Author of Holocaust memoir fined for lying
A court has ruled that an author must repay her publisher for inventing a story about escaping the Nazis, while a painter faces prison for making forgeries. Are their actions really so bad?
It was an incredible tale that inspired millions of readers in 18 different languages and spawned a film adaptation. In ‘A Memoir of the Holocaust Years’, Misha Defonseca told how, as a seven-year-old, she escaped the Nazis who came for her Jewish family and fled to the forest where she was raised by wolves. Alone, she travelled 2,000 miles in search of her parents.
Yet her readers have been disappointed. After years of legal wrangling with her publisher, it has been proved that Defonseca’s account is in fact a fiction. Though her parents were captured by Nazis, the family is Catholic, not Jewish. And during the time she says she lived with wolves, she was actually at school in Belgium.
The 76-year-old admits now that she made the story up, and this week courts made her repay £13m to her publisher. Her former fans are irate at being misled and have gone online to say so. Defonseca has apologised and said she made the story up to forget her real miserable childhood.
Another septuagenarian in trouble for hoaxes is painter Pei-Shen Qian, who faces 45 years in a US prison for forging the works of masters like Jackson Pollock, then selling them to art galleries for tens of millions of dollars. After a sudden disappearance, he has recently emerged in China, from where prosecutors have little hope of extraditing him.
While most would agree that it was wrong for Defonseca to exploit for profit real events which killed millions of people, both cases highlight the value we give to authenticity. Many readers felt cheated when they discovered the book is fiction. But others reply that it does not matter if it actually happened, so long as the tale was moving.
And Qian’s works were so similar to great works of art, even experts were fooled. Some ask if his paintings are as good as Pollock’s original work, why should it matter who painted them?
Novelist Milan Kundera says humans are programmed to value originality. He notes that if a new symphony appeared almost indistinguishable from those of Beethoven, we still would not consider it a masterpiece. This is because Beethoven’s music was completely different to anything that had been written before. The new symphony, like Misha’s memoir, is only an imitation. It lacks the most important part of art: authenticity.
Yet others say that we should value art for its effect on us and how it makes us think about the world, regardless of who made it or whether it is based on reality. They have little sympathy for those who spend millions on forgeries that they cannot tell apart from original works. If anything, this shows not that Qian was a bad person, but that originality is massively overvalued.
- Would you feel differently if you learned that an apparently true story which had moved you had not actually happened?
- If a piece of art, fake watch or any kind of forgery is indistinguishable from the real thing, does it make a difference?
- Picasso said ‘Good artists copy, great artists steal.’ Think about your favourite writer or artist, then think about what elements you could take from them to create your own piece of writing or picture. Try to describe what their best qualities are.
- Using the links in Become An Expert for inspiration, write a speech explaining why originality is important to us or why it is overvalued. Read it to the class.
Some People Say...
“It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.’Herman Melville”
What do you think?
Q & A
- If I like something, I’m not worried if it’s original or not, so why is this debate important?
- Considering what makes us like certain works of art, whether books, music or paintings, helps us appreciate them more and understand our own tastes. If a musician came along who was clearly imitating your favourite band but whose work was just as interesting, most people would still prefer the original. Thinking about why that is might help you in your own creative endeavours.
- What other famous forgeries and hoaxes are there?
- In 1917, two teenage cousins faked a series of photos which appeared to depict fairies. They fooled a lot of people including Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of Sherlock Holmes, who defended their authenticity. There are countless other examples, especially in the world of art.
- Misha, whose real name is Monique de Wael, says her parents were in the resistance movement against Nazi Germany. Her father was captured and tortured, and supposedly revealed the names of other people in his group. For that, Monique was abused for being ‘the traitor’s daughter’. She says she created the fantasy of being raised by wolves to escape the pain this caused her.
- Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) was a highly influential US artist and a major figure in the movement known as Abstract Expressionism. He was nicknamed ‘Jack the Dripper’ after his technique of painting. In 2006, a work of his, entitled ‘No.5, 1948’, sold for $140m.
- This is when a government returns someone to another country to face trial for alleged crimes. However, no formal extradition treaty exists between the USA and China.
- The Czech writer, now 85, is one of Europe’s most celebrated modern authors, and is famous for the novel ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’. His thoughts on originality are taken from a short collection of his essays called ‘The Curtain’.