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Oprah's new mess

January 18, 2006|Adam Shatz | ADAM SHATZ is literary editor of the Nation.

AMONG THOSE reeling from the flap around James Frey's memoir, "A Million Little Pieces" -- which has been exposed as an embellishment, when not outright fabrication, of the author's life -- is America's most powerful literary critic, Oprah Winfrey. "A Million Little Pieces" was an Oprah Book Club selection, and Winfrey has defended her choice, insisting that the "underlying message" counts more than strict respect for the facts.

Now she has also made what looks like a highly savvy decision. She has named as her next book club selection Elie Wiesel's 1960 memoir, "Night," a searing account of the author's journey through the nightmare of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. What better way for Oprah to underscore her point about a memoir's underlying message -- and at the same time to insulate herself from criticism over the Frey contretemps -- than to warm herself by the hearth of Holocaust remembrance? After all, no one will contest Wiesel's memoir or -- thankfully -- the truth of the historical events it recounts.

Oprah is planning a trip to Auschwitz with Wiesel, who has a reputation as a truth-teller, a witness to human cruelty, a shining example of the power of remembrance over the forces of evil, deceit and amnesia. And yes, the pilgrimage to the camps will be filmed.

Oprah in Auschwitz. Not since "Springtime for Hitler" have we been treated to a Holocaust production so surreal. If nothing else, Oprah in Auschwitz -- and the sales of "Night," which are sure to multiply -- will bring home the horrors of the Nazi genocide to millions of Americans. It may even improve black-Jewish relations, bringing together a Jewish survivor of the camps and a black survivor of racism, violence and childhood sexual abuse.

Yet Oprah in Auschwitz may also turn the Holocaust into another recovery narrative -- a "feel-good story about the ultimate feel-bad experience," as the film critic J. Hoberman memorably wrote of "Schindler's List," in which the principal Jewish characters survive.

Worse, it overlooks the far more disturbing "recovery" that Wiesel has made since his ordeal in the camps. For the author of "Night" has gone from being a great victim of war crimes to being an apologist for those who commit them -- all while invoking his moral authority as a survivor.

Again, there's no denying the truth of Wiesel's experience. But he has his own problems with credibility, which Winfrey might wish to note. Not with the facts of his own life but with broader issues of historical truth and historical memory, which touch upon matters far more substantial than the number of hours James Frey spent behind bars.

For example, Wiesel does not believe that Gypsies and gays should be remembered alongside Jewish victims of the Holocaust, although hundreds of thousands of them perished. He has frowned upon the use of the term "genocide" in reference to the Armenian holocaust.

Wiesel's troubles with memory and truth are especially acute when it comes to Israel's behavior toward Palestinians. For example, he has long maintained that the 1948 Palestinian refugees left voluntarily, "incited by their leaders," a claim that Israel's own historians have done much to shatter.

In the face of abundant evidence from human rights groups that Israel has committed widespread human rights violations in the occupied territories, Wiesel has either denied such reports or loftily asserted that, as a Jew who does not live in Israel, he has no right to air his criticisms (though, paradoxically, his nonresident status does not prevent him from airing his praise). His last Op-Ed article in the New York Times was a lamentation for the settlers of Gaza, zealots whom even Ariel Sharon, the architect of the settlement project, finally had the wisdom to remove from their stronghold.

The author of a justly praised Holocaust memoir, Wiesel may provide Oprah with good cover after the Frey disaster. As a historian and political commentator, however, Wiesel has been a specialist in denial, a man who has contributed far more to the blurring of fact and invention than the author of "A Million Little Pieces."

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