Synopsis: Elderly woman from Europe recounts her childhood during WWII, in which she escaped to the wilds and lived with wolves. Or did she? (Streaming on Netflix)
If you were a wolf, would you be interested in adopting a primate? The short answer is: No. You are a wild animal with a well-documented wariness of humans. Also, you live on the knife’s edge of survival and can’t afford to go around adopting human young.
For millennia, people have been attracted to the idea of a child being cared for by wolves. It’s never, I was raised by a raccoon. Are you familiar with Lupa the she-wolf? She cared for twin brothers, Romulus and Remus, who went on to found Rome. She suckled them and a woodpecker fed them. There is some famous statuary of Lupa with the boys, where she looks protective but also put out by the active children. She has an expression on her face like a babysitter looking at the clock and noticing the inconsiderate parents should’ve been home an hour ago.
Jumping ahead to 1930’s Europe when humans had extirpated wolves from much of their historic range and the Nazis were trying like hell to wipe out half the human population of Europe through bombings and concentration camps, we have another story of a wolf taking on the care of a human child. In this case, there were no nanny-esque woodpeckers to help out.
Misha was a little Jewish girl living in Belgium when Germany invaded in 1940. Her parents were deported to a concentration camp and she was hidden with a Catholic family. Throughout Misha and the Wolves, we see footage of her being interviewed when she is elderly and living in Massachusetts, USA. She recounts that her foster family was unkind except for the “grandfather” who showed her a map and told her that her parents had been sent to Germany. She is determined to be reunited with her parents.
Misha packs a bag with some food and brings along a compass, set on traveling eastward until she reaches Germany. Unbeknownst to her these are the plans of the Allies as well, but they are better equipped, what with tanks and C-Rations. American soldiers even got emergency rations of Hershey’s chocolate bars and plenty of ciggies too. No such luck for seven-year-old Misha as she walked approximately 1,900 miles from Belgium to Ukraine.
In between heartrending testimony from old Misha, we see reenactments of a young Misha walking through snowy forests. A few hundred miles in, her tights are torn and her braids are pretty messy. By the time she’s deep into Eastern Europe, her boots are held together by twine.
I pack a backpack with a hoodie and granola bars before a flight, but I still have a hard time getting through long layovers at airports. How did this poor child manage?! Well, old Misha reports that she stuck to the forests and watched what the animals did. So, I guess: a berry here, a beetle there. You might be thinking, what she really needs now is some kind human to see her and help her. No, what she needs is a wolf.
Somewhere along the way, she encounters a wolf and shares some food that she stole from a farmyard. They begin to travel in parallel. This is quite a feat for a person because wolves can travel thirty miles a day. She would really need a lot of berries and beetles to keep up her energy.
Eventually Misha becomes part of a wolf pack. But she does other things too, like knife bad people and sneak in and out of the Warsaw ghetto. According to her written memoir, she starts westward again by hopping on a boat to Italy. Presumably the wolves were not stowaways as well.
So, is her story a fabrication or not? I started to figure: okay, she somehow managed to stay alive on her own, but she must have hallucinated the wolves. And if she hadn’t talked about the wolves, her story would probably be unknown to most people. But she had a pretty incredible tale to tell. And in the 1990’s, people in her small town started talking about this elderly woman, Misha Defonseca, and her husband who had recently moved into the neighborhood. You see, she had spoken about her experiences at a synagogue and before long, a local publisher, Jane Daniel, heard about her extraordinary story and arranged a meeting.
Misha agrees to tell her story to the publisher. Buzz begins to build and Oprah and Disney express interest in the project. But bad blood develops between the publisher and Misha. Lawsuits happen. But, just as she did across Europe, Misha continues to troop along and finds success with a children’s story of her life and even a French movie, Survivre avec les loups (Surviving with the Wolves).
The tale is fascinating and anyone who likes mysteries will enjoy finding what seem like holes in her story. For example, I didn’t believe that she hung out with wolves. But we do get to see her with some wolves.
There is a non-profit, Wolf Hollow, in Misha’s region. The people who run the place invite Misha to visit and cameras are rolling when they allow her to enter a fenced area and meet a wolf. IMO, a reputable zoo or sanctuary does not allow randos to come and meet a wild animal without any barrier. It’s stressful for the animal and dangerous for the person — especially as this is not a baby bird, but an apex predator. You’ll have to see for yourself what happens, but I will tell you that at one point, old Misha throws her head back and howls. You can only imagine what the wolf is thinking. Time to dispatch the stranger who is in my territory. Or maybe she’ll leave if I ignore her. No such luck, my lupine friend. Misha will not be ignored.
In an interesting turn of events, a Holocaust survivor in Europe, Evelyne Haendel, becomes aware of Misha’s story. She’s smart and she has time to look through lots and lots of old records. Evelyne’s research and her own story of traumatic loss made me think of a non-fiction piece I read in which a police investigator was explaining how they endeavor to keep their own emotions and prejudices, and those of society, out of their work. Their mantra was: listen and verify.
Unfortunately, we are unable to corroborate Mishas’s story with any wolves because they have long since passed. Oh, and they can’t talk. But humans can.
Survivor, witnesses and investigators have documented what the Nazis and their collaborators did to innocent human beings: they murdered millions of innocent people, not even sparing children. And I think that if a person survived the Holocaust and stood up to talk about their life, it would be especially painful to find out that someone was stealing their voice by maybe not being entirely truthful about their life during wartime.
And if I were a wolf, I would find it especially galling that a member of a species that has been mercilessly wiping out my kind, claims an association with me. Yes, very galling indeed, when I’ve been busy all day living a dignified life and minding my own wolf business.
P.S. The Nazis were really expert at proving that humans are capable of terrible things. From 1933 – 1945 they murdered approximately 11 million people: 6 million of whom were Jewish. They really went for broke with their killing spree: murdering another 5 million people for the “crime” of being Slavic, Roma, disabled, homosexual and so on.
You’ve probably had enough of thinking about the Holocaust for right now because it is so horrific, but you may want to learn more and read survivor testimony at another juncture. Here are two links with a lot of well-curated research: https://www.ushmm.org/ and https://www.yadvashem.org/holocaust.html
P.P.S. Did you know that anyplace can call itself an animal sanctuary? It’s a good way to get donations and paying visitors. Legitimate sanctuaries provide food, shelter and an environment that meets a species’ need for room-to-roam and socialization (or not) and enrichment as defined by credentialed wildlife specialists. Real sanctuaries/rescues/refuges don’t breed, trade or buy animals, or make them perform.
You can check to see if a sanctuary is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) which sets high standards for program ethics and animal care right here…https://www.sanctuaryfederation.org/