The Netflix documentary Misha and the Wolves tells the story of Misha Defonseca and the publishing of her biography, Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years. The book received international acclaim and was translated into eighteen languages, even being made into a feature film. The story as she tells it goes like this. During World War II, Misha—age six—escapes to the woods of Belgium after her Jewish parents are captured for resisting the Nazis. Here she is raised by a pack of wolves. Under the protection of the pack, she treks over 1,900 miles on foot, wandering all over Europe in a desperate search for her parents. The tale has all the elements of a good drama: A sympathetic main character. Unquestionably evil villains. And a hero’s journey against seemingly insurmountable odds to reunite with her loved ones. As one interviewee comments in the film, it’s almost too unbelievable to be true.
As it turns out, that was exactly the case. Misha’s whole story was an elaborate fiction.
While her parents did die in concentration camps, they were Catholic—not Jewish. Her father, though, was not quite the war hero she made him out to be. In fact, he gave up the names of fellow resistance members to the Nazis. When this was discovered, his name was erased from a local plaque honoring resistance fighters. As a result, Misha was labeled “The Traitor’s Daughter,” marked out as a pariah throughout her childhood. After her parents’ death she was sent to live with her grandparents and attended a local Catholic school. She never lived in the wilderness. She wasn’t raised by wolves. Her real name wasn’t even Misha; it was Monique De Wael.
After the truth is discovered, Misha admits to the hoax, responding that the story she told “is not actual reality, but my reality, my way of surviving” and that at times she “found it difficult to differentiate between what was real and what was part of her imagination…I ask forgiveness to all who felt betrayed.” Her story was a survival mechanism, an elaborate scheme concocted to shield her from the harsh realities of a traumatic childhood. Orphaned at the age of four, victimized by the murder of her parents in war-torn Europe, Misha and the Wolves became her way of coping with her senseless experience. The web of deceit she wove was simply more bearable than the truth.
The comments of the historian who dispelled the hoax—ironically, herself an actual Holocaust survivor—are incredibly poignant. She articulates her own feelings toward Misha in this way: “I feel some pity, some repulsion. She is both a victim and a villain. She is both in this story.”
Misha is both a victim and a villain. She was a victim of her circumstances. Yet she was also a villain, guilty of wrongdoing.
Victim and villain. These categories aptly summarize our condition as human beings. On the one hand, we are villains. Since the fall, when Adam & Eve rebelled against God, ate the fruit, and broke the world, we are natural-born born enemies with God (Ephesians 2:1-4). Our default, out-of-the-box condition is now faulty from the start. And not in a passive sense, as though the fault can be laid exclusively on the shoulders of the first two humans, and maybe—had we been there instead—things would have turned out differently. The Apostle Paul categorically excludes such an interpretation in Rom 5:12: “…sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—.” All of humanity, in some sense, shares Adam’s sin and guilt. We are born into this world sinful from infancy, and—as Luther says in his large catechism—“we are never without sin because we carry our flesh around our neck.” Another pastor once put it like this: Our old Adam never gets converted. In other words, we are the villains in our own stories.
Yet we are also victims. In the Garden of Eden, the consequences of Adam & Eve’s sin is a set of curses pronounced by God (Gen 3:14-19). The serpent would crawl on its belly. The woman’s pain in childbearing would increase. Relationships would be corrupted. The earth would bring forth thistles and thorns. That is why Paul speaks of all creation “groaning” and “in bondage and corruption” (Rom 8:19-22). These are the effects of sin, and we experience them every day. Depression, anxiety, colostomies, disability, earthquakes, genetic disorders, pandemics. Through no fault of our own, we are beset with misfortune on every side, at the mercy of forces much stronger than us. In a powerful scene from the 2003 film “Luther,” Martin Luther makes these comments as he prepares to bury a young suicide victim: “Some people say that according to God’s justice this boy is damned because he took his life. I say he was overcome by the devil. Is this child any more to blame for the despair that overtook him than an innocent man that was murdered by a robber in the woods?”
When we speak solely in terms of the “brokenness” of our world, it’s easy to exonerate ourselves as innocent victims. If we are nothing more than “complicit,” then the weight of the guilty verdict is lessened and perhaps we are less culpable than we thought. On the other hand, when we attribute everything wrong in our world today to personal sinfulness, we run the risk of victim-blaming and our capacity for compassion erodes. Jesus’ response to his disciples—who wrongly assumed that a certain man’s blindness was due to his own personal sin—is telling: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3, emphasis mine).
As spiritual etiologists, we must wield our diagnostic tools with care and precision. The world we inhabit is wrong in so many ways, and a holistic approach to this “wrongness” traces its cause both to sin itself and to the effects of sin. We are broken people living in a broken world. But that does not exculpate us, because we are also guilty people. Yet the good news is that Jesus died for both the victims and the villains. God has “forgiven us all of our trespasses by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame by triumphing over them in him [Christ]” (Col 2:13-15).
Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God forgives villains and defeats the powers holding victims in thrall. But God goes one step further. Yes, we are forgiven. Yes, we are free. But through the shed blood Christ, villains are now labeled “heroes,” and victims are labeled “victors.” All wrongness is being reversed, and one day—very soon—everything wrong will be made right.
Thanks be to God.