Written and directed by Sam Hobkinson. Plugs: None. Newly available streaming on Netflix. The new documentary film Misha and the Wolves examines the story of a Holliston, Massachusetts, woman named Misha Defonseca who stunned her congregation on Holocaust Remembrance Day by breaking her silence about her past:
She was not only a Holocaust survivor, but as a young girl had fled her home in Belgium and walked through forests to Germany in search of her parents, last seen in concentration camps. That was remarkable and brave enough, but she hadn’t done it alone; she was joined (and adopted) by a pack of wild wolves who helped her in her journey.
Misha’s incredible life story caught the attention of a friend who ran a small publishing house, and was soon turned into a best-selling 1997 book titled Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years. It caught the influential (if not particularly discerning) eye of Oprah Winfrey, and would soon be published in several languages and optioned for films. Misha became a celebrity, touring the world telling her inspiring story of courage and overcoming adversity.
Eventually, however, some suspected that her story was in fact literally incredible —not credible. Misha and the Wolves expertly tracks the rise and fall of Misha’s story. Even though I’d read basic outlines of the events, the film contains some surprising plot twists that I won’t reveal, as there are enough spoilers already. It’s not just the story of a strange story of a (suspected) hoax, but perhaps more importantly, it’s the story of determined people who joined forces to reveal the truth.
The public is of course widely —and rightly— counseled to “believe the victim” in many circumstances. That is the appropriate default position, and the vast majority of the time the victim is as exactly as claimed. But in some cases it’s not clear who the victim is, and the film explores the continual trepidation of those who questioned Misha’s claims: what if they were wrong? No one wanted to be in a position of casting doubt on the account of a true victim, and especially not of the Holocaust.
This deception would likely have never been revealed but for the tenacity of not only the book’s original publisher, who was sued (and, as it turns out, wrongfully awarded millions) by Misha, but also a genealogist, a journalist and others.
The fact that Misha was invited to appear on the Oprah Winfrey show to promote the book but declined was, ironically, one of the early red flags that something wasn’t right. (Oprah, it should be noted, has a long history of promoting heart-tugging memoirs that were later revealed to be largely or wholly hoaxed, along with untold numbers of other dubious and discredited topics.) The film builds suspense as each new piece of information is revealed.
Misha and the Wolves is a story of detective work, deception, and gullibility. It unfolds like a series of Russian dolls, spinning into several smaller mysteries: Is Misha’s story mostly true, like anyone’s subjective recollections and allowing for mistakes, memory lapses, and biases?
Within about 20 minutes (or sooner, if you’ve seen any coverage of the case) it’s clear that Misha’s story isn’t true —or at least isn’t entirely true. But is that significant? Authors James Frey and Joe Mortensen, among many others, eventually admitted to fabricating key parts of their bestselling memoirs, A Million Little Pieces and Three Cups of Tea, respectively. So did Nobel Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu in her book I, Rigoberta Menchu, but all insisted that their books were essentially true.
Or is Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years entirely fabricated, and if so, to what end? Was it akin to the influential 1971 young adult memoir Go Ask Alice, which was completely made up by an evangelical middle-aged Mormon woman trying to teach moral lessons? Or is Misha delusional, perhaps (understandably) traumatized? In any event there should be independent corroborating evidence one way or the other. If Misha didn’t spend some of her childhood living with wolves and walking through forests to find her parents, then where was she? Surely there would have to be some record, somewhere…
It is perhaps fitting that the real heroine of the film —the person who does indeed find the smoking gun (though where and of what I won’t reveal) —is herself a Belgian Holocaust survivor named Evelyne Haendel. Holocaust memorial organizations are in fact among the most skeptical of such claims, precisely because a handful of people have falsified their Holocaust experiences, and accepting claims without due diligence dishonors real victims.
Writer/director Sam Hobkinson does a masterful job of letting the participants speak for themselves, with one notable exception (revealed in a twist reminiscent of the 2019 documentary Wrinkles the Clown), illustrating conflicting agendas at virtually every turn. Publishers and journalists want a good story; historians and genealogist want the truth; and documentary filmmakers want a blend of both.
For more on Misha’s case see Telling Tales: A History of Literary Hoaxes, by Melissa Katsoulis, and Popular Trauma Culture: Selling the Pain of Others in Mass Media, by Anne Rothe (full disclosure: I’m referenced in the latter book). Misha and the Wolves is curiously reminiscent of another documentary series, also on Netflix, titled The Devil Next Door, out in 2019. That five-part series tells the true story of another elderly, otherwise unremarkable American citizen with murky (and contested) ties to the Holocaust: Ivan Demjanjuk. The retired autoworker settled in Cleveland and was later accused of being a prison guard at a Nazi concentration camp nicknamed “Ivan the Terrible” by his victims. But was he? As the series reveals, the answer is yes and no.
Misha and the Wolves is an excellent piece of documentary filmmaking, and about much more than one woman’s audacious hoax or delusion; it’s about history, identity, authenticity, and why we choose to believe.