Jeff D. Gorman — Court House News May 8, 2014
A woman who fabricated a Holocaust memoir must forfeit her share of a $32.4 million judgment that she won from her publishers, the Massachusetts Court of Appeals ruled.
Misha Defonseca struck a deal in 1995 with Mt. Ivy Press and the publisher’s principal, Jane Daniel, for the release of “Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years.”
Defonseca spun a tale of survival that included her killing a Nazi soldier and adoption by a pack of wolves that provided her with food and companionship.
While “Misha” didn’t find a large American audience, it was a bestseller in Canada and Europe. The story was translated into 18 languages and was made into a movie in France called “Survivre Avec les Loups (Surviving With the Wolves).”
Defonseca and her ghostwriter, Vera Lee, won a total of $32.4 million in a judgment against Daniel and Mt. Ivy for “highly improper representations and activities,” as the court described it in the most recent ruling.
Daniel’s trial loss led her on a quest to determine whether Defonseca’s tale was true. She eventually found a document that included Defonseca’s date and place of birth, as well as her mother’s maiden name.
In Belgium, Daniel then dug up Defonseca’s baptismal records, which corroborated the bank information. Daniel also learned that Defonseca, whose real name is Monica Ernestine Josephine De Wael, was enrolled in a Brussels school in 1943 instead of running with the wolf pack.
Daniel and Mt. Ivy sought to have Defonseca’s judgment vacated, and the Massachusetts Court of Appeals decided in 2010 that the publishers had a case.
The plaintiffs “have alleged an extraordinary fraud that touched every part of Defonseca’s case against them and resulted in a huge verdict,” that opinion states.
On remand, the trial court vacated Defonseca’s $7.5 million judgment against Daniel and Mt. Ivy.
Defonseca’s appeal argued that, even though her story had been proven false, she believed it was true during the book-publication process.
She testified that her parents were in fact taken away when she was 4 years old and murdered in Nazi concentration camps, and a researcher who assisted Daniel also purportedly “discovered that Defonseca’s parents … were arrested and executed by the Nazis,” the court noted.
These factors did not sway the Massachusetts Court of Appeals, however, which last week affirmed the decision to vacate Defonseca’s award.
“Here, we express no opinion as to whether Defonseca’s belief in the veracity of her story was reasonable,” Judge Marc Kantrowitz wrote for a three-judge panel. “However, we agree with the second motion judge that, whether Defonseca’s belief was reasonable or not, the introduction in evidence of the actual facts of her history at the trial underlying Mt. Ivy I could have made a significant difference in the jury’s deliberations.”
Kantrowitz noted that the case’s 15-year history stretches back to when Lee sued the defendants in 1998.