The Girl Who Cried Wolf: A Holocaust Fairy Tale
On a crisp autumn afternoon in 1997, Monique "Misha" Defonseca drove from her house in Millis to Wolf Hollow, a wildlife center in Ipswich. She was going there to demonstrate how humans and wolves can live in harmony. In the popular imagination, wolves are vicious predators, but at Wolf Hollow they talk about how wolves are intelligent, social creatures that have more to fear from humans than we from them.
Defonseca was living proof of Wolf Hollow’s message: A few months earlier, she had gone there to sign copies of her new book, Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years, which tells the story of a Jewish girl from Brussels who, at the age of seven, loses her parents, runs away from the family that takes her in, and walks for thousands of miles by herself, all the way from Belgium to Ukraine, while evading the Nazis. Along her perilous journey, she stays with a pair of wolves she names Maman Rita and Ita, and later joins a pack of six adults and four pups. "I was like the wolves, a hunted animal, one that would be killed on sight," Defonseca writes in Misha. Later in the book, she says, "I have no idea how many months I spent with them, but I wanted it to last forever."
The book signing back in May had attracted 300 people curious about Defonseca’s incredible story, but this return visit had the potential to reach many more: It was being taped for Oprah. For the segment, Defonseca would go inside two layers of chainlink fence and cavort with wolves once again. Joni Soffron, who runs Wolf Hollow with her family, brought together submissive members of the center’s pack in one of the pens. She gave Defonseca some cubes of cheese to feed them, and told her to crouch down and keep her head as low as theirs.
The Oprah taping had also lured Defonseca’s publisher, Jane Daniel, to Wolf Hollow. Defonseca had a stormy working relationship with Daniel, but the day’s events could not have happened without her. It was Daniel who persuaded Defonseca to turn her wartime memories into a book; Daniel who sought out Soffron at Wolf Hollow; Daniel who engaged a publicist to pitch Misha to Oprah. In its first six months, Misha sold a few thousand copies—not terrible for a Holocaust memoir from a small-time publisher, but not enough to make anyone rich or famous. Still, Misha told a story that could resonate with Oprah‘s audience: a child victimized by adults, a Jew on the run from Nazis, an animal lover who found refuge from the depravity of humans in the embrace of wolves.
Inside the pen, the wolves approached Defonseca and nibbled on the cheese. "The connection they had with each other was immediately like something I had never seen with anyone else," says Soffron. Then a male named Petro got up on his hind legs. Catching a whiff of Defonseca’s hairspray, he opened his jaws and put them around her head. Soffron understood this as a signal of acceptance from Petro, but to anyone less familiar with wolves, it looked as if he were about to bite Defonseca. When Petro let go, one of his fangs scraped her ear and drew blood. The cameras stopped. Defonseca stepped out of the pen and cleaned up her injury. It wasn’t a serious wound, and everyone else appeared more shaken than Defonseca, who went on to answer the Oprah producer’s questions for an hour. At the end of the session, Defonseca howled. Petro and the others howled back.
It seemed like only a matter of time before an Oprah appearance would put Misha on the map. But Defonseca never sat down with Oprah Winfrey in the studio, and the footage from Wolf Hollow never aired. Daniel says Defonseca sabotaged herself by being uncooperative with the show’s efforts to set up her trip to Chicago, and by coming off as too coarse and combative in a subsequent phone call with a producer. (According to Daniel, Defonseca asked if they wanted to film her peeing with wolves, too.) Defonseca, meanwhile, blamed her publisher for failing to follow through on the session at Wolf Hollow, and a judge would concur, identifying the incident as part of a larger scheme by Daniel to take advantage of a Holocaust survivor. Whatever happened, it was for the best. It meant the audience of America’s most popular daytime talk show was never exposed to Monique Defonseca’s lies.