30 July 2008

Chicago 2008: The thrill of the chase

Genealogists working together can uncover surprising details to either confirm or discount details of important cases.

Chicago 2008 conference attendees who are fascinated in "the thrill of the chase" should plan to attend Colleen Fitzpatrick's program on the Misha Defonseca Holocaust Fraud Case. "Connections, Connections" will be presented at 11:15am, Wednesday, August 20 (DATE CORRECTED).

The talk will focus on how forensic genealogist Sharon Sergeant, Fitzpatrick and other team members exposed Misha, beginning with suspicions about her story by the absence of photographs from the book's European edition.

It will describe the church, civil, and school records they uncovered that revealed Misha’s true wartime whereabouts, and how the team was ready to use DNA testing to expose her true identity had Defonseca/Wael not confessed.


The memoirs of an 8-year-old girl who wandered 3,000 miles across Nazi-occupied Europe searching for her missing parents was amazing enough. Add in her claims of surviving two freezing winters living with a pack of wolves and you have a truly astonishing tale.

Unfortunately the life story that earned its author £10 million and was translated into 18 languages was just that. A story.

On March 1, 2008, Misha Defonseca (real name Monique De Wael) admitted that her bestseller, Misha - A Memoir Of The Holocaust Years, was made up. Or, as she preferred to put it, "not the real reality".

What brought about Misha’s stunning confession was the work of a dogged team of forensic genealogists, headed by Sharon Sergeant and assisted by Colleen Fitzpatrick, PhD.

With the help of a Belgian woman who had been a hidden child during WWII, the team produced documents showing that at the time Defonseca claimed to be skinning rabbits in the snow and stealing food from farmhouses on her way to Poland, she was actually a 4-year-old living in a Brussels apartment with her grandparents.

The beginning of the end for Defonseca came in 2005 when she won a judgment for $33M against US publisher Jane Daniel, claiming Daniel had not adequately marketed the book in the US. Daniel was cautioned not to speak publicly about the case.

However, realizing that she had nothing more to lose, Daniel started a blog in search of any scrap on information that might lead her to the truth about Defonseca’s background, that until then, had been thought impossible to research.

In 2007, she was contacted by Sharon Sergeant who told Daniel she thought she could help.

The rest is history.


  1. Anonymous12:24 PM

    Not much of a forensic genealogist at work here:

    The talk is on TUESDAY, August 19, 9.45-11 a.m.

    Could you not have checked before you published this?

    Fritz Neubauer who gives his presentation on Wednesday, August 20th, so this date looked funny!

  2. Hello, Fritz
    Thanks for writing. It was a slip of the finger, apologies. The correct date is Wednesday, August 20.

    However, Colleen is giving 2 presentations at IAJG. One is "connections, connections" (as per above, and I have changed the post to read correctly) on Wednesday; the other is another forensic topic on Tuesday.