Incredible journey

From Misha Defonseca's flight from the Nazis to publication of her memoir, life has been a battle against the odds

Email|Print| Text size + By David Mehegan
Globe Staff / October 31, 2001

IT'S 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 Gloucester.

The book drew high-profile endorsements by Leonard P. Zakim, late director of the New England Anti-Defamation 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 America.

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 award.

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 did.

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 Lee.

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 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.''

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 of opinion

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 in.''

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 success.

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 overseas.

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 [sic], though apparently the book never made it into print there.

Defonseca had a triumphant French tour, with readings and TV appearances.

Hollywood calls

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 embarrassment.''

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 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.''

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 fiction?

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 child.'''

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 accuracy.

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 not true.''

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.''

David Mehegan can be reached by e-mail at

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