October 31, 2001
Defonseca's flight from Nazis to publication of her
memoir, life has been a battle against the odds
an amazing story. But then, it's often said, all
Holocaust survivor stories are amazing.
It starts in autumn 1941. A Belgian Jewish girl,
age 7, runs away from the family that took her in
when her parents were arrested by the Germans.
Determined to find her parents, she sets out on
foot toward the east.
Over the next four years, she wanders through
Germany, Poland, and Ukraine, turning south through
Romania and the Balkans, hitching a boat to Italy,
then walking back to Belgium via France.
For most of this time, the girl sleeps in
forests and is, for weeks at a stretch, fed and
protected by packs of friendly wolves. She joins
bands of partisans, sneaks into and out of the
Warsaw ghetto, witnesses the execution of children,
kills a German soldier with a pocket knife, and
finally has a happy reunion at war's end with her
Belgian foster grandfather.
That's the story of Misha Levy Defonseca,
67, who today lives in Milford with her husband,
two dogs, and 23 cats. Her book, ''Misha: A Memoire
of the Holocaust Years,'' was published in 1997 by
tiny Mt. Ivy Press, owned by Jane Daniel of
book drew high-profile endorsements by Leonard
P. Zakim, late director of the New England
League (''a scary must-read for anyone
interested in the Holocaust'');
journalist/historian Padraig O'Malley; and Nobel
laureate Elie Wiesel (''very moving'').
Though it sold poorly in the United States,
''Misha'' was a surprise bestseller in France and
Italy, and aroused interest from Hollywood (Walt
Disney) and TV's Oprah Winfrey. But about a
year after it was published, everything froze when
Defonseca and coauthor Vera Lee sued the
publisher for breach of contract, claiming they
never got their share of overseas royalties and
that the book was never properly marketed in
There was a long and bitter battle. Last summer,
a Middlesex Superior Court jury found against the
publisher, awarding Defonseca and Lee a total of
$10.8 million. The legal quarrel has been complex
and very public. And it's not over -- a judge must
still review the appropriateness of the jury
Daniel, to this day, rejects all the allegations
made by the authors.
BUT what has gone almost unobserved is the
disquieting subtext of the tale: Can Defonseca's
story be believed?
Two renowned Holocaust
scholars told the
Globe they do not believe her story. They say it's
impossible for one child to have been everywhere
she says she was, to have witnessed all she
Odder still, even her coauthor and publisher,
while they consider her a remarkable woman with a
compelling story, had their doubts. And they still
do. Misha, however, remains adamant. ''This is
fact, this is history,'' she says.
The making of ''Misha'' is almost as curious as
the tale it tells. In the mid-1990s, Jane Daniel,
then living in Newton, was doing public relations
for ''Play It Again Video'' of Needham, which makes
keepsake tapes from family photos.
The owner's most memorable customer was a woman
who had ordered a two-hour video made about her
late dog, Jimmy. The woman was Misha Defonseca.
When Daniel heard about Defonseca's childhood
odyssey, she smelled a book for her fledgling
publishing business. She met with Defonseca and her
husband, Maurice, to pitch the idea. Daniel
says Defonseca was reluctant at first, but
eventually warmed to the idea: ''First she said it
would be very painful,'' the publisher said in a
telephone interview, ''and then she said she would
like to do it for her son.''
Defonseca's spoken English is clear (she and her
husband came to the States in 1988), but she is no
author -- someone would have to help turn a
collection of memories into a book. Daniel
recruited her neighbor and longtime friend, Vera
A French specialist, Lee was a former professor
of romance languages at Boston College and former
director of Boston's French Library. Like
Defonseca, Lee says she was reluctant at first, but
agreed after her friend ''said I was the only one
she could trust.''
Lee and Defonseca set to work in 1995. ''We did
a lot of talking,'' Lee said during an interview at
her home with her and Defonseca. Misha's
experiences had 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
''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
Lee says she would write as many as three
versions of a chapter, take them to Daniel, they
would pore over them together, revise them further,
then Lee would bring one back to Defonseca.
''I speak French,'' Defonseca says. ''Vera has a
tape and she [makes] notes and I tell her
the story. And then she brings me the manuscript, I
correct and send it back to her. And for me it was
a very difficult thing. I had no understanding that
she had not been through [experiences such
as] this. And for her it was difficult.''
Indeed, Lee says that listening to Defonseca's
story was often wrenching. To grasp it, she would
try to experience things directly. ''At one point,
[Misha] ate mud,'' she says, ''and I went
out and ate mud to see how it would taste.''
To imagine what it must have been like to climb
a wall out of the Warsaw Ghetto, which the book
describes, ''I was trying to climb this brick wall
in front of my neighbor's. I really wanted to
understand what she was thinking. She wanted me to
taste raw meat, which I did after she assured me it
was from Bread and Circus.''Differences
Daniel began to take a more active writing role,
showing the result to Lee. Their disagreements
grew. Lee says Daniel wanted the book longer and
wanted more sentimental and emotional content. She
says she wanted Misha to be in love with somebody,
for there to be a romantic twist to the tale.
''Misha objected to this,'' Lee says, ''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
The friction came to a climax in 1996 when
Daniel gave Lee a choice of being paid for what she
had done thus far, or taking all of her work out of
the book. Lee refused the choice and began to talk
to a lawyer. Lee says Daniel tried to turn
Defonseca against the coauthor, a complaint Daniel
dismisses as petty.
What is not in dispute is that Daniel took over
the writing and rewriting, and published the book
with only Defonseca's name on the cover. Daniel
furiously denies all the allegations made by Lee
and DeFonseca. She says she intervened in the
manuscript to save the project. She maintained in
court motions that the manuscript Lee turned in
''contained numerous historical errors ... and the
style of writing was too juvenile.''
It also came in late, and was much shorter than
promised, she alleged. As for the claim that Mt.
Ivy shortchanged Lee and Defonseca on royalties,
she insists, ''The weight of the evidence does not
support the jury's findings.''
She said the handling of the overseas royalties
conformed to standard publishing practices. ''There
was not a dime that was not accounted for,'' she
said. That there was money to fence over at all is
a tribute to the book's remarkable overseas
Though Defonseca got TV and newspaper feature
attention, the book got few if any American
reviews. But Boston literary agent Ike Williams
(then head of Boston's Palmer & Dodge literary
agency, since shifted to Hill & Barlow),
representing Mt. Ivy, and Lee and Defonseca for
foreign print and film rights, had good success
The French version, by Editions Laffont, sold
more then 30,000 copies, and the Italian edition,
published by Longanesi, sold more than 37,000.
There were also Dutch and Japanese editions, and
rights were sold to the German publisher Verlag
apparently the book never made it into print
Defonseca had a triumphant French tour, with
readings and TV appearances.Hollywood
Poor US sales notwithstanding -- about 5,000
copies were sold -- the outlook was bright for
other media. Walt Disney studios paid for a
six-month option on a movie, and there were feelers
from other movie producers, including Universal
Pictures and Henson Productions, as well as a
French filmmaker, Marne Productions.
There was television: Defonseca was taped
frolicking with wolves at Wolf Park, an Ipswich
animal park, by a crew from Oprah Winfrey's
program. There were also inquiries from ''20/20''
and ''60 Minutes.''
When Defonseca and Lee filed suit in May 1998,
this interest faded. The Winfrey segment never
aired. The book, ''Misha: A Memoire of the
Holocaust Years'' is as real as those who created
it and quarreled over it. But lost in the conflict
is the question of whether the events it purports
to narrate are fact or fiction.
The book was not unknown to Holocaust scholars,
in addition to Wiesel, even before it appeared.
''It's preposterous,'' says Lawrence L.
Langer of Newton, author of numerous books on
the Holocaust and considered by many the preeminent
authority on survivor narratives. Langer says a
woman -- he can't remember who -- called him about
''Misha'' to get his view of it.
''She sketched the story and I said, 'Don't do
it,''' he recalls. ''She said, 'Why not?' I said,
'because it isn't true.' I said, 'Ask her how she
crossed the Rhine, in the middle of the war, when
the SS is guarding the bridges at both ends. Find
the Elbe on a map and ask how a little girl goes
across that river. She speaks no German, she's
Jewish, poorly dressed, and no one says, 'Who are
you, little girl?'
I said it's a bad idea, don't do it,
it will prove an
Daniel remembers sending the manuscript to
Langer, but not the telephone call. Langer says he
also discussed the story with Vermont-based
historian Raul Hilberg, author of ''The
Destruction of the European Jews,'' and Hilberg
(left) also thought it
impossible. Consulted by phone for this story,
Hilberg reiterated his disbelief.
Boston University professor Wiesel, who
blurbed the book
(left), was in Israel
as this story was written and efforts to reach him
through his staff have been unsuccessful. During an
interview with the Globe, Defonseca
affirmed the truth of her story. Indeed, she said
she had recorded it before.
She 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
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
In fact, Lee herself was uneasy from the start,
especially about Defonseca's way of remembering --
later -- solutions to inconsistencies the
interviewer would point out. ''There were doubts,''
she says, ''but so much seemed credible that I
couldn't just throw doubt on the whole thing.''Fact or
Still, she was worried enough to call an
official (she can't remember his name) of Facing
History and Ourselves, the national organization
that teaches the Holocaust and its lessons in
schools. She recalls the official told her that if
he were her, '''I would not write that, because
it's impossible,' and I went back to the publisher
and said, 'Do you see a problem?' And she said,
'Don't worry. These are the memoirs of a
Daniel herself became nervous in 1999, when
''Fragments,'' a prize-winning Holocaust memoir by
Swiss musician Binjamin
Wilkomirski, was proved to be a fake. ''It
sent a shudder through the industry,'' Daniel says.
''Up until then, publishers had never been called
upon to vet their stories'' to ensure their
To be on the safe side, she put a defensive memo
''From the publisher'' on the Mt. Ivy Web site. It
listed several reasons why Defonseca's story could
be true, but then said,
''Is Misha's story fact
or invention? Without hard evidence one way or
the other, questions will always remain.''
Daniel now says, ''I have no idea whether it is
true or not. My experience is
that all Holocaust stories are far-fetched.
All survivor stories are miracles.''
Holocaust historians, of course, believe it
matters a great deal whether a memoir is true.
''Truth matters where the Holocaust is concerned,''
Langer says. ''I have spent years interviewing
Holocaust survivors. If people start making up
stories, it may make [real witnesses] doubt
their memories. It feeds ammunition to the
skeptical: that everyone exaggerates. But that's
Misha Defonseca makes a compelling impression,
and does not sound like an untruthful person. Asked
why she thinks people are skeptical of her story,
she says, ''Because it is with animals. People are
afraid of animals.''
She says she hopes that now that the court has
returned all rights to the book to her and to Lee
that she will win for it a new and larger American
audience. She also still hopes for a movie deal,
thinking that somehow her story will reconnect her
with the family she lost so long ago.
''If there is a movie,'' she says, ''maybe
someone can see it and say, 'I know her parents.'''
Meanwhile, the other principals to this saga have
moved on. Lee is working on a new book about
American popular music. Daniel says she has lost
faith in the legal system, and has no plans for new
book projects. ''I am burned on publishing right
now,'' she says. ''I think I'm out of the book
business.''© Copyright 2001
Globe Newspaper Company.
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