discrepanciesamong namesand datesin differenttranslationshelped to revealthe author’strue identity.A genealogist revealsthe painful truthabout threeHolocaust memoirs:they’re fictionUntrue StoriesBY caleb daniloffDetractorshave calledSharonSergeant awitch-hunter,a Holocaustdenier,and evena Nazi.32BOSTONIA Summer 2009photograph by vernon doucette
Summer 2009 BOSTONIA33
In her 1997 autobiography, Misha: A Memoireof the Holocaust Years, Belgian-born MishaDefonseca claimed to have trekked warpocked Europe for four years, starting at theage of seven, in search of her deported Jewishparents. Along the way, she wrote, she took upwith a pack of wolves, slipped in and out of theWarsaw Ghetto, and killed a Nazi soldier.In Europe, the book was a smash,translated into eighteen languagesand made into a hit film. In theUnited States, however, it had soldpoorly — so poorly that Defonsecaand her ghostwriter successfullysued their publisher for 33 millionfor inadequate promotion, one ofthe largest judgments in publishinghistory. Two years ago, publisherJane Daniel fought back, twentyfirst century style: she launched ablog, called Bestseller, questioningDefonseca’s story, hoping to nullify thecourt’s decision by proving the authorwas a fraud.It was there online, one day inDecember 2007, that Sharon Sergeant(MET’83), now an adjunct facultymember in BU’s genealogical researchprogram, stumbled upon the contro versy. And she thought she might beable to help.Since then, Sergeant has becomewidely known as a hoax buster, puttingto work the forensic skills she’s honedover twenty years to help debunkthree fraudulent Holocaust memoirs.The tools of her profession includephotographic timelines and data bases — vital records, census reports,property deeds, maps, newspaperinterviews, obituaries, phone direc tories — and living relatives. Skype,online records, and blogs have alsobroadened her reach, and DNA testingis an option if she needs it.“The generic view of genealogyis that it is about tracing relatives,the ‘begats,’” says Sergeant, a boardmember and former programs directorwith the Massachusetts GenealogicalCouncil. “It’s evolved.”But her involvement in crackingopen three Holocaust hoaxes is aboutmore than an interest in the latesttechnology. A former college dropoutwho raised a family and workedin computer engineering beforediscovering genealogy, Sergeant wasdrawn to the Defonseca case becauseit offered a rare opportunity toshowcase her field and to set the recordstraight on what she believed wereunconscionable attempts to exploithuman tragedy for personal gain.Red Flags and ZigzagsIn her memoir, Misha Defonseca, born Monique De Wael, claimed that she spent fouryears of her childhood searching for her Jewish parents, who had been deported byNazis from their native Belgium. After genealogist Sharon Sergeant began investigat ing, Defonseca admitted she had made up the tale. Here are some of the discrepancies.Misha Defonseca1Photos publishedonly in the Americanedition of the bookcontradicted details inthe French edition.vv34BOSTONIA Summer 2009records showed that3 SchoolDefonseca was enrolled inedition of the book, titled Survivre avec2 InlestheloupsFrench(Survival with Wolves), the author changedher surname from De Wael to Valle, but Sergeantcould not find any record of the name Valle in likelystreet and phone directories.Monique De Wael5 Monique Vallethe first grade in Brusselsat a time she claimed to betrekking in Ukraine in thecom pany of wolves.
“I got involved because I knew thesolution would have two benefits,”she says. “It would illustrate themethodology in a high-profile case,whatever the results were, and itwould raise awareness for otherHolocaust families about what couldbe done with modern genealogytechniques and records access. Simplyput, I viewed it as an opportunity forthe profession.”Connecting the DotsIt was one little thing that first raisedSergeant’s eyebrows about Defonseca:the peculiar omission, in the Frenchedition, of photos used in the Ameri canedition. Sergeant worked with photoidentification experts, including occasional genealogical collab orators Colleen Fitzpatrick andMaureen Taylor, to create visual andgeographic timelines. Sergeant alsowondered why Defonseca had changedwhat she said was her adopted name,Monique De Wael, to Monique Valle.Could it have been an effort to concealthe facts from people in that part of theÅ nabout many4 Curiousreferences to CatholicYYdocuments showed5 Officialthat De Wael’s parents hadbeen Catholic resistersarrested by the Germans,rather than Jews rounded upby the Nazis, as alleged inthe book.Defonseca photo: ap photo/mary schwalmrituals and literature inthe book, Sergeant’s teamsearched for and found abaptismal certificate forDe Wael, who claimed tobe Jewish.Records show that De Wael wasenrolled in grammar schoolat the time she was supposedto be living with wolves.world who might have known her?“Part of figuring out the storyis connecting the right dots,” saysSergeant. “When we do our research,we use lots of information in theform of names, dates, places, events,activities, but they can create lots ofdifferent stories. The true story can bemixed in with other stories.”Sergeant mined the various transla- tions of the book and used the discrep ancies among names and dates to piecetogether Defonseca’s true identity,which was in fact Monique De Wael.She also noticed a number of Catholicreferences in the text, and through con- tacts in Belgium, including EvelyneHaendel, a genealogist who herself hadbeen an orphan hidden during the war,she came up with a baptismal certifi cate proving De Wael was not Jewish.School records showed De Wael wasenrolled in grammar school, along withthe sister of Defonseca’s future hus band, at the time she was supposedlyrunning across the countryside, hidingfrom Nazis and living with wolves.Official documents later showedthat De Wael’s father was, in fact, aCatholic resistance fighter turnedcollaborator. In the end, it tookSergeant a little more than a month toexpose Defonseca, who had moved tothe Boston area in 1985 and who hadbeen telling her tale of desperation fortwenty years.“It didn’t start out as personal,”Sergeant says. “Once I began workingwith Evelyne, it became personal. Ifelt horrible that Evelyne had to bereminded of so much to do this work.It was very difficult for her to standon the steps of the Schaerbeek townhall — where her own mother had beenrounded up for Auschwitz — and to bethere to investigate a woman who hadcommitted such a devious fraud.”At the same time, Serge Aroles, aFrench expert on wolf child stories, wasquestioning Defonseca’s story on blogsand in a Jewish magazine. Sergeantposted the baptismal certificate andschool register on Bestseller and sent alink to Aroles. Within two days, Belgianmedia picked up the story and Le Soir,Belgium’s newspaper of record, trackeddown relatives and published severalstories. Sergeant also pro duced a photothat contradicted Defon seca’s claimof deformed legs and feet. Less thantwo weeks after Sergeant’s posting onDaniel’s blog, Defonseca confessed toLe Soir through her lawyer.Daniel, meanwhile, is still battlingthe judgment against her and hersmall publishing company and hasturned her blog into a book, alsocalled Bestseller (Laughing Gull Press,2008). A 425,000 inheritance, heldby her father, has been written over toDefonseca, and Daniel has had to signover her house, as well.The Birth of a Hoax BusterSergeant’s path to her profession hasbeen long and winding. After studyingmath and physics for two years atNortheastern University, she droppedout, had two children, and took workin computer software development.In the early days of minicomputerengineering, Digital EquipmentCorporation, where Sergeant’shusband at the time worked, hadpartnered with Metropolitan Collegeto host academic programs for adultstudents. Sergeant enrolled.“I was in a classroom environmentwhere the students were relativelyhomogeneous in that computerindustry boom,” she recalls. “We wereall juggling work and family. We werefocused, serious, and practical.”Later, divorced and raising herSummer 2009 BOSTONIA35
kids alone, Sergeant chipped away ather university credits. It was a time,she says, when “the only stabilityand validation was my academic lifethrough MET.”In 1985, inspired by a genealogistcousin, Sergeant began exploring herhome’s property records and dabblingin family history. “I realized, in themid-1990s, that my father’s generationwas beginning to die,” she says. “I knewI had better start gathering oral historyto see what this generation knew aboutour ancestry.”Sergeant listened to her father,wrote things down, studied herwritings, and found herself smitten.After years in computer engineeringand later marketing and consulting,she had finally stumbled upon a pursuitshe found so compelling that it seemsat times to pursue her, sometimes inunpleasant ways.Detractors have called Sergeant awitch-hunter, a Holocaust denier, andeven a Nazi. Worse, as longtime friendMarika Barnett, a Hungarian survivorand a founder of the Federation ofJewish Child Survivors of the Holo caust, points out, deniers love it whenHolocaust stories turn out to be madeup. A single fraudulent story, she says,puts the enormous, horrific truthin doubt.“My own story tells how I was savedby the German SS,” says Barnett. “Iexpect a lot of people to say this is a lie.Why would the German SS save Jews?For money, of course, but I bet therewill be people who don’t believe it. Doyou? Just because I said so?”Angel at the FenceIn 1995, a now-retired televisionrepairman named Herman Rosenblatentered a New York Post essay contestwith a short story about his internmentin a German concentration camp,where a young Jewish girl who washiding nearby used to toss apples andbread over the fence to him. Yearslater, the story claimed, the pair meton a blind date in the United Statesand had been married ever since.The irresistibly moving tale won thecontest, was included in ChickenSoup for the Couple’s Soul and led toan appearance on the Oprah Winfrey36BOSTONIA Summer 2009Show in 1996. In2007, Rosenblatand his wife, Roma,returned to Oprah,where they publiclycelebrated theirfiftieth weddinganniversary. Thetalk show hostcalled it “the singlegreatest love storyWeb extra Watch a video of Sharon Sergeant talking. . . we’ve ever told onabout the methods she used to crack Holocaust hoaxes atair,” and it inspiredwww.bu.edu/bostonia.a children’s bookcalled Angel Girl.In 2008, Rosenblatpublished a memoir (Riverhead). Asplit off from the women. That’s what 25 million film adaptation was beinghappened in Herman’s family. He andreadied for production.his brothers were useful as laborers.Elsewhere, however, critical read But in Roma’s case, it was really strangeers of Rosenblat’s book were askingthat that large a group in a little villageprobing questions and posting skep would survive.”tical comments on blogs. Sergeant, whoMeanwhile, Sergeant had beenlearned about the increasing onlinetalking with Kenneth Waltzer, directorchatter from a friend, was intrigued.of the Jewish Studies Program atIn November 2008, seizing anotherMichi gan State University and anopportunity to highlight the power ofexpert on child inmates at Buchenwaldforensic genealogy, she began delv and its subcamps, including Schlieben,ing into Rosenblat’s past, workingwhere the apple-tossing purportedlybackwards in time.took place. Waltzer knew from campFirst, by checking immigrationschematics that it would have beenrecords she established the dateimpossible to approach the fenceRosenblat arrived in the United States.without being spotted by a NaziIt wasn’t long, she says, before red flags, guard. Transport lists and survivoror zigzags as Sergeant calls them, began testimonies cast even more doubt.appearing. Affidavits required for realOne notable survivor, Ben Helfgottestate transactions in Florida showed(who later competed in the Olympicsthat the golden wedding anniversaryfor England), was with RosenblatOprah was heralding on televisionthrough transports, labor camps, andhad yet to occur. The couple wasliberation. “He told us the story was,celebrating a full year early.without a doubt, a figment of Herman’sSergeant also found that, startingimag ination,” Waltzer says. “He’din the 1970s, Rosenblat had beenknown Herman for fifty or sixty yearsputting his holdings into Roma’sand never heard the story until thename, a move that could render himmid-1990s.”judgment-proof. She also uncoveredFor Sergeant and Waltzer, Helfgott’snaturalization documents that showedword went a long way toward under Roma Radzicky had come to the United min ing Rosenblat’s story. But not allStates with her father, mother, youngthe way.sister, and brother, who was born after“The worst thing you can do isthe war.make an accusation without having the“That’s important,” she says, “be proof,” Sergeant says. “We knew wherecause usually it’s just a fraction of aHerman was, but where was Roma?”family that survives. Roma’s motherSergeant reconstructed theand father were at an age the NazisRadzicky family on both the maternalfound useful as laborers, but the chil and paternal sides and traced theirdren often didn’t survive because theymigration after the war. Throughweren’t useful. The men would bedocuments from Yad Vashem, Israel’s
Holocaust memorial and archive, andU.S. records, she tracked down Roma’ssister and then her sister’s son, aprofessor of Middle Eastern studies atPrinceton. As a fellow scholar, Waltzergot in touch with Roma’s nephew,who revealed that the family had beenhiding hundreds of miles away fromSchlieben during the war — and hesaid he could prove it. He had helpedhis mother apply for aid through theConference on Material Claims AgainstGermany, which required a signeddeposition of her story. For Sergeant,that was the smoking gun.“Sharon’s a crackerjack,” Waltzersays. “She knows how to find pieces ofevidence and how to put them togetherin a
Holocaust memoirs: they’re fiction BY cAleB dAniloff Detractors have called Sharon Sergeant a witch-hunter, a Holocaust denier, and even a Nazi. discrepancies among names and dates in different translations helped to reveal the author’s true identity.