“Thoughts on Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years
Last week novelist Monique De Wael, better known as Misha Defonseca, was ordered to pay $22 million dollars to her former publisher. The judgment handed down by a court in Massachusets comes almost 20 years after Jane Daniel, the owner of the small publishing company Mt. Ivy Press, approached De Wael to write Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years. This faux-mémoir reads like a Disney movie (and actually was optioned for a film by The Walt Disney Company): girl runs away from her adoptive parents, goes on a journey spanning from Belgium to the Ukraine and back. Along the way the young Jewish girl is adopted by a pack of wolves. Despite warnings from a number of reputable writers and researchers, such as the historian Raul Hilberg, that De Wael’s tale was probably a fraud, the book became quite a success selling tens of thousands of copies Europe and North America. Eventually it was picked up by a French Jewish filmmaker and the movie hit the theaters in 2007, only a couple of months before De Wael admitted that the story was actually not true.
There are many reasons to condemn De Wael. One could argue that she capitalized on one of the greatest moral failures in modern history. That she not only misled tens of thousands of people all over the world who take an interest in the Holocaust, but also spit in the face of other survivors. Her work may cause many, including Holocaust deniers, to call into question the validity of others’ accounts of their experiences during the Holocaust. Notwithstanding the disneyesque character of her story, many people did believe her and at the end of day this belief was betrayed. Nevertheless, reading about De Wael I cannot help but feel that it is telling about our relationship with the Holocaust.
In my view De Wael’s tale is indicative of our craving for Holocaust memories. Consider this: at least 65,000+ readers ordered a copy of De Wael’s book. It might sound odd, but I feel we crave their stories because reading a survivor’s testimony makes us feel good. In the eternal battle between good and evil, the good, the righteous trumps evil. They lend meaning to our overwhelmingly secular (Non-)Jewish identities, they reinforce the “Never forget!” and “Am Israel Chai!” mantras, the visits at Auschwitz, Majdanek or Sobibor, and nourish our hopes for rewarding careers in Holocaust museums. De Wael’s book is part of the memory machine, a contraption consisting of Shoah testimony databases, museums, memorial sites, sculptor parks, former death camp sites that continuously churns out a commodity called memory. Take, for example, The USC Shoah Foundation’s archive which currently holds nearly 52,000 testimonies with an additional 36,000 testimonies sitting in the archives of Yad Vashem. How many more videos testifying to the horrors of Dr. Mengele’s selection process at the ramp do we really need? Are 88,000 testimonies enough or should there perhaps be more? How many of them are really true in the narrowest sense of the word, how many of them are embellished, have been stitched together from other testimonies and faint memories? I would argue 88,000 are enough to get the point across: The Holocaust was bad. The Germans were cruel. There were a few good men who did the right thing and thus redeem our belief in humanity. The inflationary manner in which the memory machine spawns more memory, more stories to listen to, to be terrified by, is exhausting, and I would argue counterproductive to what we want to achieve.
Despite our personal feelings, maybe some memories are just not worth retaining for future generations. I am not saying this lightly. Take my Holocaust survivor,who did not want Amcha to send a volunteer who would ask her questions about her time in Auschwitz. Why was that, one might ask? Sure, she must have been traumatized we could respond. Perhaps, though, she simply did not want to talk about her time in the KZ. Auschwitz was part of her life, albeit a relatively short period and she had a life after Auschwitz. Children, grandchildren, a husband who spoke five languages, and a family tree spanning from the 1600s until today. Hundres of thousands of survivors, moved on, built lives in Israel or the United States, had a family and in many cases good and happy lives, filled with much joy and many successes.
If anything, De Wael should make us reconsider our relationship with this memory machine. Do we focus too much on the survivor narrative and their memories? De Wael’s story was too good to be true and yet some 65,000 readers chose to buy into it. Why is that? To believe that a human being would be adopted by wolves, in my view, requires a level of conviction and commitment similar to that which is required to believe in supernatural events and miracles.
De Wael’s story highlights another point worth considering. Although it is not factually accurate, it is still her story. We know that is not true; can we ask what might be true about it? Might it deserve a place in the cannon of Holocaust literature? As students of the Holocaust, what can we take away from De Wael’s story? I would argue that the academic study of the Holocaust should include the liars, the false tales; that perhaps we can get a more complete picture of the impact that the Holocaust had on the minds and inner worlds of individuals that lived through this time period.
I do not want to defend the writer, but I am also not sure I want to condemn her. De Wael’s book, her life’s story, in my opinion, offers us some great insights into our collective conscious.”
To read more about Tim in Hebrew, read an article that appeared in Yedioth Ahronot, an Israeli newspaper, about him last summer.