Misha Defonseca, a Belgian writer, has come out of a very dark closet. The 71 year-old author of Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years, admitted last week that her memoir was not really a memoir, but a fantasy.
I was appalled when James Frey confessed that his book, A Million Little Pieces, was a fabrication and deceived millions of readers — and Oprah, for that matter — but Defonseca has crossed a different line altogether. The Holocaust is one of the greatest tragedies in history and her book, read as a memoir, was a heart-wrenching tale of survival and perseverance that divulged new details and devastations. As the fantasy it really is, this book is a clear exploitation of a horrific historical event and an insult to those that lived it.
In the book, Defonseca claims Nazis took her parents, that she fled her home in Brussels, killed a soldier, and travelled 3,000 miles with a group of wolves that had adopted her. In reality, she isn’t even Jewish.
Not only did Defonseca deceive readers, but she also fooled Vera Lee, the book’s ghostwriter. As a writer myself, I dream of the day when my name, like Lee’s, appears on the cover of a book, but cannot imagine the betrayal she must now feel. I consider it a great honour when people read my writing, regardless of what their opinion about it may be, and consider it my responsibility to be completely honest in what I write. If Defonseca couldn’t bring herself to do the same, she could have
written a novel, using the Holocaust and her experiences during that time to add to the narrative. Come to think of it, that’s what she did — only she called it a memoir and people believed her.
She is not the first to exploit that gruesome era — Steven Spielberg made a pile of money from his film, Schindler’s List, but at least he had an out: The film never claimed to be 100 per cent accurate. And, of course, plenty of other filmmakers and writers have profited from their depiction of historical events. The difference here, though, is that Defonseca also abused a public trust. With reading on the decline and people over-investing their time in watching TV, I fear that instances of deceit like hers and Frey’s are going to turn people even further away from books. Most people know that you can’t believe most of what is on TV, but for some reason, people give more credence to the written word. Writers should not take that for granted.
For those interested in reading an individual account of the Holocaust, I suggest sticking to The Diary of Anne Frank, which actually is Anne Frank’s diary. Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years, on the other hand, gives merit to that age-old cliché: Don’t judge a book by its cover.