During the Second World War, Misha Defonseca was just a little girl, and had been adopted by a Roman Catholic family in Belgium after her Jewish parents were taken away to a Nazi death camp - she never saw them again. But at that time, she was convinced she could track them down, and escaped from her new home with a bag of supplies to go into the woods of Europe, towards Germany. While there, her adventure became even more remarkable, as she was befriended by a pack of wolves which would share their food with her, and keep her alive throughout the rest of the war. But at the turn of the millennium, Misha began to relate her childhood tales to the people around the American community she had settled in, and quickly became famous...
But not necessarily for the right reasons, as we discover as we watch this intriguing documentary from director Sam Hobkinson, one of those efforts from around this time like The Impostor or Three Identical Strangers where it was probably best if you did not know the whole story behind the subject before you watched it. Although Defonseca's account was probably better known than some, having grabbed headlines across the globe, just as some similar yarns had done the same, this type of Holocaust memoir being very big business in the publishing world, and therefore open to unwanted... interference from the less scrupulous who wanted to bask in the glory of huge sympathy these kind of experiences were awarded all those years after the fact. Note: fact.
If you don't mind spoilers, or were not ahead of the documentary thanks to its being part of a rash of these kind of exposes, then you would not be perhaps that surprised to hear if Misha's story was too good to be true, there was a valid reason for this. As her book gained traction, there were offers for her to go on Oprah Winfrey's chat show, a guaranteed million sales boost, yet oddly she proved reluctant, and her publisher could not understand why. She stopped answering calls, and the next thing the publisher knew Misha was taking her to court for exploiting her; in the courtroom, no matter how much evidence the publisher produced that the claims were flimsy at best, to the jury it simply looked like she was bullying a Holocaust survivor and not only did the woman lose, she lost to the sound of a multi-million dollar award. She also lost the appeal.
This was why the publisher decided, out of desperation as much as anything else, it seems, to delve into Misha's tales and found them wanting. With the help of a genealogist and a genuine Belgian Holocaust survivor who was happy to pore through the relevant records, let's just say that as Defonseca began to capitalise on her book across Europe, with chat show appearances, special events held for students and schoolkids, and even a movie deal (Surviving with Wolves, from 2007), behind the scenes things were unravelling. Although Hobkinson deployed a degree of subterfuge himself to keep the pot bubbling away, which seemed somewhat unnecessary considering how engrossing the rest of this was, the main question it brought up was vitally important: what if, in this age of believing the victim, there are those who lie and cheat to cash in on that very empathy? As is pointed out here again and again, if someone tells you they are a survivor of awful events, your first impulse is not to think they're making it up. Yet there is so much cachet in being a victim that these liars appear to be inevitable as a side effect, and one which threatens not only the credibility of the real disadvantaged, but the credibility of truth itself.
[MISHA AND THE WOLVES will be released in cinemas nationwide from Friday 3rd September 2021.]