The author of a bestselling Holocaust memoir has been ordered to pay back £13.3 million ($22.5 million) after she admitted much of her sensational story was pure fantasy.
Misha Defonseca, a Belgian writer now living in Massachusetts, claimed she was adopted by a pack of wolves and killed a Nazi soldier to survive after her Jewish parents were taken during the Second World War.
But it emerged that she was not Jewish, as claimed, her real name was Monica Ernestine Josephine De Wael and her tale of four years wandering through forests to escape the Holocaust was untrue.
Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years was published in 1997 and was translated into 18 languages and made into a French film called Survivre Avec Les Loups before Defonseca, 76, admitted that much of it was a lie.
The book, which is still on sale on Amazon for up to £15, took her around the world telling her story to Jewish groups and at Holocaust memorial events.
Its success led to a copyright case brought by Defonseca and her ghostwriter, Vera Lee, against publishers Mt. Ivy Press and they won millions in damages for unpaid royalties and wages in 2002.
But the loss led Jane Daniel, the head of the publishing company, to search for evidence of fraud in the story, which many had already doubted.
It unravelled when documents in Belgium revealed Defonseca was born under a different name and registered as a student at a school in Brussels in 1943, when she was supposedly in the midst of a journey across Nazi-controlled Europe.
“This story is mine. It is not actually reality, but my reality, my way of surviving,” she said in a statement to Associated Press in 2008.
“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.”
Although her parents were captured by Nazi soldiers, they were not Jews but Catholic and suspected members of the Belgian resistance.
They were taken in 1941, when Defonseca was four, not seven as in her memoir, and she went to live with her uncle’s family.
Both of her real-life parents were dead by 1945 but the similarities were not enough to outweigh the differences in court.
The publishers of the book moved to have the judgement against them reversed and in 2010 the Massachusetts Court of Appeals decided they had a case.
Although Defonseca argued she believed the story was true while the book was being written, judges found the false account “tainted” the trial that awarded her damages.
Court papers said the initial judge and jury believed it was a “heart-rending story of Holocaust survival”.
In the final judgement on 29 April, Judge Marc Kantrowitz wrote: “Here, we express no opinion as to whether Defonseca's belief in the veracity of her story was reasonable.”
According to the Courthouse News Service, he continued: “However, we agree with the second motion judge that, whether Defonseca's belief was reasonable or not, the introduction in evidence of the actual facts of her history at the trial underlying Mt. Ivy I could have made a significant difference in the jury's deliberations.”
- More about: