Diana Nyad’s Unspeakable Lie, part 1

Diana Nyad often tells the story of meeting a Holocaust survivor who underwent horrifying sexual abuse during World War II. Nyad fabricated the whole thing.

part 1 | part 2

Please understand that I am not questioning whether or not sexual abuse occurred during the Holocaust. It did, and it was probably much worse than anyone could ever imagine. I am, however, questioning the facts of one particular story, the one Diana Nyad invented and now exploits for her own benefit. 

The following paragraph summarizes Nyad’s story. It includes details common to most or all of the six versions I’m familiar with:

At dinner after one of her talks, Nyad meets an elderly woman (never named) who is originally from Krakow, Poland. Nyad identifies the woman as a survivor because she has numbers tattooed on her arm. The woman tells Nyad her story: When she was three years old, the Gestapo came to her home in Krakow, killed her father, and forced her, her mother, and her six-year-old sister onto a train to Dachau. At Dachau, they were separated. The mother and sister went to the right, the three-year-old went to the left and never saw her family again. The Nazis then sent the three-year-old girl to serve as a sex slave to the camp’s SS officers. At war’s end, a French family adopts the little girl. She goes on to live a life seemingly unaffected by her trauma.

(This spreadsheet provides links to all six versions and highlights differences between them.)

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Over the last month, I’ve struggled to write about Nyad’s story. Then I received a message from Dr. Barbara Distel, former director of the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site. Her email contains just about everything you need to know about Nyad’s tale. By permission of Dr. Distel, here are the pertinent parts (lightly edited for readability):

1. Dachau was a concentration camp for men only, there were never families or mothers with children. Jewish families in Poland were sent to Ghettos and from there to the death camps, or directly to the death camps in Poland, never to Germany. The description [Nyad gives] refers to Auschwitz. The way she tells it is completely fictional. [my emphasis]
 
During the last years (1943-1945), a large number of subsidiary
camps were established where Dachau prisoners worked mostly for the German armament industry. There were some subsidiary camps and work detachments where also women prisoners worked. Shortly before the liberation on April 29, 1945, there were about 67,000 inmates in Dachau and its subsidiary camps, 4,600 of them were women (4,000 Jewish women). There were a number of babies who had been born shortly before the liberation.
 
2. There were no three-year-old children in Dachau. [Unlike] Buchenwald concentration camp, there was no children’s barrack in Dachau. 

I have never heard of sexual abuse of children in Dachau concentration camp.

(Complete email exchange here.)


When Diana Nyad lies about the Holocaust, she exploits for her own self-aggrandizement the lives of millions of real survivors and victims. That’s despicable and intolerable. And it’s abhorrent to me personally in a way that her other lies are not. My mother-in-law, Liese Spiegl nee Sondermann, grew up in Gelsenkirchen, a small town in western Germany. Of her immediate family, only she and a brother lived through the war. Her sister, Friedel, starved to death in the Riga Ghetto when she was eleven years old. Her brother, Hans, died after a mining accident because the Nazis refused him medical care; her father, Ernst, died in Auschwitz; and her mother, Marta, died in Auschwitz or the Riga ghetto—we can’t know for certain. On the other hand, my father-in-law, Andrew Spiegl, as a teenager in Vienna in the late 1930s, saved his entire family. Without his tenacity, his ingenuity, and his courage, many families—including my own—would not exist.

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When Diana Nyad fabricates a Holocaust survivor to aggrandize herself, it’s appalling, infuriating, and well beyond offensive—and it tells me that she would lie about anything.

Memorial sculpture at Dachau concentration camp. (Courtesy of Wolfgang Manousek)

Against spousal counsel—“shorter is better”—I include the following because it provides further and more detailed evidence that Nyad fabricated the story.

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In the three years or so that I’ve been looking into Diana Nyad’s claims, I never thought to question her Holocaust story. She tells versions of this story in interviews and speeches, and she included it in her memoir, Find a Way

I always assumed that the tale was true though probably exaggerated. How could anyone, even Diana Nyad, fabricate such a thing? [1]

Then, in August, she told the story to Cal Fussman on his Big Questions podcast. This time, something felt off,[2] so I compared the new version to the one in Find a Way and found a number of differences. For example:

  • In the book, Nyad met the woman at “a speech in New Mexico”; in the podcast, Nyad gave the speech at “a university…. Right now, honestly it’s so long ago, I can’t remember where.”
  • In the book, the Nazis transport the girl to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany; in the interview, she goes to an unnamed “death camp.”
  • In the book, “the Allies” liberate the camp; on the podcast, Nyad credits “the Resistance.”

The latter got me curious about who really liberated Dachau. Turns out that, on April 29, 1945, the U.S. Army liberated Dachau.  So neither the Resistance nor the Allies (at least from Nyad’s point of view) liberated the camp.

That got me wondering what else Nyad might have gotten wrong, so I began to look a little deeper. It didn’t take long for the whole story to fall apart.

Former prisoners liberated from the Dachau Concentration Camp cheer at the raising of the U.S. flag, April 1945.

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In her survivor story, Nyad invokes familiar Holocaust images—the nightmare train journey to a concentration camp, the separation of families upon arrival, the survivor’s tattoo, etc.—to create a pastiche that no one would think to dispute.

We’ll look closely at each part of Nyad’s account in a moment. For now, here are three details that expose it as a likely fraud:

  1. The survivor’s tattoo.
    Nyad always identifies the woman as a survivor by the tattoo she ostensibly received at Dachau—or, in one version, at Treblinka. But the Nazis only tattooed people at one place: Auschwitz. See Tattoos and Numbers… at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM).
  2. The train from Krakow to Dachau.
    In two versions, Nyad says the survivor went from Krakow, Poland, to Dachau around the time the Nazis liquidated the Krakow ghetto. In reality, when the Nazis emptied the Krakow ghetto, they sent people to Auschwitz-Birkenau and Plaskow, never to Dachau. See Dr. Distel’s message and the Krakow (Cracow) entry at the USHMM.
  3. The survivor’s gender. As stated above, there were no women or children at Dachau, at least until the end of the war approached.

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The locations of Nyad’s story change from version to version, while most of the cast remains the same. Nyad is careful, however, to name only one of her characters: Diana Nyad. She would probably say that she leaves the survivor anonymous out of sensitivity to her plight and her privacy. If so, one has to wonder why she includes the story and its graphic details at all.

(Okay, one doesn’t have to wonder that. Nyad includes it to show how caring and sympathetic she is. She includes it to garner reverence and adoration for herself. C.f. DN’s neighborly thoughtfulness at sea. To paraphrase Henry David Thoreau, an author Nyad likes to quote, if you see Diana coming to help you, run for your life.)

I’d like to suggest two reasons why Nyad names only herself in the tale.  First, as long as she doesn’t name anyone else, she makes it difficult—though not impossible—to disprove her story.

Second, since none of the non-Nyad characters exist, at least as Nyad describes them, the whole tale is about the only one who does exist: Diana herself. More on this in the next post.

Let’s look at the story in detail, bearing in mind that none if it is true and that our examination of it just describes different levels of outlandishness.

I. The Meet

Nyad’s story begins in a crowded, noisy restaurant. She has just given a talk (depending on the version, either at an academic or a corporate gig, possibly in New Mexico or Arizona) and has gone out to eat afterward:

I sat at a table after I gave a speech in New Mexico a couple of years ago…. I was put right next to a woman who was old. She was 88 years old. And obviously, she was the most respected one there. And she was the life of the party, her mind totally together. And she told wonderful stories. And obviously everyone, myself included, was captivated by her. (National Speakers Bureau, 10:06)

Nyad gave her National Speakers Bureau speech in 2011. According to the above excerpt, she’s claiming that the survivor was 88 around 2009. In all versions, Nyad says that the woman was three when she entered the camp and that the camp was liberated 2½ years later. That makes her five or six in 1945. If that were true, she would have been 69 or 70 in 2009, and wouldn’t turn 88 until 2027 at the earliest.

[S]he reached her arm out to grab her glass of water, the butter or whatever, I saw the numbers etched in her wrist. And I said, “oh, you’re a survivor.” (ibid)

This scene occurs in every version exactly as above. The numbers are always “etched” in the survivor’s wrist or forearm. We will learn later that the woman would have received the tattoo when she was three years old. Would the numbers have appeared “etched” by the time Nyad saw them about eighty-five years later? Unlikely—though not impossible, according to a well-tatted friend of the Annex.

As I mentioned before, though, it’s impossible that the woman received a tattoo at all. Some eventual Dachau prisoners did have tattoos because, towards the end of the war, the Nazis sent people from Auschwitz to other camps, including Dachau (see Dachau at USHMM). But Nyad’s three-year-old makes no stops between home and Dachau or Treblinka.

II. The Ask

Next, Nyad asks the woman to tell her story:

…I said, “I know this sounds insane, we’re in this noisy restaurant. But you and I have been having this intimate conversation, mouth to ear because we can only hear each other, do you feel like telling me about it?” (Big Questions)

Yes, it does sound insane—and repugnant and not something anyone with a speck of humanity would ask someone she just met. But Nyad, an avowed connoisseur of trauma asks anyway. [3]

Without hesitation, the woman flies into her account:

She was three. Kracow, Poland. Her father said…

But wait: THIS WOULD NEVER HAPPEN! (At the very least, it’s as implausible as Nyad’s favorite fatality fable: death-by-jellyfish.) People who were sexually abused during the Holocaust—or anywhere for that matter—don’t go around sharing their stories with near-strangers. Most survivors of Holocaust sexual abuse have kept their abuse hidden. They’ve done so for many reasons, including shame, survivor guilt, and fear that their families might reject them if they found out. [5]

DN asks us to believe that a woman—who, as a young girl, was abused daily for 2½ years—would be more-than-delighted to share the story of her abuse over dinner with a recent acquaintance, one who very well might (and did!) add it to her storytelling/accolade-gathering arsenal.

(Note that Nyad, someone who jauntily shares tales of abuse with anyone willing to listen, is really talking about herself.)

III. Krakow, Poland

Back to the survivor’s story: When she was three, the Gestapo came to her home in Krakow. Her father refused to leave, so the Gestapo shot him. Then…

An interminable train ride to Dachau, standing for more than a day pressed body to body with dozens of others, forced to urinate and defecate on the floor, they finally arrived at the camp. (Find a Way, p. 135)

Spanish author Javier Cercas’s examination of Enric Marco, a  fraud whose palette of deceptions includes internment in a WWII concentration camp.

“[E]very great lie is constructed of small truths,” writes Javier Cercas in The Impostor (p. 70), his book about another monstrously successful fraud. Like the tattoo, the train image has truth in it, but Nyad twists it to suit her own needs: garnering love and admiration for Diana Nyad.

Given the dates Nyad provides, the family’s deportation to Dachau would have occurred around the end of 1942 or the beginning of 1943. By that time, the Nazi’s had forced most of Krakow’s Jews into a single ghetto. In March of 1943, the Nazi’s emptied the ghetto, sending residents either to Plaszow or to Auschwitz-Birkenau. So the train is real, but the train from Krakow to Dachau is not. [4]

IV. Dachau, Germany

The mother and her two young daughters reach the camp.

They descended onto the platform, the mother holding the six-year-old with her right hand, this three-year-old with her left. Once off the train, the mother and older sister were pushed to the right. This little one was taken to the left. She never saw her mother or her sister again. (Find a Way, p. 135)

Dachau was a work camp/concentration camp, not an extermination camp. It held mainly adult men. There was no Sophie’s Choice-esque selection process upon entry.

At Steve Morse’s search site, you can check Dachau records to get a sense of who was there (and who wasn’t), their ages, their genders, and where they came from. For instance, someone who would have been three in 1942 would have been born around 1939, so I searched for everyone born between 1937 and 1941. The search returned a list of sixteen people: fourteen boys; one girl from Hungary; and one child of indeterminate gender from Lithuania. Both of the latter arrived in 1944.

A similar search for the six-year-old—I looked for someone born between 1934 and 1938—yielded 34 names, 31 of them boys. The three girls on the list included the child from Hungary, a girl from Lithuania, and Helene Sujecka-Furmanozyk of Poland. Both of the latter two children also arrived in 1944. If I’m reading the records correctly, Sujecka-Furmanozyk may be the only one of the above who survived.

On that day, and for the next two and a half years, until the Allies came in, this innocent child was forced into sexual slave labor. She became the little concubine of the SS officers. Oral sex, anal sex, intercourse. At age three, she was forced to perform these heinous acts many times a day. (ibid)

This is a good time to recall that Nyad fabricated the whole tale. Sexual slavery existed during the Holocaust, but I have found no evidence that the Nazis forced it upon anyone that young. Again, Nyad projects herself into the story — when she was three, she had a hellish year. Now, whenever she talks about young girls in peril—young girls other than Diana, that is—those girls are always three. C.f. Nyad’s NY Times Op-ed, “My Life After Sexual Assault,” in which she claims to have spoken with a woman whose “father began molesting her when she was 3.” In the Facebook Live follow-up to the op-ed, the victim became “…a girl who was three years old molested by her father, then her grandfather.”

The Little Concubine

Nyad uses the curiously incongruent phrase “little concubine” in every version of the story. The three-year-old girl always serves as “the little concubine of the SS officers.”

It turns out that Vladimir Nabokov used the same phrase a few years before Nyad. In Lolita, published in 1955, Humbert Humbert calls Lolita—the 12-year-old girl he kidnaps then rapes every day, multiple times a day, for two years (sound familiar?)—“a tiny concubine,” “my pubescent concubine,” and, finally, “my little concubine” (Lolitapp. 84148208).

Another Nabokov-Nyad nexus: Lolita IS Diana, at least for a little while. Lolita’s school mounts a play, The Enchanted Huntress. Dolores Haze, Lolita’s real name in the novel,

…was assigned the part of a farmer’s daughter who imagines herself to be a woodland witch, or Diana, or something, and who, having got hold of a book on hypnotism, plunges a number of lost hunters into various entertaining trances….

In the play, various hunters…

…went through a complete change of mind in Dolly’ s Dell, and remembered their real lives only as dreams or nightmares from which little Diana had aroused them….

It should come as no surprise that DN studied literature while in graduate school at NYU. When and for how long she pursued those studies remains a mystery. It would seem, though, that at some point she dove at least as deeply into Lolita as she did into her spurious survivor.

V. Paris

We now depart Dachau for Paris and Nyad’s fantasy finale:

A family in Paris adopted her. On her first day with them, the mother took her into the garden, held her close, and told her it would be healing to speak it all out. She had no idea what she was about to hear. This little girl voiced every graphic detail. Then the mother assured her:

“You will never forget what happened to you…. You must take these memories and bury them deep in a corner of your soul. Don’t live them on your skin. Tomorrow you will wake up for the first time in your new home, here with us. You will not wake up a tortured little girl. You will wake up a citizen of the world, deserving of a happy and meaningful life.” (Find a Way, p. 135-136)

In other words, a kind of fairy godmother appeared, gave the child a big hug, and urged her to spill. The little girl did just that, reliving “every graphic detail” of 2½ years of daily “oral sex, anal sex, intercourse, you name it, with these grown men.” A pep talk ensued after which the fairy godmother liberated the child from her pain from that day forward, in perpetuity. The survivor (read: Diana Nyad) would no longer live her troubles on her skin, thus erasing her tattoo psychically if not physically.

All of this happens within a single day.

That’s one Mt. Everest-sized pile of bullshit. Two-and-half-years of ongoing sexual abuse, beginning when a child is three, will not all-but-disappear overnight. “Holocaust atrocities and childhood sexual abuse are considered by clinicians to be two of the most serious childhood traumas,” write Rachel Lev-Wiesel and Marianne Amir in “Holocaust Child Survivors and Child Sexual Abuse” (via—and with thanks to—Elaine Howley)…

 Thus, the effects of the combination of these factors would be expected to be particularly detrimental. (p. 70-71)

[D]espite their many apparent achievements, including the raising of functioning families and success in business or career, the survivors report that they are still continually tortured by painful memories of their childhood. They find themselves engaged in endless internal struggles to control anger, aggressiveness, or panic; many report that they are unable to achieve intimacy with their spouses and children. All these elements explain why these survivors generally consider life itself to be meaningless and painful. (p. 78)

Nyad herself has struggled her whole life with what happened when she was three. Like her fictional survivor, Nyad had no control over what occurred, and she bore no responsibility for it. But, unfair as it is, she has had to contend with its aftershocks.

So how did Diana deal with the unfairness? She concocted a fable with the following moral: If you just follow the right recipe, you can make your trauma vanish. [6] Combine one day, one fairy godmother, one unburdening,  and one big hug. Shake well, et voilà—all gone!

That evening in that bustling restaurant, this gentle woman and the intensity of her unfathomable story inspired me to a crucial new revelation within my own journey. (Find a Way, p. 136)

But the “crucial new revelation,” is simply a rehash of Nyad’s old, maliciously misleading contention that we can achieve anything we put our minds to; that “if the resolve is set in titanium, you’re gonna be the one who finally stumbles up onto that other shore” (Neuronfire, 4:47). You can deal with unspeakable trauma, Nyad tells us, just by tucking it away and forging ahead. You just gotta’ believe! And if you don’t believe? If you can’t tuck it away? Well, that’s on you—so you better gin up something stronger than Jello in which to set your resolve. Find a Way, bucko!

Nyad does confess that there was something wrong even with Diana Nyad, something so wrong that she deigned to visit therapists (Big Questions, 25:34). But the good word of an imaginary octogenarian trumped the pros.

VI. The Most Despicable Lie

The lies about Manhattan, the lies about the Olympic trials, the lies about the English Channel and the jellyfish and the years of being the greatest marathon swimmer in the world; and, finally, the lie about swimming from Cuba to Florida—I get it: Diana Nyad wants the public to think she’s the best, to think that she’s a hero. She wants people to love and adore her. She wants to be on television. If that means cutting a few corners here and there, that’s fine with Diana. [7]

But peddling a lie about a Holocaust survivor and, in so doing, exploiting for her own self-aggrandizement the lives of millions of real survivors and victims—that’s despicable and intolerable. Meanwhile, her enablers, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, NPR, CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, and CAAa former President and a former Secretary of State; Ellen and Oprah, and Sanjay Gupta— to name just a few—all gather ’round the campfire and sing the praises of Diana—her authenticity, her nobility, and her utter honesty.

We’ve all been conned.

[Updated 10 Feb 2019 mainly to condense and to improve readability. Added that, given the survivor’s age when she entered the camp,  she would have been 69 or 70 in 2009, the year that Nyad claimed that the survivor was 88.]

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NOTES

  1. Pretty easily, unfortunately. In addition to Nyad, there’s Enric Marco, Joseph HirtMisha DefonsecaAlex KurzemRosemarie Pence, and others.    RETURN
  2. I’m still not sure exactly what piqued my curiosity. One possibility: DN name-dropping Reese Witherspoon (not for the first time) in connection with the National Archive of Sexual Abuse, an organization that, as far as I can tell, exists only in Diana Nyad’s imagination. Witherspoon and Nyad may have worked together on a non-imaginary abuse-related project, at least according to DN herself: “I’m at the forefront on that [Me Too] movement…. I’m working with Reese Witherspoon on the Time’s Up campaign.” Unsurprisingly, I can’t verify this. Multiple web pages mention Witherspoon’s involvement with Time’s Up—see, for example, “Women Leaders Launch ‘Time’s Up’…,” “…Hollywood women launch anti-harassment initiative,” and “…See Who’s Given $500k, More to Fight Harassment“—but not a single page mentions Nyad’s.     RETURN
  3. For more on Nyad’s fetishization of trauma, see Other Shores, p. 142-146: “Since adolescence, I have become a quasi-authority on survival stories…” (or here); and the introduction to the video, “How a Stranger Changed Diana Nyad’s Life Forever….    RETURN
  4. In the earliest version I know of (2011, National Speakers Bureau), the Nazi’s deport the girl and her family from Germany to Treblinka, a trip east of about 600 km/375 miles minimum. When Nyad tells the story in 2017, she sends the family from Krakow to Dachau, i.e. about 800 km/500 miles in almost the opposite direction.    RETURN
  5. For more on survivor silence, see:
  6. This is exactly what she did with her Cuba-Florida swim. She felt it horribly unfair that she most likely could not complete the swim. So she concocted a real-life fable—with an unknown number of fable-enablers—to deal with it.     RETURN
  7. Diana has never had much love for rules. turtle turtle turtle turtle turtle turtle turtle turtle

    …I just don’t pay much attention to parameters and restrictions and limiting definitions…. I remember observing my outlandishly dramatic father and my lovely but meek mother, at a very young age, and deciding that I was going to carve my own unique path, devise my own rules….

    Starting with the rules laid down in my house when I was a child, I have never much respected society’s expected standards. A woman asked me after a speech during the Cuba prep how I could train at this level, with the normal aches and pains that come at my age. I answered, ‘Don’t put your assumptions of what one is supposed to feel at my age on me. I defy those suppositions of limitations. If you feel aches and pains, say so. But I don’t, and I refuse to follow your or anybody else’s controlling and denigrating parameters of mediocrity.’ (Find a Way, p. 222)

    Of her Cuba-Florida swim, she said, “Every attempt I’ve made has been by the rule books.” But she never told anyone what those rule books were, while she seemed to be making up rules for herself as she went along. Out of an overflow of fellow-feeling, however, I’ll give Diana the last word:

    I’m an absolutely aboveboard person who never cheated on anything in my whole life…. I hope they’re not questioning I’m an honest person (“Celebration Gives Way to Questions….”).

    RETURN

One thought on “Diana Nyad’s Unspeakable Lie, part 1”

  1. Excellent well-documented account here. I

    hope this gets seen and picked up by more media. People like Diana Nyad can’t just lie with popular heart-wrenching buzz words to promote themselves and make gazillions. It is a disgrace and she should be held accountable.

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