The Girl Who Cried Wolf: A Holocaust Fairy Tale

The making of Misha was not without complications.
"Misha actually didn’t have that much concrete to put into the story, not enough to make a whole book," Lee told me in 2001. In an effort to put together a coherent narrative, Lee created scenes out of remembered tidbits, entire conversations out of snippets of dialogue, she said. She read up on the wildlife and landscape of the places Defonseca passed through—France, Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Yugoslavia, Italy—and on the behavior of wolves. When Lee finished a chapter, she would share it with Daniel. By May 1996, a rift had emerged. Lee said Daniel wanted the story to be more lyrical and to include a romantic interest for young Misha; Daniel thought Lee’s manuscript was too short, the tone too juvenile. Ultimately, Daniel took over Misha, re-interviewing Defonseca and reworking large sections of the text herself.

In the months before she published Misha, Daniel heard concerns about the authenticity of the tale. Henryk Broder, a German journalist, wrote a skeptical article for the newsweekly Der Spiegel. In Daniel’s quest to gain blurbs, she had sent the manuscript to academics and historians, including Debórah Dwork, the author of Children with a Star: Jewish Youth in Nazi Europe. Dwork told me: "It wasn’t that there were numerous inaccuracies. It’s that I thought that the whole thing was a fantasy." That’s not what Daniel heard; she wrote Dwork to thank her for "del
ivering the most embarrassing moment of my publishing career," made a few corrections, and blamed any errors on Vera Lee. In a December 1996 letter, Daniel offered Lee the choice of getting paid and taking her name off the book, or withdrawing her contribution to the manuscript. But neither option was acceptable to Lee, who decided to hire a lawyer.

In May 1998, Lee filed a breach-of-contract suit. At first, she went after both Daniel and Defonseca, but Defonseca soon aligned herself with her former coauthor, deciding that Daniel had treated her unfairly. When Daniel had taken over the manuscript, she added Mt. Ivy’s name to the copyright. Mt. Ivy in turn channeled foreign rights payments to an offshore corporation called Mt. Ivy Press International, based in the Turks and Caicos. Daniel insists there was nothing improper about the offshore corporation—she says she set it up for tax purposes—but its existence was among the reasons a jury decided in August 2001 that Daniel and Mt. Ivy had withheld royalties from Defonseca and Lee, and had caused Defonseca "severe emotional distress." The court ordered Daniel to pay $7.5 million to Defonseca, and another $3.3 million to Lee.

By all accounts, the Defonsecas seemed to need the money. Maurice had left Honeywell Bull back in 1988; Der Spiegel would later report that he was laid off after receiving his green card. The precarious finances of the Holocaust survivor and her husband became part of the story behind the story as the publication date neared: The Defonsecas were said to be receiving donations of food and pet care from neighbors, and one generous Millis resident had recently loaned them $5,000 to fend off foreclosure. Stan Kizlinski met Maurice in a state-funded networking group. "We were all out of work at the time," says Kizlinski. "Maurice and I got to be friends." One day, "Maurice gave me a call and said they needed money to help meet their house payments until Misha’s royalties came in." In April 1997, Kizlinski loaned the Defonsecas $1,000; they paid him back $200.

When Lee filed her lawsuit, it froze all business activity involving Misha. With no money coming in from the book, the Defonsecas asked for more help. The president of Congregation Agudath Achim in Medway circulated a letter on behalf of the Defonsecas in 1999. "Misha is in very poor health and her financial situation is dire," it stated. "She is currently offering her furniture for sale just to survive." The entreaty described a clear villain: Jane Daniel, who "refuses to even give Misha a case of books that Misha could sell and get money for food and gas." It also mentioned offers for the film rights to Defonseca’s story, including one for about $1.5 million. "However, Misha cannot enter into any deal until the rights to her story are clear." In February 2001, the Defonsecas filed for bankruptcy. They were $36,000 behind on house payments and owed money to credit card companies and department stores, as well as a handful of neighbors in Millis.

  • Vincent Nunes

    Jane Daniel needs to be made whole from this ordeal.