Holocaust Fabulists

Earlier this month, the author of a made-up Holocaust memoir was ordered to pay $22 million to the publisher she duped:

[Misha] Defonseca’s extraordinary story was published almost 20 years ago as Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years. The book describes how, when she was six, the author’s Jewish parents were taken from their home by the Nazis, and how she set off across Belgium, Germany and Poland to find them on foot, living on stolen scraps of food until she was adopted by a pack of wolves. She also claimed to have shot a Nazi soldier in self-defense.

The story was a huge bestseller, and was made into a film in France, but in 2008, it was found to be fabricated. The author – whose real name was found to be Monique De Wael – said that “it’s not the true reality, but it is my reality,” and “there are times when I find it difficult to differentiate between reality and my inner world.

Adam Kirsch notes that in many cases, such fabulists aren’t inventing stories out of whole cloth:

[M]ost often, they actually did undergo some kind of serious war-related trauma. [Jerzy] Kosinski really did spend his childhood in hiding from the Nazis in Poland; [Herman] Rosenblat really did survive Buchenwald. Even Misha Defonseca lost her parents to the Nazis: they were Belgian Resistance fighters who were executed when she was a young child, after which she was raised by relatives. (Only [Benjamin] Wilkomirski appears to have invented every aspect of his story—though even there, it has been suggested that his experiences as a wartime orphan formed the basis of his Holocaust “memories.”)

Where Holocaust fakes go wrong, then, is not necessarily by claiming the mantle of the victim; often enough, they deserve that title. Rather, what they are guilty of is a perverse form of gilding the lily – of making their experiences seem worse than they really were. And not just worse, but more conventionally evil – evil in ways that resemble, not the reality of the Holocaust, but other fictional genres, from fairy tales to Hollywood romances.