The Girl Who Cried Wolf: A Holocaust Fairy Tale
According to Misha, Defonseca arrived in the Unite
d States in December 1985 "with my husband, my son, and all my pets." Maurice Defonseca, a Belgian who’d spent his career working for the computer firm Honeywell Bull, had just been transferred to an executive job in the Boston area. According to one friend, the couple had met while she was working as a receptionist at Honeywell Bull in Brussels. (The Defonsecas declined to speak on the record for this story. Maurice told me his wife is undergoing therapy and is unable to talk.) The Defonsecas bought a house in Millis in 1985. Though her first name was Monique, in America she went by Misha. Before Maurice, she had been married to a Belgian named Morris Levy, and she often used Levy as a middle name, bolstering her Jewish bona fides. "We went to her bat mitzvah, we’ve gone to her house to celebrate Yom Kippur," says Valerie Sullivan, whose late mother, Odette, counted Misha as a close friend.
The Defonsecas joined a Conservative synagogue, Temple Beth Torah, in Holliston. "She said she was a survivor. She was obviously very traumatized, but she had never talked about it," says Rabbi Joanne Yocheved Heiligman, who spent two years at Temple Beth Torah. "She wasn’t pushing to tell the story—she told the story when I asked her." In 1989 or 1990, Defonseca told Heiligman that she had been "saved by animals." It was an amazing tale, but there are many stories of improbable survival from the Holocaust: "I have a cousin who rode around Europe under railroad cars," the rabbi says. A couple of weeks later, Heiligman invited Defonseca to ascend the bimah—the platform from which the Torah is read—on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, and bear witness in public for the first time. The congregation lit six memorial candles; Defonseca made the unusual request that one be dedicated to the animals. The rabbi acquiesced. She says the congregation found it moving.
Those who know Defonseca mention her strong French accent, penetrating blue eyes, and penchant for speaking her mind, but what comes up most often is her connection with animals. "She loves them; they love her," says Sullivan. "I’ve recovered birds that are injured, and she’s brought them back to health." Descriptions of the Defonseca home in Millis tell of a house overrun with animals—many cats, a few dogs—and a yard given over to wildlife: raccoons, squirrels, skunks. "She doesn’t like people. She’d rather be around animals," says Heiligman.
It was Defonseca’s love for one particular animal that brought her into the orbit of Jane Daniel. Separated, with two grown children, and living in Newton, Daniel had worked in marketing and had also done some freelance writing. In 1990, Daniel wrote How to Protect Your Life Savings from Catastrophic Illness and Nursing Homes with Harley Gordon, a Boston lawyer, and published the book herself. When bookstores showed little interest in stocking it, Gordon and Daniel set up a toll-free number and marketed it themselves. The book started to sell, and Simon & Schuster offered to take it on. But having borne all the risk, the duo did not see any reason to share the rewards. "A contract with a publisher," she told the Boston Globe at the time, "means that everything is entirely and exclusively for the benefit of the publisher." How to Protect Your Life Savings also attracted the interest of Cleveland attorney Armond Budish, who noticed that some of the charts that appeared in his how-to book also appeared in Gordon and Daniel’s. In 1992, a judge ordered Gordon and Daniel to take their title off the market. They did, then sued their own lawyers for malpractice.
The drama over How to Protect Your Life Savings did not scare Daniel away from the publishing business, however. In 1993, she set up an imprint called Mt. Ivy Press, running it out of her Newton home, and put out a few titles: Weddings for Complicated Families, Main Dish Salads, and Gigolos: The Secret Lives of Men Who Service Women. At the same time, Daniel began doing public relations for Play It Again Video, a Needham company that strings together family photos into multimedia slide shows. When Daniel asked Play It Again what its most memorable project had been, her client told her about a two-and-a-half-hour memorial video for a terrier named Jimmy. It had been commissioned by Jimmy’s owner, Misha Defonseca.
Daniel arranged to meet Defonseca at a restaurant in Sherborn in 1994, hoping to pitch the Jimmy video as a newspaper story that would give Play It Again some exposure. As they talked, Defonseca told her how she had survived the Holocaust by walking across Europe and living with wolves. Daniel said she thought it would make a great book.
Though Defonseca had given talks locally about her wartime ordeal since coming out at Temple Beth Torah, she told Daniel she had no plans to write a memoir. Still, Daniel persisted, and, after several visits to the Defonsecas in Millis, she managed to sign her up. Mt. Ivy did not offer Defonseca an advance, but the contract guaranteed royalty payments and a share of film and foreign publishing rights. To get around the obstacle of Defonseca’s limited English, Daniel asked her friend and next-door neighbor, Vera Lee, to work on the project with her. Lee, who had taught French at Boston College and run the French Library in Boston, wouldn’t get paid up front for interviewing Defonseca and writing a manuscript based on their conversations, but she would share the copyright and the proceeds. While all three women would invest their time in Misha for an uncertain reward, Defonseca’s singular story seemed to have more commercial potential than Main Dish Salads.
Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years came out in early April 1997, with blurbs from leading Jewish figures; Elie Wiesel, for one, called it "very moving." Working with Elaine Rogers at the Boston literary agency Palmer & Dodge, Mt. Ivy sold a one-year film option to Disney before publication. By the time Mt. Ivy put out Misha, Palmer & Dodge had also sold the foreign rights in several countries, including a six-figure deal for the German edition. Defonseca retained the French rights and crafted a second version of her life story that was published in France later that year. It went on to become a bestseller.