Incredible journey

From Misha Defonseca’s flight from the Nazis to publication of her memoir, life has been a battle against the odds

IT’S an amazing story. But then, it’s often said, all Holocaust survivor stories are amazing.

It starts in autumn 1941. A Belgian Jewish girl, age 7, runs away from the family that took her in when her parents were arrested by the Germans. Determined to find her parents, she sets out on foot toward the east.

Over the next four years, she wanders through Germany, Poland, and Ukraine, turning south through Romania and the Balkans, hitching a boat to Italy, then walking back to Belgium via France.

For most of this time, the girl sleeps in forests and is, for weeks at a stretch, fed and protected by packs of friendly wolves. She joins bands of partisans, sneaks into and out of the Warsaw ghetto, witnesses the execution of children, kills a German soldier with a pocket knife, and finally has a happy reunion at war’s end with her Belgian foster grandfather.

That’s the story of Misha Levy Defonseca, 67, who today lives in Milford with her husband, two dogs, and 23 cats. Her book, ”Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years,” was published in 1997 by tiny Mt. Ivy Press, owned by Jane Daniel of Gloucester.

The book drew high-profile endorsements by Leonard P. Zakim, late director of the New England Anti-Defamation League (”a scary must-read for anyone interested in the Holocaust”); journalist/historian Padraig O’Malley; and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel (”very moving”).

Though it sold poorly in the United States, ”Misha” was a surprise bestseller in France and Italy, and aroused interest from Hollywood (Walt Disney) and TV’s Oprah Winfrey. But about a year after it was published, everything froze when Defonseca and coauthor Vera Lee sued the publisher for breach of contract, claiming they never got their share of overseas royalties and that the book was never properly marketed in America.

There was a long and bitter battle. Last summer, a Middlesex Superior Court jury found against the publisher, awarding Defonseca and Lee a total of $10.8 million. The legal quarrel has been complex and very public. And it’s not over — a judge must still review the appropriateness of the jury award.

Daniel, to this day, rejects all the allegations made by the authors.

BUT what has gone almost unobserved is the disquieting subtext of the tale: Can Defonseca’s story be believed?

Two renowned Holocaust scholars told the Globe they do not believe her story. They say it’s impossible for one child to have been everywhere she says she was, to have witnessed all she did.


Globe Staff / October 31, 2001