Saturday, March 29, 2008

Real Fiction

Abe Novick
Special to the Jewish Times

By now many of you know the story of Monique De Wael. She’s a Roman Catholic who concocted a false identity “Misha” and made up a phony life where, as a Jewish 6-year-old child in Europe in 1941, she was raised by a pack of wolves.

In her fabricated memoir, “Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years,” currently translated into 18 languages with a film already released in Europe, she also kills a German soldier, wanders into and escapes out of the Warsaw Ghetto and across Europe.

Misha’s story is a lie. She is not Jewish and spent the war safely in Brussels. It took years for the truth to be revealed — after she shared her story with so many (including numerous Jewish organizations) willing to believe it. Even Elie Wiesel lent his name to the book.

When confronted this month with the overwhelming evidence, Ms. De Wael announced, “The story is mine. It is not actually reality, but my reality, my way of surviving.” Surviving what?

What’s sad about this episode, but also important to recognize, is that this latest revelation comes when truth and lie are possibly beyond blurring — they’re one. The line, ever so gossamer, has inched so close that, like an Al Gore shoreline, it will be lost.

While we replicate the Holocaust experience in museums and in movies, books and documentaries, remembering history has turned into re-creating history. Projecting our own lens against it, cutting and inserting our own self-identity onto the screen, Zelig-like, we’ve artfully retouched and replaced the older images.

Plato talked about a cave where what we see as prisoners are nothing but shadows on the wall. We take those to be reality, whereas the ultimate truth was only to be reached by reason and dialogue.

But the cave allegory is obsolete; we’re the ones making the shadows and so are in on the illusion. We’re the creators and the consumers. The stories and shadows are fakes because they’re as fraudulent as we are. Everywhere, pop culture is rife with the promotion and creation of new and multiple identities.

It began in the early days of the Internet when everyone could now create multiple screen names. Back when AOL was the main gateway, no one was who they said they were. So anyone (perhaps most everyone) was lying.

But with everyone doing it, it became accepted. In fact, if you actually used your own name or told who you really were, you were embarking on a dangerous path.

Then came blogs, where truth and opinion co-exist without an editor to weed out the bunk. Today, one can even have an avatar, a completely made-up, lifelike figure who can be your alter ego and you can create an entirely false reality in Second Life.

Ostensibly, along with the ease of this form of identity fabrication, where it’s commonplace to steal, hide, falsify and disguise, we’ve manipulated ourselves to the point where our collective history is fraudulent and our memory in jeopardy.

Sadly, the Holocaust, the ultimate line to defend against this encroachment of blur, has fallen into this vat, this Babel of mixed media where everyone who wants to tell a story can and is given the same tools to stir and mix it up.

News journalists, ones who are trained in getting just the facts, are calling on publishers, especially of memoirs, to do a better job of fact checking. But with more and more hard-core investigative reporters being trimmed from the ranks of respected news organizations, I wonder who’s going to be there to protect the truth.

Misha’s story falls into a larger jumble, a hodgepodge and mishmash of quicksand that we’ve gotten ourselves into. Getting out won’t be easy.