The Girl Who Cried Wolf: A Holocaust Fairy Tale
Defonseca continued to find people willing to come to her and her husband’s aid. Karen Schulman, a former medical secretary, was at work at a CVS in Medway in 2001 when a customer told her that the Defonsecas didn’t know where they could go with their two dozen cats and two dogs. Schulman, who is Jewish but not a practicing Jew, had heard the story of Misha. She offered the Defonsecas four rooms in her ranch-style house in Milford. "I told them they would stay with me as long as they needed," says Schulman. "I never wanted a dime, but they insisted on giving me $500 a month. We would see each other in the kitchen, occasionally have dinner. They would speak French, they would eat, go back to their room. They were very private." Schulman bought a carpeted tree for the Defonsecas’ cats; the Defonsecas fed the Schulmans’ miniature schnauzer. In August 2001, Schulman drove with the couple to the courthouse in Cambridge for the trial over Defonseca’s book, and sat in the gallery to support her.
Schulman would also sometimes chauffeur Defonseca to Walpole State Prison, where Defonseca talked with her friend Joe Labriola, serving life for a drug-related murder he insists he did not commit. They had met while Defonseca visited Norfolk Prison in 1996 to talk to a group of Vietnam vets. Defonseca, who told of killing a Nazi soldier, connected with the inmate over the trauma of having committed violence in wartime. She began to visit him as often as once a week. They sent hundreds of letters back and forth, and Labriola wrote her poetry. "Joe is one of the rare people to whom I would trust my very life," she wrote in the foreword to Prisms of War, a collection of his prison poetry. "We both saw in each other not only the physical wounds, but also more importantly, the invisible and terrible wounds that were much later termed to be Post Traumatic Stress Disorder."
Defonseca told Labriola she had lost her home in Millis, and that she and Maurice were in difficult straits. Between May 2001 and June 2002, Labriola sent Defonseca five checks totaling $3,000 as a gift, of which she repaid part.
The Defonsecas were still staying with the Schulmans on April 17, 2002, when the judge in the case tripled the award, giving $22.5 million to Defonseca and $9.9 million to Lee. "Mt. Ivy and Daniel’s business dealings with Defonseca and Lee were clearly outside the penumbra of any established concept of fairness," the judge, Elizabeth Fahey, wrote in her finding of fact. Obviously moved by Defonseca’s story and ruling accordingly, Fahey nevertheless wondered about the Defonsecas’ continued money trouble. Despite all they suggested, "the Defonsecas’ three bank accounts reveal[ed] deposits between December 1996 and February 2000 of over $243,700," she wrote. "The evidence never made clear how, notwithstanding that amount of deposits, the Defonsecas were claiming financial hardship." Indeed, the Defonsecas’ bankruptcy proceedings were never completed, and the Defonsecas were ultimately able to sell their home in June 2001.
Karen Schulman did not know about the Defonsecas’ deposits, and the judge’s ruling was quickly appealed by Jane Daniel, freezing the award once more. Schulman had given the Defonsecas her word that they could stay in her house as long as they needed, and she intended to honor that promise. "You have to understand," Schulman says. "She said to me, ‘Hitler took my family. I have no family members. My animals are my family.’" But the Defonsecas’ presence became a source of tension with Schulman’s daughter, Joelle Fantini, who had lost her apartment and needed a place to stay, and thought the Defonsecas were taking advantage of her mother. "They would always speak French at the dinner table to each other," Fantini says. "That was a red flag." Despite the couple’s continued reliance on charitable assistance, by the fall of 2003, Schulman and her daughter say, Misha Defonseca was buying large amounts of pet food and receiving packages by mail order. "She always showered my husband, my son, my parents, myself with gifts," says Fantini. The Defonsecas also showed up in new cars: Misha a blue Mazda sedan, Maurice a red Honda Element. The Schulmans asked the Defonsecas to move out, and in the end had to consult a lawyer, who sent a notice to quit the premises. In November 2003, almost two and a half years after they moved in, the Defonsecas bought a house in Dudley, near the Connecticut border, for $190,000. They did not need a mortgage.
On May 17, 2005, an appeals court upheld the judgment against Daniel. Lacking the tens of millions she’d need to comply with the ruling, she negotiated settlements with Defonseca and Lee. She paid Defonseca $425,000 that she was to inherit from her father, and, after spending a night in the Framingham jail in May 2006 for falling behi
nd on her payments to Lee, agreed to let Lee’s lawyer sell her historic home in Gloucester, which she’d bought in 1998 and operated as a bed and breakfast.
It was only then that Daniel began probing whether Defonseca was really a Holocaust survivor. Before the first trial, in 2001, she’d told me, "It’s not our job to decide for the world what is or isn’t true." But her sleuthing in 2006 uncovered financial documents in the court records for Monique Ernestine Defonseca, with the birth date May 12, 1937. (This would make Defonseca four at the beginning of her ordeal; in Misha, she claims she was seven.) Daniel tried working with private investigators, but they made little headway. Then, in August 2007, she launched a blog with the hopeful title Bestseller! It would be "a real book being written in real time," she wrote in the first post, which also included a book jacket design (the word "Bestseller!" in screaming red type, a courthouse, a statue of blind justice) as well as her e-mail address and phone number. "I especially hope to hear from those of you who may have been there at the time, or who knew the people I am writing about."
In December 2007, Daniel heard from Sharon Sergeant, a Waltham-based genealogist. Sergeant had worked as a consultant at Honeywell Bull when Maurice had been an executive there, but they had never met. She stumbled onto Bestseller! through a link on the blog of an attorney she knows. "I said, ‘Oh my God, this is crazy,’" Sergeant says. As she kept reading, she became convinced that the mystery behind Defonseca’s identity could be resolved. "I said, ‘There has to be a way,’ especially because I knew more and more records were coming out"—archives being opened to the public, or made available in digital form.
"I contacted Jane, and I said, ‘I think this case can be solved.’ And she said, ‘Really?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, it’s not going to be easy, because everybody likes this story. There are all these emotional issues.’" Before getting involved, Sergeant did some research on Daniel. She also talked over the project with a friend who is a child survivor of the Holocaust, who reminded her that Daniel "has 33 million reasons why she wants this to be a fraud." But in the end, Sergeant took on the Misha project, doing the work pro bono. For years, Daniel had been cast as Defonseca’s tormentor, but Sergeant saw Daniel as the damsel in distress. "Jane doesn’t have any money. She’s also in a crisis situation, because of the judgment. The last plug is going to be pulled momentarily: the house, the contents, her livelihood."
Genealogy has an image as a fuzzy pursuit for hobbyists who poke around dusty church basements and hunch over microfilm machines in search of their seventh cousin three times removed. But Sergeant approaches the discipline with as much rigor as she did her earlier work at Honeywell Bull. "If it’s a big complex project, I like it," says Sergeant. Tapping into her network of contacts, she found forensic genealogists who offered to analyze known photographs of Defonseca, and an amateur genealogist in Belgium, herself a hidden child, to dig through local phone books and deportation lists and archives. Sergeant and her team looked for information about the family reputed to have hidden Misha and about Monique De Wael, the identity that Defonseca says was imposed upon her after the war. Sergeant’s Belgian contact turned up a baptismal certificate for Monique De Wael. It, too, carried the birth date May 12, 1937, further proof that Misha had been four and not seven when she began her journey across Europe. The Belgian contact also found a roster that placed Monique in elementary school in the fall of 1943, when Defonseca claimed to be living with a wolf pack in Ukraine. Daniel posted these documents on her blog this past February.
By then, Sergeant and her team weren’t the only doubters pursuing Defonseca. The movie Survivre avec les loups, by the French Jewish filmmaker Véra Belmont, opened in France and Belgium in mid-January, putting Defonseca in the spotlight as never before. Enraged by the film, Serge Aroles, the author of a skeptical volume about feral children, flagged inaccuracies in Defonseca’s descriptions of animal behavior and wartime history. Aroles contacted Maxime Steinberg, the leading historian of the Holocaust in Belgium, who spoke out against Defonseca’s memoir on national television on February 20; Daniel’s blog could be seen on a computer screen in the background. Then Marc Metdepenningen of the Brussels newspaper Le Soir reported that Monique De Wael’s parents, Robert and Joséphine, had been members of the Belgian resistance and died in Nazi custody.
For two decades, Defonseca had insisted that she was Misha, the girl who survived with wolves. On February 22, she told a reporter for Le Soir that she was "extremely wounded" by all the accusations made against her. A week later, Le Soir presented Defonseca with a dossier of information, including statements from a De Wael relative who knew the real story, prompting Defonseca to release a confession through a Brussels lawyer. Monique’s mother, Joséphine De Wael, died a loyal member of the resistance, but Robert, Monique’s father, had betrayed his fellow resistance fighters, giving their names to the Nazis. Monique was raised by her grandfather, Ernest De Wael. When she was 15, she appealed to a Belgian commission to declare her father a political prisoner, making her eligible for state benefits. But with her father deemed a traitor, her appeal was denied.
"Yes, my name is Monique De Wael, but I’ve wanted to forget that since I was four years old," Defonseca said in her statement. The story of Misha, she went on, "is not actual reality, but it was my reality, my way of surviving…. I ask forgiveness of all those who feel betrayed, but I beg them to put themselves in the place of a four-year-old girl who had lost everything, who had to survive, who fell into an abyss of solitude, and to understand that I never wanted anything other than to ease my suffering."