Documentarian Sam Hobkinson (The Kleptocrats, The Hunt for the Boston Bombers) directs this exploration of the events and circumstances surrounding the writing, publishing, and investigation of Misha Defonseca's infamous memoir, as well as the book's reception (both before and after the book was exposed for being fraudulent). (90 min.)
- Photo Courtesy Of Arts Alliance Productions
- SYMPATHY AND SCRUTINY Genealogist Sharon Sergeant (pictured) was one of the primary genealogists who investigated the timeline of events described in Misha Defonseca's memoir, Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years, as examined in the Netflix documentary, Misha and The Wolves.
Caleb It's hard to walk away from Misha and The Wolves without scolding its titular subject, Misha Defonseca, who spent several years impersonating a Holocaust survivor, while making millions of dollars from a fake memoir. This engrossing documentary made me question why I hadn't heard of this bizarre scandal prior to watching the film. Defonseca's 1997 novel, Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years, claims to recount her experiences as a 7-year-old Jewish girl living in Belgium during Nazi occupation. After her parents are arrested and deported, she flees into the forest where she befriends a pack of wolves, which she describes as becoming an adoptive family of sorts. Lying about being raised by wolves is one thing, but pretending to be a Jewish refugee during World War II is quite another. In 2008, after more than a decade of enjoying the book's financial successes (there was even a Disney movie in the works at one point), Defonseca became scrutinized after evidence disproving her tale came to light (including records showing that her family was actually Catholic, not Jewish). As the documentary shows, tracking down these documents was the result of a team effort between several individuals, including Belgian genealogist Evelyne Haendel, who herself is an actual Holocaust survivor (hidden at a young age and adopted into a new family after her parents were deported to Auschwitz in 1942). Haendel playing an integral part in Defonseca's downfall feels like poetic justice to me.
Téa Misha and The Wolves takes viewers on a whirlwind journey of emotions: first evoking sympathy for Defonseca's harrowing story of survival, and then, almost as quickly, eliciting revulsion for this imposter who we quickly learn has sought to profit off of the Holocaust, painting a picture of trauma and suffering she didn't actually experience. Doubt is first cast on Defonseca's story by the publisher of her memoir, Jane Daniel, who actively worked to debunk the story after she was sued by Defonseca to the tune of $22.5 million (apparently for mishandling the book's marketing efforts). Documents uncovered by Daniel, as well as genealogists Haendel and Sharon Sergeant, ultimately expose Defonseca's elaborate web of lies. Far from a harmless fib, Defonseca's tale was an insult to true Holocaust survivors, a blaring falsehood that brought with it the dangerous possibility of drowning out genuine stories of survival and resilience.
Caleb I also appreciate that the documentary spends time with individuals from the author's own small-knit community in Millis, Massachusetts (where she and her husband moved to from Belgium during the late '80s), including friends and neighbors, who were affected by the scandal in less damaging ways, but hurtful nevertheless. "Everybody felt betrayed," says one of the author's next-door neighbors, Pat Cunningham, who first heard Defonseca's fabricated stories over tea one day, years before the book was written and published. Decades later, after hearing the memoir was revealed to be fraudulent, and the author's after-the-fact defense that she always had trouble differentiating between reality and her imagination, Cunningham says she no longer feels comfortable speaking to Defonseca (who still lives in the same town to this day). As easy as it is to root against Defonseca though, I really wish documentarian Sam Hobkinson was able to get her on board for this film (the author refused to be interviewed, although an actress plays her in dramatizations). I want to hear more of her perspective, no matter how skewed.
Téa While Defonseca is the documentary's clear villain, her publisher, Daniel, does not escape scrutiny for her role in propagating such a bizarre and unbelievable story. Holocaust historian Debórah Dwork reveals that she received a letter and a manuscript of Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years from Daniel in 1996 (one year prior to the memoir's publication) and after reading, called Daniel and urged her not to go forward with publishing the story; as Dwork put it, "this narrative just did not work." So why did Daniel decide to publish the memoir? Perhaps the glimmering promise of being picked up by Disney and Oprah Winfrey were just too enticing to resist, particularly for an admittedly small and relatively obscure publishing company such as Daniel's Mt. Ivy Press. Still, the question remains: How could Daniel reconcile Defonseca's outlandish claims with an expert's clear assertion that this story could not possibly be true? Hobkinson subtly ventures to suggest that perhaps Daniel's blind faith in Defonseca's wild story was fueled by her hunger for success. Ultimately, Daniel's willful ignorance would be both her and Defonseca's downfall—because sometimes, a story is just too good to be true. Δ
Split Screen was written by Calendar Editor Caleb Wiseblood and freelancer Téa Main this week. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.