A Belgian woman’s story of trekking through the wilderness as a child of the holocaust in search of her parents is at the heart of Netflix’s new documentary, Misha and the Wolves. But the documentary reveals that the truth about Misha Defonseca, née Monique De Wael — and that the real story of her childhood is far different from the one she tells in her best-selling book, Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years, which was later made into a 2007 French movie called Survivre avec les Loups, or Surviving With Wolves.
Misha Defonseca was born Monique De Wael in Etterbeek, Belgium in 1937, according to documents shown in the documentary that were discovered by Belgian genealogist and Holocaust survivor Evelyne Haendel.
But Defonseca told publisher Jane Daniel and several other locals a different story while living in the 1990s in the small town of Millis, Massachusetts. She said that she had evaded Nazis as a Jewish child by hiding alone in the wilderness, living off of meat scraps given to her by friendly wolves. She also said she had fled her foster family at the age of 7 in order to find out what happened to her parents.
Defonseca also said that she did not know her birthplace or her parent’s surnames, and said that the name De Wael had been given to her by her foster family after she was separated from her real parents in the early 1940s.
But after her relationship with her publisher soured and she turned down a chance at presenting her book on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Defonseca accused Daniel of hiding profits from the book and sued, winning a multi-million dollar judgment against Daniel, according to the documentary and The Boston Globe.
Daniel then discovered a bank statement on which Defonseca had written her birthplace and her mother’s maiden name — information that suggested that Defonseca’s story of losing her identity in the war could be false.
Daniel explains in the docuseries that she then hired Haendel to track down documents from Defonseca’s childhood in Belgium. Haendel said she found records of Defonseca’s Catholic baptism and enrollment in a Belgian school during the years when she claimed to have been wandering through the wilderness.
Then, according to the documentary, journalist Marc Metdepenningen tracked down Defonseca’s aunt, who told him the true story of Defonseca’s parents, Robert and Josephine De Wael. In the doc, Metdepenningen explains that he obtained documents that proved Robert De Wael had secretly fought in the resistance in Belgium but was captured by the Nazis and jailed along with his wife. According to the doc, he bargained for the safety of his wife and daughter in exchange for revealing the names of his fellow resistance fighters. As a result, he was branded a traitor, and young Misha, then called Monique, was branded a traitor’s daughter, the doc said.
After the documentation proving her story to be a hoax was released, Defonseca made a statement.
“Yes, my name is Monique De Wael, but I have wanted to forget it since I was 4 years old,” she said in a statement translated from French, according to a 2008 Boston Globe story. “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 spoken under torture in the prison of Saint-Gilles. Ever since I can remember, I felt Jewish. . . . There are times when I find it difficult to differentiate between reality and my inner world. The story in the book is mine. It is not the actual reality — it was my reality, my way of surviving. At first, I did not want to publish it, but then I was convinced by Jane Daniel. I ask forgiveness from all those who feel betrayed.”
According to Misha and the Wolves, for which Defonseca declined to be interviewed, she is still living in Massachusetts with her husband. The judgment against Daniel was partially overturned.
“As we were going along, I thought a lot about why Holocaust narratives have attracted so many hoaxes,” Misha and the Wolves director Sam Hobkinson told The Guardian. “I hope this comes through in the film, that the story Misha told was pretty out there. But the context from which she tells it, her own experiences as a young Jewish girl during the Holocaust, make it very difficult to question. The thing that protected her, that made her hard to question, was the place of authority from which she was telling it. Potentially, that’s why more Holocaust hoax narratives have slipped through, because it’s a sort of sacred ground. Far be it from me to question someone sharing these horrible experiences they’ve gone through.”
Misha and the Wolves is now streaming on Netflix.