Are you still alive?

When you are young the question asked when you meet a friend is, are you going with someone?

Several years pass and the question becomes, got any kids?

At my age the question, although unspoken, is, are you still alive?

In the last few years I lost two very good friends and it makes you start to feel like you are in the trenches with bullets flying in from all directions, hitting people to the left of you, hitting people to the right of you, and you know the bullet is approaching that has your name on it.

I’m from a small port city on the east coast of Canada, Saint John, in the province of New Brunswick.

One fellow (A) I was friends with from age 5-6. His father had gone off to the big war, never returned, and his mother, unlike many other war widows didn’t remarry, at least during the time he was growing up.

He was rather phlegmatic. He didn’t talk much but when he did, what he said was worth listening to.

Nietzsche said, “Against boredom even the gods themselves struggle in vain.” My friend could have given the gods lessons in how to deal with boredom. He spent his life taking up one challenge after another.

When he was in his 30s, after his marriage had disintegrated, he quit his post as a school-teacher and went to Toronto and Alberta, where he made himself a name and a living as a folksinger.

I was flabbergasted by this. I had a rock ‘n’ roll group back in the 50s. He was often around us. He never once sang a note in our presence or gave any indication that he could sing well. If I had known, I would have added him to the group.

When I came out to Israel I lost all contact with my former life in Canada until the Internet came along and transformed the world into a global village. I was back in touch with my old friends.

I came up on the Internet in 2000 and I had a site where I featured bizarre or other highly unusual stories. One of the stories was about a woman by the name of Misha Levy Defonseca, a Jewish girl who was growing up in Belgium when the Nazis took her parents away.

The story went this way. She was 8 and had been living with a family that they had left her with. She ran away, deciding to look for her parents.

Misha ended up in the forests of Poland, exhausted, debilitated, half-dead. She was adopted by wolves, the mother wolf cared for her as if Misha were one of her cubs. She grew strong and when a Polish farmer shot her adopted mother, she knew how to fend for herself. At one point the now ferocious little girl overcame and killed an armed German soldier. All she saw from humans was brutality; she joined another wolf pack. Among them as before she met kindness. Thus Misha passed the Holocaust.

Misha was resident in Massachusetts with her husband and a menagerie of animals. In 1997 she was about to publish her story in a book entitled in English “Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years” and did publish it in French as “Surviving Among The Wolves.” The French version became a brisk seller in France, Quebec, and Italy, and was translated into 18 languages. She apparently taped a show with Oprah Winfrey in which Yediot Ahronat reported in a major feature in its weekend edition that she entered a cage filled with wolves who welcomed her as one of their own and meanwhile Disney expressed interest in making a movie. But there were legal problems surrounding the English edition so everyone backed off. Meanwhile the book became the basis for an Italian opera and a feature film would be produced in France.

The book drew endorsements by Leonard P. Zakim, late director of the New England Anti-Defamation League (“a scary must-read for anyone interested in the Holocaust”); journalist/historian Padraig O’Malley; and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel (“very moving”); and also the head of the North American Wolf Foundation, aka Wolf Hollow.

Here’s how the book came to be. Defonseca first told the story as her experience in the Holocaust in 1989 at the Temple Beth Torah in Holliston, Mass., where she was a member. Jane Daniel, who had a tiny publishing company on the side, heard it a few years later and it was her idea for a book. Vera Lee, an accomplished writer in both French and English, and her neighbor, was brought on board. Early on Daniel and the other two had a falling-out and that impacted on marketing the English edition, which sold only 5,000 copies, far fewer than the robust sales abroad.

My friend (A) for a time had a managed a sanctuary for wolves. I told him in 2001 about Defonseca, briefly summarized the story, and asked him what he thought.

“It’s a fraud,” he said.

I asked him if he would be so kind as to explain why he felt that way.

“It’s a fraud,” he replied. End of discussion.

I left the story up on my site because it was one opinion, undefended, by a guy who had worked with wolves for a relatively short period of four or five years counterbalanced by the North American Wolf Foundation. Besides that, there are documented instances of children who were cared for by wolves for years, such as a boy found in an Indian jungle aged 4 in 1972, later called Pascal.

What I didn’t know and few did at that point was that others had come to the same conclusion as my friend. Two people who had been asked to contribute blurbs for the book declined: historian Deborah Dwork and Holocaust scholar Lawrence L. Langer. They both warned Daniel’s representative, this is fantasy. Langer told her to ask Defonseca how a Jewish girl not speaking German got across the Rhine, guarded on both sides. Langer also discussed the book with Raul Hilberg, another Holocaust scholar, who concurred that the story is impossible. Now that they brought it up and you think of it, it would be highly unlikely for an 8-year-old to get across Germany into Poland, a distance of more than 1,000 km unless she rode the rails but she said she walked. She did carry a compass so she would know where east was, but doing it in a time-frame before she weakened from loss of nutrients or being stopped by someone does not seem possible.

Meanwhile the court cases had begun.

Blake Eskin: “Vera Lee, who had been fired before the manuscript was finished, filed a breach-of-contract suit. A Massachusetts jury found that Daniel and (her company) Mt. Ivy had withheld royalty payments, hidden money in offshore accounts, and failed to market the book. All rights reverted to Defonseca, and in 2002, the judge tripled the damages and told Mt. Ivy to pay Defonseca and Lee $32.4 million.”

After losing on appeal in 2005 and now that her life was in tatters, Daniel did what she should have done in the first place, do some fact-checking. She put up an Internet site which essentially asked, who is this woman? There were very few facts to be had. Defonseca said her parents were sent away in the spring of 1941 but the deportation of the Jews in Belgium did not happen until August 1942. Then Daniel got lucky. A genealogist Sharon Sergeant, who had wandered into the site, told her, I can solve this. She scoured the texts. The American edition referred to a Monique De Waal. The British edition gave a date of birth, May 12, 1937,– that didn’t compute — and said her father worked at the town hall.

In 2008 Sergeant delivered the goods, a baptismal certificate of Monique De Waal, born March 12, 1937, daughter of a town employee, who with his wife was arrested and then sent away in the spring of 1941. This was a major news item in France and Belgium and within a short time Misha’s attorney issued a statement that Monique De Waal was her real name, that she was born Catholic, not Jewish, and the events as described in the book did not happen. In 2014 a court ordered Misha/Monique to repay Daniel $24.5 million.

The book served a very useful purpose. Fewer and fewer people today are even aware that the Holocaust happened. To have a compelling book and movie out there that employed it as a setting, which doesn’t plunge people into the unspeakable horrors but relates a gripping tale of a brave little Jewish girl and sympathetic wolves, is actually a genius idea to introduce the subject to a new audience. It’s easy to view things in hindsight but Daniel, who was aware of the problematic nature of the story, could have posted a notice in legalese that that book may be in whole or in part fiction, and let the reader decide. She had already reached the breaking point with Defonseca and Lee so she didn’t have to worry about making matters worse in a dispute over posting the notice.

I wouldn’t categorize Defonseca as a conscienceless hoaxer capitalizing on the Holocaust. She didn’t go looking to publicize her story. She actually believed that her story was real and you can understand why. Her father had organized an underground resistance in Belgium in 1940 of which her mother was a member. He was arrested by the Nazis and in the hands of the Gestapo supplied information that put other lives at risk. He would die in 1945 after being worked to death and the mother died at Ravensbruck that same year. Misha/Monica was taken to live with her grandfather at age 4. He treated her well but the others in that household did not. They called her “the daughter of the traitor.” She was sent to live with an uncle but by now she was referred to by many in the community as “the daughter of the traitor.” Somehow she mentally imploded and began to live in a fantasy world with wolves and adventures. She identified strongly with the Jewish people and their sufferings. In her mind the fantasy world was the real world and the only people she wanted to be among were Jews. When as an adult she talked of her childhood she related the story naturally of how she survived the Holocaust living with wolves, who were kind to her. To her that was her childhood, the only one she had ever experienced.

In any event when the confession of Misha/Monica was published, I notified my friend that he had been right all along and supplied him some details. Then I asked him, “Would you tell me how you knew?”

He answered “no.” End of discussion.

The name of our rock ‘n’ roll group was the Asteroids, we were aged 15-17 when we started, and we made a record in 1958.

When we first talked about adding a pianist, others recommended a fellow I was skeptical about because his background was classical. But he was sensational. When we did a show and it was time for the piano solo, the legs and the hands were flying in all directions. He patterned himself after Jerry Lee Lewis (“Great Balls Of Fire.”) The crowd loved him.

Back in the 50s in Canada you had no idea what was going on in the rest of the vast country. There was a 15-minute national news broadcast on TV but most of that was politics. The local newspaper featured mainly local or world news. Rock ‘n’ roll was strictly an American phenomenon and it was very new. Any Canadians who made a name for themselves in it were recording in the US. Then circa 2005 music historians notified us that after researching the subject, they had determined that the Asteroids had the made the first rock ‘n’ roll record in Canada. We had gained a footnote in history.

One of the members of the group would became a prominent lawyer in Ottawa, the second a successful businessman, and the pianist had a hard life.

There must have been a zillion songs recorded in the English language alone in the last 60 years and a zillion singers and groups who made them, and almost all of them are totally forgotten. But because it became known that our record had been enshrined as a footnote in history, it got new exposure once in a while, and people started coming up to the pianist and asking him if he had been with the Asteroids. They wanted to hear him play. He hadn’t lost a stroke. As a result, in his last decade, he had a lot of fun occasionally playing for an audience again, surrounded by young people.

I never had the slightest interest in doing a Facebook page but when the pianist died in 2015 I asked friend (A) if he would walk me though it and I put up a page, focused on the Asteroids, primarily as a memorial to the pianist.

Friend (A) and I had been chattering back and forth for 16 years, and we must have solved all the problems of the world. One day in 2016 he told me he was very ill. As usual he was sparse on details. Then just before he went again into the hospital, he was upbeat. The doctors told him that they had new treatments which had a promising record of success. Two days later he was dead. His last words as told to me by his third wife, were in character, phlegmatic. He said, “It’s time.”

A year later the regional CBC did a fairly major item on air and in print on the 60th anniversary of our making the record, although technically it was the 60th anniversary of the founding of the group. The reason we got invited to record in the first place was that we had original material which few others had. I did the lyrics and that’s where I learned I had a flair for writing, which became my livelihood in journalism. The A side was “Shhhh Blast Off” and the B side was “Don’t Dig This Algebra.” The quality is rather poor because we did it all with one mike and one take. We took turns on stage doing leads but because of the songs that the record company chose, I was a background singer on the records themselves. You never knew with these things. When we were invited to sing on TV, they chose a song where I sang the lead.

One day my son who is now in Europe was texting with a girl who said that she loved 50s rock ‘n’ roll. Since he grew up with me he is familiar with many of the major performers and songs. So he asked her what she liked. She started stringing them off and in the list was “Algebra — Asteroids.” He said, “wait a minute, that was my father’s record.” She didn’t believe him, thought he was hustling her. He said he can tell you himself. He’s still alive. My son dodged the bullet. But then again so have I, so far.

The guy to me who summed up life best was not a philosopher but a country singer from the 50s and there will never be another one like him, Hank Williams. He sang, “No matter how I struggle and strive, I’ll never get out of this world alive.” This is a funny song. He let life get to him but his message typified the attitude in the 50s. Don’t take life too seriously and enjoy every minute. We’ve lost a lot of that attitude over time. Too bad.

About the Author
Dov Ivry is from the Maritimes in Canada, born in Nova Scotia, raised in New Brunswick. He worked as a journalist there for 20 years with a one-year stop at the Gazette in Montreal. He's been hanging out in Israel for 36 years, doing this and that, and managed to produce 66 books.