By Adam Kirsch
This week, a Massachusetts court ordered Misha Defonseca, author of the fraudulent memoir Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years, to repay her publisher some $22 million. The news made headlines because of the staggering amount of money involved: The author and her publisher had been embroiled in a series of court battles over royalties for years (though it seems unlikely that even a successful and widely translated book like Misha could possibly have brought in millions).
But without the huge sums at stake, it’s unlikely that the case would have come back into the news. For the odd fact is that writing a fake Holocaust memoir has become, by now, a dog-bites-man story. Misha Defonseca is just the latest example of a genre that also includes Herman Rosenblat, author of the Oprah-endorsed Angel at the Fence—whose fraud was first exposed by The New Republic—and Benjamin Wilkomirski, author of Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood.
Each of these books was popular and celebrated, before knowledgeable readers began to raise questions about their incredible details. In the end, each author had to retract his or her creation. Defonseca, it turned out, did not actually survive the Holocaust by taking shelter among a pack of wolves; indeed, she was not even Jewish, but a Belgian Catholic who spent the war years going to school. Rosenblat did not survive Buchenwald thanks to a girl who threw apples and bread to him over the camp fence—and then, years later, became his wife. And Wilkomirski, far from spending the war years in concentration camps in Poland, was actually a Swiss native named Bruno Grosjean, whose childhood was spent in a Swiss orphanage.
If the fake Holocaust memoir is by now a genre of its own, the godfather of that genre would have to be Jerzy Kosinski, whose novel The Painted Bird, published in 1965, was one of the first Holocaust stories to be first celebrated and then attacked as fictional. Of course, in Kosinski’s case, the book actually was a fiction: He always insisted The Painted Bird was a novel, not an autobiography. Yet he and his publisher deliberately blurred the line between the two genres, cultivating the idea that the experiences of the book’s unnamed child narrator were really Kosinski’s own. In time, more charges were brought against Kosinski, including the suggestions that he had plagiarized The Painted Bird from various Polish sources, and even that the book was not written by him at all, but the product of a ghostwriter.
The Painted Bird set the pattern for the fake Holocaust story in several ways. First, by making the author’s childhood self the protagonist and narrator, such stories claim the mantle of some of the undoubted classics of Holocaust literature, such as Elie Wiesel’s Night. More, they immunize themselves against accusations of inaccuracy: Who, after all, can vouch for the truth of every one of their early memories? From a child’s story we expect not names and dates, but emotional truth and powerful atmosphere. And the fake memoirists can supply these because, most often, they actually did undergo some kind of serious war-related trauma. Kosinski really did spend his childhood in hiding from the Nazis in Poland; 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 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. In The Painted Bird, Kosinski suggested that wartime Poland was a zone not just of war and genocide, but of magic and primitivism. One of the trials he undergoes is being buried up to the neck so that crows can peck out his eyes: This is not the kind of thing that happened in Auschwitz, but it is the kind of thing we might expect to read in the Brothers Grimm. It is a suggestive metaphor that claims the authenticity of a true memory.
The same thing is true, in another way, of Rosenblat’s apple-tossing savior. The idea that a Jewish girl, in hiding nearby, could get close enough to Buchenwald to throw food over the fence was immediately recognizable as fantasy by anyone with knowledge of how the concentration camps were built and policed. But the idea that Rosenblat would then, years later and in another country, coincidentally meet that girl again, and marry her—that is the kind of twist that only a Hollywood movie would expect us to accept. (No wonder Angel at the Fence was supposed to become a movie before it was exposed as a lie.) So, too, with Misha Defonseca—or, to use her real name, Monique de Wael—being fed by wolves. Here is a legend straight out of The Jungle Book, or Roman mythology, not the kind of thing that anyone could seriously believe after a moment’s scrutiny.
What’s worrisome about these books, in fact, is not simply the mendacity of their authors, but the credulity of the reading public that embraces them. The Holocaust, after all, is the collective name we give to a countless number of events that are, individually, unbelievable or inconceivable. Who can believe that what happened to Elie Wiesel, or Primo Levi, or Anne Frank, could really happen? And if the truth is unbelievable, then it is all too natural to extend credit to other stories that are still more unbelievable. If ordinary German soldiers could take pleasure in bayoneting babies, if millions of people could be gassed and burned to ash, then why couldn’t a girl be raised by wolves?
In this way, the Holocaust, by its own hideous logic, becomes a zone of total imaginative freedom, in which anything can happen because everything did happen. But there is a difference between actual evil, with its brutal coldness, and fictional evil, with its frisson of magic and gratifying oddity. It’s of the first importance for historical memory, and for civil society, that we remember that the Holocaust was not just a fantasy or a metaphor, not a name we can apply to any imagination of evil and cruelty, but a fact.