I recently had the opportunity of watching the 2021 Netflix documentary Misha and the Wolves. The film shocked me, not only for its specific revelations about Misha’s fraudulent autobiography of being a Holocaust survivor, but for the dangerous implications this had, for the exercise of oral history and autobiography-writing.
Misha and the Wolves tells the story of an 85-year-old Misha Defonseca who authored a fraudulent memoir about being a Holocaust survivor in 1997 that became popular. Born in Belgium in 1937 as Monique de Wael to Catholic parents, Misha shifted from Paris with her husband Maurice to the United States (Millis, Massachusetts) in 1988. It was in the context of her husband’s unemployment and their poverty in the US that Misha first came up with the idea of fabricating an elaborate hoax.
She had lived a traumatic childhood in Belgium, taunted often as the “daughter of the traitor” for her father Robert de Wael was accused of disclosing the names of resistance members to Nazi inquisitors under torture. Not only was he deported thereafter by the Nazis; his family also faced enormous humiliation. His name after liberation was erased from the list that honoured Nazi victim-resistance members on a stone plaque, on the Schaerbeek municipality walls.
As if to compensate for this shame, Misha fabricated a story about herself as a Jewish girl child, orphaned and adopted (and mistreated) in a Catholic family in Belgium. As a child of seven Misha allegedly escaped and wandered across Belgium, France, and Germany—a way that took her through little-known ways, searching for her Jewish parents who she said were deported in 1941. In her perilous journey across dangerous terrains crawling with wild animals, enemies, and Nazis, Misha said she was sheltered by wolves. She was also said to kill a German soldier in self-defence, and sneaked into the Warsaw Ghetto before finding her way home.
The hoax was revealed after a multi-million-dollar copyright ownership legal battle between Misha and her publishers, that exposed discrepancies in her narrative. In 2008, Monique de Wael’s baptismal certificate and school records were finally discovered, exposing the entire extent of her fabrication. And even thereafter, Misha was mostly unrepentant, saying that the story was internally true for her—an expression of her desire to escape her identity and taunts of being “the traitor’s daughter.”
The hoax invited terrible condemnation from Holocaust survivors. They were angry, hurt, and offended at Misha’s deliberate misuse of Holocaust narratives for what was a crass, money-making ploy. The hoax had the additional implication of casting doubts over the authenticity of all Holocaust narratives. For historians, Misha’s fabrication not only harmed survivors, but opened up dangerous avenues for the rewriting of Holocaust history by Holocaust deniers.
There have been many such situations of terrible war, genocide, violence, and social upheaval in the 20th and 21st century global history of nation-making and citizenship-building, and indeed, the forming of a bedrock understanding of universal human rights. Such periods of upheaval characterized by chaos and exodus, homelessness, and violence, witnessed the story of many individuals who sought shelter, along with anonymity and new identities. These experiences were moreover hardly ever recorded in administrative, official documents. Needless to say, a tremendous amount of this information was to be found only within individual narratives, oral history, autobiographies and memoirs.
It was Urvashi Butalia who first led the drive towards documenting the oral histories of the Indian Partition in 1947, linking the existing silences around Partition with masculine disavowal of ever having participated in violence. It was the same masculine disavowal that Butalia argues in The Other Side of Silence, reproduces community and patriarchal honour, used to silence and prohibit women from recounting their experiences. Partition, like the Holocaust is still alive, because its oral histories, actively remembered by subsequent generations, are also, still alive.
What is the importance, I wonder, of Misha’s hoax in the larger exercise of oral history—the oral history of greatly painful, turbulent histories on a global scale that brought chaos, turmoil, violence, and migration? Though Misha’s hoax, personally offended Holocaust survivors, her story did not contradict the known history of the Holocaust in any way, or the known history of the World War II, or the Nazi occupation of Europe. Her’s was not a Schindler’s List story. She only passively sought her own place of glory and heroism in what was already known, first with the aim of making money, and with the aim of countering childhood stigma. Her hoax is therefore, historically speaking, relatively unimportant on a global scale.
We need more oral history for South Asia as well—to understand the experience of nation-making events and the history of other internal contestations that produce our lived reality—freedom, entitlement, responsibility, safety, and limitation. But Misha’s story made me think. Butalia had, after all, only spoken about silence and the absence of narrative, produced by shame and patriarchal notions of community honour. But there must also have been other similar compensatory stories that shame itself may have produced—stories like Misha’s that did not challenge the master narrative, but only added extra colour and spice to it? The realization made me shudder.
This is an important methodological question for all historians to ponder.