The Times July 21 1998. Interview by Barry Wigmore
Misha Defonseca survived the Holocaust by fleeing into the forest and being raised by wolves.
The only time Misha felt like a child was when she was with the wolves who cared for her. ‘Bathing with the wolves I had not a care in the world. Sitting in the darkness, as they rested peacefully near by, I breathed a deep sigh of relaxation, ’ she remembers. For five years she ate, played and cuddled her wild family, sleeping skin to fur. ‘If I hadn't had the animals in the forest, I would have lost my mind, ’ she says.
Like Ivan Mishukov, the six-year-old Russian boy who ran away from home and spent three years living with a pack of dogs, Misha's story is a powerful illustration of the bond that can develop between human beings and animals.
As a seven-year-old Jewish girl in war-torn Europe, she fled into the forests to escape from the Nazis and was adopted by a family of wolves. As she criss-crossed Europe on a 3,000-mile odyssey, searching for her parents - she now assumes they perished in the death camps -the only family she knew, she says, were the wolves who adopted her. When her quest took her out of the territory of one wolf-pack, she joined another.
Now Misha has written a book about her extraordinary childhood. Called Surviving With Wolves, it has been translated from her native French into Italian and Japanese. An English translation in America has been retitled Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust. Film rights have been optioned.
‘Like many Holocaust survivors, I never wanted my story told,’ she says. ‘I preferred to forget. I didn't want to go through the anger again, all the killing. No one understands you. They really don't. You want to escape from your experiences, not relive them all the time. I wrote my story for myself and for my son, for him to read later. But word got out and I was persuaded to allow it to be published . . . ‘
Misha was seven and Europe had been at war for three years when her world changed for ever. Her family lived in Belgium and as the Nazis closed in her parents asked friends to care for their daughter if anything happened to them. They had already made her blot her Jewish family name from her memory. To this day she doesn't remember it.
‘I remember my mother spoke Russian,’ says Misha. ‘Even now I sometimes sing in Russian. My father was tall and blond and could have passed as an Aryan, but he would not leave my mother. ‘ One day, Misha says, her parents didn't collect her from school. Their friends were there instead. She never saw her mother or father again.
A little later, she heard the people who were caring for her talking about the Nazis and wondering whether it would be better to hand her over to them. that night, shortly after her seventh birthday, Misha ran away. She survived on her wits, like a rural Artful Dodger, breaking into farmhouses to steal food and clothes. Inevitably, a farmhand caught her and as she struggled free and fled, he hurled a large stone which hit her on the back. She crawled into the forest, where she lay down and howled in pain.
Suddenly, what she thought was a large, curious, dog broke through the bushes and stood watching her. It was a she-wolf. ‘I think she was lonely, ’ Misha says. ‘She adopted me. I was not afraid. We both needed help. I remember I was grateful that here was something - someone -who cared for me. No humans did.' The wolf became Misha's Maman Rita.
Folklore is peppered with such stories, from Romulus and Remus to Kipling’s Mowgli, and there is no way of checking how accurate Misha’s memories are.
But her French publishers found that where her story could be checked, on dates and places of battles she became embroiled in, it was accurate. As she sits now, offering herb tea and chocolate cake in her cluttered, immaculately-clean house outside Boston, Massachusetts, it is difficult to imagine that this enthusiastic, matronly woman has
experienced the horrors she recounts. But then, it is difficult to imagine the same of so many ageing witnesses to the Holocaust. A former pet, a stuffed cobra, greets visitors inside Misha's door. There are stuffed toy animals everywhere. Wind-chimes and hanging mobiles of animals stir in the breeze through open windows. Outside, her car is plastered with save-the-animals stickers.
‘I hate emptiness,’ says Misha. 'I feel safe with animals.' Twelve cats and two dogs prowl around her house, and eight more wild cats come and go as they please. Then there are 12 racoons, a couple of skunks and the deer who regularly visit her to feed from her hand. Birds flutter everywhere and she calls her kitchen windowsill Squirrel Boulevard. She would love to put out food for the wolves and bears who are not so far away. ‘But I cannot, ’ Misha says sadly. ‘The neighbours don’t like that . ‘
Her childhood memories are of a different world: of the hunter she beat with a club after he'd killed Maman Rita; of a Nazi using children as live target practise; of the German soldier she killed with a knife; and of the Ukranian partisans she joined as a fighter. And Misha's arthritic feet and artificial hips are testament to her hardships as a child in the wild.
If there is any doubt, the photos of herself as a teenager in post-war Belgium, dressed in pencil-slim skirt, low-buttoned blouse, and blonde bubble-cut hair, eliminate it. ‘I did whatever I had to survive, ’ she says. ‘As a teenager, for me men were prey. When I needed them, I took them. It was the law of the wild - the law of the wolves. I enjoyed men. I punched people in bars. When I met my husband, I wasn’t an angel. But he was so patient and I told him everything. ‘
Misha met Maurice Defonseca 28 years ago. He was the general manager of a Honeywell factory in France. The photos show a handsome couple, with Maurice in a dashing white suit. Today he is a gentle man with sad eyes and a soft voice. Six years her junior, he is totally devoted to the wife who says she is still inclined to punch or bite a neighbour in an argument. ‘There is something of the wild in me still, ’ she grins. ‘I have the social graces, but I don't trust humans like I trust animals. They're less likely to stab you in the back. ‘
Joni Soffron, education director of the North American Wolf foundation, believes Misha's story. At a recent sell-out reading of her book at a Massachusetts sanctuary, called Wolf Hollow, visitors witnessed her affinity with the wild animals.
‘When Misha finished her reading, she got down and faced the wolves, ’ says Joni. ‘She put her hands around her face and let out a mellow howl. The wolves all responded. People were crying. ‘
Misha says that in the wild she developed an acute sense of smell and hearing. They endure to this day, as does her mistrust of man. ‘I have been to Canada to visit a man there who has bear, a lynx and a moose who visit him, ’ she says. ‘He rescues all animals. I fell in love with this man. that is what I would like, a log cabin in the woods, where I can be away from people and close to animals. ‘
Before that , however, she wants to write another book about returning to civilisation from the wild. She thinks she will call it Surviving With Humans.
Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust is published in the US by Mount Ivy Press
The Scotsman - 17 July 1998
Call of the wild only refuge for Russia's Mowgli
Abandoned by his parents and neglected by the system, a boy of six found safety with a pack of dogs
IT is a story that should have come from another age. Linguists, psychologists and doctors are battling with each other to be the first to study Ivan Mishukov, a feral six-year-old boy who spent two years living with a pack of stray dogs after being abandoned by his parents.
As the 20th century draws to a close, Ivan, one of two million homeless children in Russia, believes he was better off in the company of dogs after being abandoned by his mother. The harsh and often brutal regime of Russian orphanages held little appeal for the boy. ‘They [the dogs] loved and protected me, ’ he told social workers.
The protection was fearsome and absolute. Police had to set a trap in Reutova, west of Moscow, to lure the dogs away from the child. He said they normally set upon any stranger who dared to approach him.
Those involved in the operation say it was a traumatic episode, filled with flying fur, tears and a teeth-baring child. Such was the bond between Ivan and his protectors, police tried for a month to separate them. They finally succeeded by setting a meat bait in the storage room of a restaurant where the dogs often went to look for leftovers. After they entered the room, the doors were closed, allowing the police to subdue the hysterical boy, who kicked and bit officers.
Galina Mashtakova, a journalist who discovered the case, said that Ivan, riddled with lice and covered in sores, would approach adults and ask for food in a city where temperatures often dropped to -30C. He would then share the food with the dogs.
‘There are so many homeless people in Russia. There are probably as many stray dogs. Children love dogs. They are bound to make friends and look after each other, ’ she said.
In return for food, the dogs helped the boy to find shelter at night by sniffing out doorways and warm places to sleep where they could survive the cold nights. Rubbish tips, sewers, disused buildings and gaps next to underwater pipes all served as places to bed down.
In a revelation that has shocked Russia, it has emerged that Ivan was so disturbed and in such poor physical condition that he was placed in quarantine in a children's home where he received medical and psychological treatment.
Now living in care and waiting for the courts in Reutova to determine his future, Ivan is the subject of much attention from couples wishing to adopt him. If a court decides his mother failed in her parental duties, applications from foster parents will be considered.
Ivan is said to be healthy again and has apparently maintained some of his language skills, honed during two years of begging. ‘The children’s home in Reutova is one of the best in Russia. He is being looked after very well, ’ said Ms Mashtakova.
As psychologists and social commentators line up to ask how a four-year-old boy came to choose life with a pack of stray dogs in preference to human company, some experts have focused on the collapse of family life amid the social malaise afflicting Russia.
According to figures provided by charities in Moscow, of the teenage children turned out of orphanages to look after themselves when they are considered old enough to do so, more than 10 per cent commit suicide.
In 1997, there were 17,000 attempted murders of children and more than 200 children were killed by their parents. A sharp rise in alcoholism together with the economic collapse in Russia has been blamed for many social problems.
Robin Campbell, a child psychologist at Stirling University, has co-written a paper on ‘wolf children’, the most famous of whom must be Romulus and Remus, the young brothers who, legend has it, founded Rome. Campbell said: ‘There are pages of reports of children being raised by asses, antelopes, bears, lions, and donkeys, you name it.
‘Scientists are always fascinated in experiments in which children are brought up without the normal civilising influences. It's a fascinating question, whatever angle you're coming from, whether it’s linguistic or behavioural. What would children be like if they were brought up without being exposed to models for them to imitate?’
Some Russian observers have compared the boy's plight to stories from The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. Mowgli, the hero of the book written in 1894, was plucked from civilisation by Shere Khan, a tiger.
Mowgli was rescued by wolves led by Akela, ’ a great grey wolf who led all the pack by strength and cunning’. In another chapter, Baloo, a bear, teaches the boy how to become a man. Describing the Russian boy's decision to roam with the dogs, Peter Hepper, professor of psychology at Queen's University, said: ‘They live in family groups, they have a well established pattern of care, and as long as their hierarchy is obeyed, they will tolerate others living with them.‘
Some experts have compared Ivan's plight with that of autistic children who are often misunderstood. Dr Elana Lievan, a specialist in children’s language at Manchester University, said: ‘As he was abandoned after he was exposed to language, he will probably be okay. ‘People think because their minds are closed to other human contact, there must be something incredibly sophisticated going on inside. But one of the things we never know is why these children were abandoned in the first place. Sometimes it's because they were retarded anyway, ’ she added.
Mr Campbell said a group of researchers in the United States recently tried to launch a project in which they wanted to take over an island and populate it with different nationalities. ‘The idea was that they would produce children who had not been exposed to any of the usual civilising influences. It did not involve them being brought up by animals but the idea behind it, to discover man's natural state, was the same. ‘
Mr Campbell said he was sceptical that children can ever be raised by animals. ‘There are pages of cases and reports of these things, but there’s no real reason to believe any of them. The most famous example was of two Indian children brought up by wolves, but when an American university went to investigate, they found the whole thing was a fabrication.‘