Misha and the Wolves: an incredible survival story that was too good to be true – The Guardian

Posted By on August 13, 2021

At the Temple Beth Torah in Holliston, Massachusetts, congregant Misha Defonseca bared her soul on Holocaust Remembrance Day in 1989, or perhaps 1990. As is the case with most aspects of the episode shed set in motion on that January morning, the particulars are murky.

She spun an extraordinary yarn recounting her childhood years, from fleeing her home in Belgium after the Nazis apprehended her resistance-fighter parents, to a grueling odyssey on foot across occupied Europe, to an interlude living feral under the tutelage of a wild wolfpack. Her life story had all the tragedy and triumph of a film or a novel or, as fellow Beth Torah congregant and publisher Jane Daniel would soon persuade her, a memoir. Misha: a Mmoire of the Holocaust Years was a runaway success, complete with a co-sign from Oprah, a French film adaptation and a prospective adaptation deal with Disney.

But as suspicions over veracity arose and nudged her words from incredible to not-credible, everything would soon come undone in swift and embarrassing fashion, leading to years of legal battles and millions in fines.

Sam Hobkinson, director of the new Netflix documentary Misha and the Wolves, was instantly intrigued by Defonsecas tale and the layers of meta-narrative surrounding it, like a gobstopper of deception. Six years ago, I came across this whole affair in a small article in a British newspaper, Hobkinson told the Guardian from his home in London. It was about the ongoing court case in Massachusetts, into the tail end of this whole thing, and this struck me as fascinating, insofar as it was a look into how and why we believe things we are told to be true. It took the shape of a documentary about storytelling itself, in a way.

And in the age of fake news, when truth is a slippery concept, this would be particularly fitting. I researched more and more into the background of this trial and couldnt believe the story Id happened upon.

While dissecting that paradoxical phenomenon of believing the unbelievable, his film doubles as tense reportage tracing the trail of the genealogists and other self-appointed quasi-detectives as they sniff out the facts. He reveals critical facts at the same pace that they were uncovered at the time, leaning into the natural suspense that Misha could only invent. I wanted to approach this like a thriller director, and for the audience to experience this story as its participants would have, Hobkinson says. People went into this blind and unknowing, the friends of Misha and the publishers, and they had a gut-wrenching revelation as the story unfolded. I wanted to tell it so that the audience could share in that.

Though playing his cards close to the vest charged up the excitement of what he calls a past-tense story, Hobkinson also recognises that withholding information can be delicate business. He was wary of crossing the line that separates savvy narrative construction from cheap rigging of the game. The director explains that this ethical quandary was in the forefront of our minds all along.

We had this idea of folding in untruths to the telling of the story, he says. We wanted the film-making to reflect that artifice, and we sought out devices that could assist in that. But in simple terms, for documentary film-making, the viewer needs to leave the cinema or finish streaming the series, whatever youre doing armed with all the information there is to know. Along the way, to make the telling more interesting and representative of this storys themes, I think its fair game to hold things back and misdirect the audience. As long as youve delivered everything you know on the subject once all is said and done.

He does just that with the assistance of the self-appointed investigators who trawled file cabinets and library shelves for proof of Defonsecas claims or proof of their falsehood. Hobkinson saw the ethically shady Defonseca and her exploitative publisher as flawed, complex characters, leaving the protagonist role to one Evelyne Haendel, a fellow Belgian survivor and hidden child resentful of the idea that someone could turn the components of her own trauma into a lucrative fib. The flinty old woman was at first reluctant to participate in the production and relive events from years earlier, but once she did, she was open and committed in sharing both her recollections and her reflections on them. Now, the film acts as an unwitting tribute to her memory; she died of lung cancer a few months after recording her segments of the film, having shown Hobkinson what journalistic determination looks like.

One of the things that interested me about [this process] was how it addresses the process of documentary-making, he says. You have the publisher, a woman whos discovered what she thinks is an amazing true story that she wants to tell to the world. And to some extent, shes so bent on telling this story for various reasons that she doesnt do the homework she shouldve. I kept thinking, There but for the grace of God go I. When it comes to finding new stories, the experience of this film has taught me to do my due diligence and then some.

He realised that he was handling sensitive material from the outset: the intersection of Holocaust studies and skepticism is hazardous territory. The devastation of the Shoah has attracted an unusual number of hoaxers beyond Defonseca, from Jerzy Kosinskis fabrications in The Painted Bird to Binjamin Wilkomirskis debunked memoir Fragments to a similar exposure of Herman Rosenblats Angel at the Fence. More than simple literary misrepresentation, these incidents give ammunition to Holocaust deniers. You dont take on subject matter like this lightly, Hobkinson says. You have to be conscious of whether you might be fanning the flames of Holocaust denial. There were some financiers who were worried about participating for that reason they felt it was queasy, highlighting the fact that some people fabricate Holocaust stories. Deniers would have us thinking that if we can claim one story to be untrue, how can we believe the rest? We cant push this issue under the rug, best to tackle it head-on. I wanted to wrestle the narrative back from the Holocaust deniers.

That imperative shapes the final scenes of the film, which point not toward the frisson of scandal, but to the question of who can be entrusted with stewardship of history. Defonsecas lies and their fallout illustrate the vital importance of safeguarding the truth, and how easily the appearance of truth can be appropriated, manipulated and abused. For the dwindling number of Holocaust survivors, nothing could be more crucial than the maintenance and preservation of the record. This requires a trust that Hobkinson, along with his audience, learn can be all too easily abused.

As we were going along, I thought a lot about why Holocaust narratives have attracted so many hoaxes, Hobkinson says. 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, thats why more Holocaust hoax narratives have slipped through, because its a sort of sacred ground. Far be it from me to question someone sharing these horrible experiences theyve gone through.

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Misha and the Wolves: an incredible survival story that was too good to be true - The Guardian

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