76-year-old Holocaust memoirist Misha Defonseca has been ordered to forfeit $22.5 million she won from publishers in a suit after it was proven that Defonesca’s survival tale was completely made up. The so-called Holocaust survivor is reportedly not even Jewish.
Defonsca’s tale, Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years, was published in 1997, translated into 18 languages and made into a feature film in France, according to the Daily Mail. The harrowing tale describes a young Jewish girl from Brussels walking across Europe by herself after her parents were abducted by the Nazis. She wrote that she had lived with a pack of wolves and had stabbed a Nazi rapist.
Publisher Jane Daniel heard Defonesca recounting her supposed life story in a Massachusetts synagogue in the 1990s. She had soon signed Defonesca up with ghostwriter Vera Lee to spin the tale into a bestseller.
But Daniel and Defonesca clashed over profits, leading to a lawsuit. A Boston court ordered Daniel to pay Defonesca and Lee $32.4 million in 2005, of which Defonesca received $22.5 million.
After the verdict, Daniel became suspicious that the tale had been fabricated, according to Courthouse News Service. She found a document with Defonesca’s maiden name, Levy, and her date and place of birth. She also learned that Defonesca, whose real name is Monica Ernestine Josephine De Wael, is not Jewish and had been attending school in Brussels when she said she was running with wolves.
Defonesca parents were, in fact, likely involved in the resistance effort and arrested by the Nazis when their daughter was four years old. But she was sent to live with relatives, she admitted, and not to fend for herself.
“This story is mine. It is not actually reality, but my reality, my way of surviving,” Defonseca said by way of defense in a statement given by her lawyers to The Associated Press.
“I ask forgiveness to all who felt betrayed. I beg you to put yourself in my place, of a four-year-old girl who was very lost,” the statement said.