Tuesday 10 December 2019

When a memoir turns out to be a real work of fiction

The sign above the entrance of Auschwitz - A Holocaust memoir was found to be written by an author who stayed at home safe in Belgium during World War 11.
The sign above the entrance of Auschwitz - A Holocaust memoir was found to be written by an author who stayed at home safe in Belgium during World War 11.
Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Last week, the author of a bestselling Holocaust memoir was ordered to refund $22.5m (€16.6m) to her American publisher.

Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years, was first published almost 20 years ago, and told the extraordinary story of Belgian woman Misha Defonseca's experiences during the Second World War.

When her Jewish parents were arrested and deported by the Nazis, the then six-year-old Defonseca wandered across Belgium, Germany and Poland on foot in search of them, stabbing a would-be Nazi rapist along the way and taking shelter with a friendly pack of wolves.

Unsurprisingly, the book became an instant publishing hit when released in 1997, and in 2005 Defonseca became a very wealthy woman after successfully suing her publisher, Mt Ivy Press for $32m over a copyright issue.

But that court case attracted the attention of Holocaust scholars and forensic genealogists, who quickly discovered that it was all a pack of lies. Misha Defonseca was really Monique de Wael, an ordinary Belgian girl who'd stayed safe at home throughout the War, knew no wolves and wasn't even Jewish.

Defonseca's fake is so outlandish that you might wonder why anyone ever believed it, but her book is just one of a series of outrageous publishing hoaxes that have been perpetrated down the years.

In the mid-1990s, a Polish Jew called Herman Rosenblat appearing on Oprah Winfrey's TV show to tell the touching story of how he'd met his wife.

He'd been an inmate of Buchenwald concentration camp as a child, and a fugitive Jewish girl who was hiding out in the local town began throwing fruit and bread over the fence every day to keep Herman alive. They'd fallen in love, and become partners for life. It was a real tearjerker, and Rosenblat landed a big publishing deal for his memoir, Angel at the Fence.

Oprah invited him back on to plug the book too, but was not amused when it all turned to have been a fake. Herman had been in Buchenwald, but all the stuff about his wife was nonsense, made up to raise money for a large tax bill.

Literary hoaxes are nothing new. In 1794, a young chancer called William Ireland became the toast of London when he announced that he'd discovered a chest full of manuscripts by William Shakespeare. He published a book, unearthed original manuscripts for Hamlet and King Lear, but went too far when he 'discovered' a new play called Vortigern and Rowena.

Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan agreed to put it on, but became suspicious of its dodgy style and simple themes. Perhaps the most odious literary hoax of them all was The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This febrile document was cooked up in the late 1890s by a Russian spy called Rachkovsky, and purported to be a Zionist plot to take over the world. It was subsequently published in many languages, and was quoted extensively by everyone from Adolf Hitler to Henry Ford. Hitler would later be the victim of an extraordinary, posthumous hoax. In 1983 a journalist and Third Reich obsessive called Gerd Heidemann came forward with diaries written by Hitler between 1932 and 1945. Historical experts examined the diaries and declared them genuine: Stern magazine paid Heidemann almost $4m (€2.9m) for them, and they were published around the world. But everyone looked pretty silly when the truth emerged.

In 1970, novelist Clifford Irving grew tired of scrabbling around on the literary margins and dreamt up a cunning hoax. He told his publishers he'd made contact with Howard Hughes and would be writing the reclusive billionaire's autobiography. Irving invented fake interviews, and gambled on the fact that Hughes was so profoundly publicity shy that he wouldn't come forward to denounce the book. But Irving guessed wrong, was exposed and spend 17 months in jail.

And let's not forget our very own Irish literary hoaxer, Bridget Dowling Hitler. Dublin-born Bridget was briefly married to Adolf Hitler's half-brother Alois, who worked for a time as a waiter at the Shelbourne Hotel. But many years later, Bridget wrote a wildly implausible memoir in which she claimed Adolf Hitler had come to live with them in Liverpool in 1912, and that she'd introduced him to astrology and advised him to trim the edges off his moustache. When Bridget later saw pictures of Hitler and his brutally brief moustache in newspapers, she decided that "Adolf has gone too far". He certainly had.

Irish Independent

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