives in Massachusetts with her husband and animals.
She chose not to be interviewed for this film.
The financial penalty against Jane Daniels was partially overturned.