In her book Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years, Misha Defonseca wrote of her experience of being a young Jewish girl on her own during World War II, fleeing into the woods where she was adopted by wolves, and killing a Nazi soldier.
None of it was true.
Defonseca was not Jewish. Instead of being raised by wolves, she was in school in Belgium.
A Massachusetts judge has ordered Defonseca to return $22.5 million to independent publisher Mt. Ivy Press and its proprietor, Jane Daniel. Judge Marc Kantrowitz said it was "the third, and hopefully last" ruling in the case.
Although the book, published in 1997, never sold more than a few thousand copies in the U.S., it caught hold in Europe. It Italy, it became an opera, and it was made into the French film Surviving With Wolves.
The story's high profile there had drawn some skeptical attention. Some historians questioned facts Defonseca had gotten wrong about key dates during the war, including when Jews were first deported from Belgium. Naturalists questioned her raised-by-wolves narrative.
Yet such arguments were not easy to make. When asked about questions about the story's veracity by the Israeli newspaper Haaetz, the film's director said, "That is exactly like the people who deny the existence of concentration camps. This is a true story. Everything that happened during the Holocaust is unbelievable and impossible to grasp, and people therefore also find it difficult to believe this story."
In America, Misha was quickly the subject of litigation — but not over its authenticity at first.
Co-writer Vera Lee, a French speaker chosen to work with Defonseca, was dismissed before the book's completion and sued for breach of contract. A judge found that Daniel and Mt. Ivy had withheld royalty payments, hidden money in offshore accounts and failed to market the book. Defonseca was awarded damages of $32.4 million.
It was the efforts of publisher Daniel to appeal the ruling that eventually led to the revelations that Defonseca's story was an invention.
An American genealogist worked with Belgian counterparts to track down Defonseca's true origins. She was born Monique De Wael in Brussels, where she attended Catholic school during the time she had claimed to be lost in the woods.
One part of the story was true: As a young girl, she lost her parents. Both had been members of the Resistance and were deported and killed. She was raised by relatives — not wolves.
Defonseca had told her story to the congregation at a Massachusetts temple before she agreed to write the book. When she finally admitted it was a fabrication in 2008, she explained, "This story is mine. It is not actually reality, but my reality, my way of surviving."