At just six years old, Misha Defonseca trudged across three countries to try to find her Jewish parents who had been carted off to Auschwitz by the Nazis. She collapsed in a forest but was rescued by pack of wolves who adopted her as their cub.
Her story became the best-selling Holocaust autobiography, Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years. The only problem? It was not fact, but fiction.
The book caused a literary sensation on release in 1997. But more than 10 years later – and just a few weeks after a film adaptation, Survivre Avec Les Loups (Surviving with Wolves), premiered in France – it has been revealed that not only did she invent the story but that she is the Roman-Catholic daughter of an alleged wartime collaborator.
The Belgian author admitted to the national newspaper Le Soir that she had fabricated the tale, after being presented with what the paper described as "irrefutable" evidence that her story was false. Le Soir also said her birth date was several years later then claimed in the novel.
"The book is a story, it's my story," said the writer, in a statement issued under her real name, Monique De Wael. "It's not the true reality, but it is my reality. There are times when I find it difficult to differentiate between reality and my inner world."
Ms De Wael, who now lives in the US, issued a bizarre defence of her behaviour, highlighting the parallels between her actual childhood, and that which she invented.
"Yes, my name is Monique De Wael, but I have wanted to forget it since I was four years old," she said. "My parents were arrested and I was taken in by my grandfather, Ernest De Wael, and my uncle, Maurice De Wael. I was called 'daughter of a traitor' because my father was suspected of having talked under torture in the prison of Saint-Gilles. Ever since I can remember, I felt Jewish."
In the book, De Wael's parents are taken from their home in Belgium and herded off to the concentration camp at Auschwitz.
Told only that her family had "gone east", Misha sets off in pursuit, trekking across Belgium, Germany and Poland. The wolves that find her in the forest feed her and protect her from other predators.
Some time later, her strength restored, Misha continues on her journey, wandering through Ukraine, Romania and Italy before arriving back home in Belgium. She is never reunited with her parents.
The 71-year-old author also blamed her estranged publisher, Jane Daniel, for convincing her to release the book. "At first, I did not want to publish it, but then I was convinced by Jane Daniel," said Ms De Wael. The author successfully sued Ms Daniel, and her company, Mt Ivy Press, for $22.5m (£11.3m) in 2005 after claiming the company was withholding royalties.
While the writer begs for the forgiveness of "all those readers who feel betrayed", the revelations have generated an angry online response from people who feel they were hoodwinked into buying her memoir. In a letter to Le Soir, Ms De Wael's lawyer, Marc Uyttendaele, said: "It matters little whether the account is real or partly allegorical, it is the product of absolute good faith, a cry of suffering and an act of courage. In that it deserves only respect."