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August 23, 2021 11:33 am
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A Stunning Holocaust Documentary — But Not for Reasons You Suspect

avatar by Alan Zeitlin

Opinion

A screenshot from “Misha and the Wolves.” Courtesy: Netflix.

The congregants at Temple Beth Torah in Massachusetts hang on every word of Misha Defonseca’s story. She is a Holocaust survivor who, at the age of 7, walked thousands of miles through the woods from Belgium to Germany. Crazier still, her story included details that she was in part protected by wolves, and would eat leftover scraps from their meals to survive.

Netflix’s documentary, “Misha and the Wolves,” is jaw-dropping — and that’s not hyperbole. We see that Misha’s story became a memoir that was sold all over the world, a movie in France, and was almost acquired by Disney. Oprah Winfrey invited Misha to come on her show, which would have guaranteed huge sales. She went to France, and on a TV interview, explained how she stabbed a man to death. In another interview, she praised the child actress who played her in the French movie, and then appeared at symposiums in her honor where she saw beautiful paintings that students created, which were inspired by her story.

The problems begin when there’s tension between her and her publisher, Jane Daniel. Daniel is astonished when Defonseca refuses to go to Chicago to be on Winfrey’s show, when any author would kill to be on it. Soon there are claims that Daniel is using Misha as a goldmine, and after a lawsuit for lost royalties and other abuses, a court rules against Daniel to the staggering tune of $22.5 million.

After the verdict, knowing that her finances and reputation are ruined, Daniel goes over Misha’s story in her head, and enlists the help of others to uncover discrepancies in the story. One genealogist examines a picture of Defonseca, where she claimed to be seven years old, and says she is years younger. Another photo — allegedly of a grandfather who is a farmer — shows that his hands are manicured and don’t look like he’s done farming work. Defonseca said she knew her parents’ first names but not the family’s last name — yet the bank records show that Defonseca has written her mother’s maiden name.

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Holocaust survivor Evelyne Haendel is brought in and sees there are more discrepancies with Defonseca’s story. After putting in tons of time and research, Haendel uncovers records from a school that are staggering.

Anyone who has watched painful and harrowing documentaries about Holocaust survivors knows that there are many stories that are unbelievable, but true. There have been children who hid in barns, had to eat unspeakable things, had to steal or even kill to survive, or were hidden by Catholic families. But surviving in the forest with wolves as your defenders is one for the record books.

Daniel knows she is taking a risk. What if it turns out Misha didn’t live with wolves, but the rest of the story is true? Could the trauma have caused some delusions, or maybe Misha was being honest. After all, Daniel has seen with her own eyes that Defonseca has a good relationship with wolves, as evidenced in a taping for the Oprah Winfrey show that would never air.

“Misha and the Wolves” is a fascinating and thrilling documentary that examines the nature of psychology and how sympathy can overtake journalistic duty. We also believe most people are good and honest, and would not dare lie to profit off tragedies. What kind of a twisted person would profit off of the Holocaust like this?

There are so many twists to the story, that you’ll feel like you are on a roller coaster. Director Sam Hobkinson knows how to press all the right buttons. It’s too bad he didn’t get Oprah to comment. A Jewish neighbor says Defonseca went to rabbis to ask for money and got large sums of cash from neighbors when she struggled financially prior to the lawsuit. Do they regret being so generous?

The film is 90 minutes but seems to go by much quicker. It will leave you angry, sad, and likely bewildered.

The author is a writer in New York.

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