The Girl Who Cried Wolf: A Holocaust Fairy Tale
I first heard about Misha two years later, in 1999, at a conference in Prague for child survivors of the Holocaust. I was there researching a book I was writing about a man who called himself Binjamin Wilkomirski. He had drawn upon my own family history in creating an identity as a Jewish child survivor of the Holocaust, claiming kinship with an Avram Wilkomirski of Riga, Latvia, who was my great-grandmother’s brother. My family learned of Binjamin after he published a memoir, Fragments, which won the 1996 National Jewish Book Award for Autobiography and Memoir, and similar prizes in England and France. By the time I arrived in Prague, however, Fragments had been exposed as a hoax: Binjamin was in fact a Catholic from Switzerland named Bruno, who’d indeed had a tumultuous early childhood—abandoned by his father and mother, maltreated by a foster family, and finally adopted by a wealthy Zurich doctor and his wife—but had never encountered the Nazis, let alone spent time in concentration camps, as he claimed.
My interest in a phony Holocaust survivor was not always the best conversation starter at a conference of authentic ones, but one child survivor I managed to meet there suggested I look into Misha. Back home, I ordered a copy and found it unbelievable. There were similarities to Fragments: the lurid specificity of the violence as contrasted with the vagueness of basic information; the breadth of the narrator’s experiences, which encompassed the entirety of the Holocaust. Then there was the tiny compass embedded in a cowrie shell (a photo appears in Misha) that Defonseca says she used to find her way east—an Eagle Scout would have a hard time navigating with this souvenir. She said she had stabbed to death a German soldier twice her size whom she had just seen rape and murder a young woman. And claimed that she had snuck into the Warsaw Ghetto, and, even more extraordinary, snuck out. And that she had lived with wolves, not once but twice.
But even if the memoir was implausible, Defonseca could still be a Jewish child survivor of the Holocaust. As long as she insisted on her memories, the only way to expose Defonseca would be through hard evidence: wartime records, photographs, genetic samples. To learn more about Misha, I wrote to Holocaust scholars, hidden-child groups, and municipal archives in Brussels, to little avail; Belgium has strong privacy laws that protect personal records. And when I raised the question of authenticity with Ramona Hamblin, a lawyer who at one time represented Defonseca, she argued that the core of the story was true, and that anything dubious about Misha was an embellishment or misrepresentation not by its author, but instead by her publisher, Jane Daniel. Hamblin clearly did not want Defonseca to be discussed in the context of Binjamin Wilkomirski, and sent letters to me and to my editor in an attempt to persuade us to leave her client out of the book I was writing about him. "It is not only unfair to cast aspersions on Misha for [Daniel's] overreaching acts of censorship, it is dishonest," Hamblin wrote. My book A Life in Pieces came out in 2002, with only a brief discussion of Misha, and many unanswered questions.