This Is How Fake Holocaust Survivor Misha Defonseca Was Caught

"Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years" was a book that astounded everyone who read it. The story of a Jewish girl who traveled by foot all the way from Brussels to Ukraine to find her stolen parents, living with wolves the whole time. "Misha" was translated into 18 languages and became a bestseller in multiple European countries. Of course it did — the story it told seemed too incredible to be true. That's because it wasn't.

The book's author, Misha Defonseca (whose real name was Monique De Wael), had made the whole thing up. Defonseca wasn't even Jewish in background; her parents were Catholic Belgians, and while they had indeed been taken by Nazis for being part of the Belgian resistance, the Nazis had killed them; Defonseca, meanwhile, had lived a relatively peaceful existence during that time, growing up in the home of her father and grandfather.

It wasn't until 2008 — 11 years after the book's publication — that the truth finally came out and the author was ordered to pay more than $20 million in damages to her publisher (via The Guardian). Here's the crazy story of how the truth was discovered.

Defonseca's publisher failed to pay her royalties

"Misha" was originally put out by Massachusetts-based publisher Mt. Ivy Press, a self-described "one-woman operation" (via People Pill) run by Jane Daniel. Daniel had originally heard Defonseca tell her Holocaust survival stories to the synagogue she attended with her Jewish husband and thought they would make a great book; while Defonseca had initially been reluctant to write anything, she agreed to work with a ghost writer. The resulting book went on to win both acclaim and financial success, including preselling the film rights to Disney (though no film ever was made).

In perfect circumstances, this sort of success ought to lead to celebration among all involved; unfortunately, both Defonseca and her ghostwriter, Vera Lee, claimed to have never been paid anything of the books' receipts. Both filed lawsuits against Daniel, and the court ruled in their favor, ordering Daniel to pay Defonseca $22.5 million and Lee nearly $10 million. Even after the success of "Misha," this proved an exorbitant amount for Daniel, forcing her to hand over her inheritance and sell her home to cover payments that she eventually negotiated down significantly (via Boston Magazine).

Suddenly, though, with all these payments looming, Daniel found herself less interested in pretending she believed Defonseca's story.

Defonseca's publisher dug into her genealogy

While Daniel was digging into ways to fight the settlement, she turned up something that directly contradicted Defonseca's story: court records that showed Defonseca had been 4 years old at the time the Nazis took her parents, not 7 as she claimed in her memoir. Suspecting that she would find more if she dug deeper, Daniel launched a blog called "Bestseller!," claiming that it would be a "a real book being written in real time" about her quest to dig up the truth about Defonseca. The blog eventually caught the attention of forensic genealogist Sharon Sergeant, who offered her services to Daniel pro bono.

Working with her colleague Colleen Fitzpatrick, Sergeant was able to dig up even more evidence that Defonseca wasn't who she claimed to be, including a school register that showed as enrolled in classes during the time she was allegedly living with wolves and a baptismal certificate that proved her Catholic background (via Boston Magazine).

In 2014, with Defonseca's story thoroughly discredited, a court ordered her to pay back the money Daniel had given her, an amount totaling $22.5 million (via The Guardian). Asked for comment, Defonseca offered, "Ever since I can remember, I felt Jewish ... [the book is] not the true reality, but it is my reality."