A couple of weeks ago Elie Wiesel, Nobel laureate and self-appointed moral conscience for Holocaust survivors, praised the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes to make way for yet more illegal settlements in Jerusalem. His chilling statement ran in an ad placed in Ha’aretz. Here are Wiesel’s appalling words:
“As Sukkot begins, we are thrilled to bless the tens of new families joining us at this time in the Jewish settlement in the City of David. We salute the Zionist action in Jerusalem of those involved. Strengthening the Jewish presence in Jerusalem is a challenge that we all face and with this act of settlement you are raising our stature. Together with you we will receive the pilgrims, the holiday visitors. We value and cherish you.”
Though Wiesel offers himself as a paragon of moral virtue, the truth is somewhat seamier. As detailed in this myth-shattering piece by Alexander Cockburn from the February 2006 print edition of CounterPunch, Wiesel assiduously campaigned for the Nobel Prize and has for decades tried to pass off his short book “Night” as a true account–a “testimony” in his words– of his experiences at Auschwitz, even though key scenes in the book have been exposed as fiction.
–Jeffrey St. Clair
When in trouble, head for Auschwitz, preferably in the company of Elie Wiesel. It’s as foolproof a character reference as is available today, at least within the Judeo-Christian sphere of moral influence. One can easily see why Oprah Winfrey and her advisers saw an Auschwitz excursion in the company of Wiesel as a sure-fire antidote to salve the wounds sustained by Oprah’s Book Club when it turned out that James Frey had faked significant slabs of his own supposedly autobiographical saga of moral regeneration, A Million Little Pieces.
Published in 2003, Frey’s irksome book swiftly became a cult classic. (The present author was offered it in the summer of 2004 by a young relative, presumably to assist in his moral regeneration, but after glancing through a few pages returned it, on the grounds that it wasn’t his kind of thing.) Winfrey picked it for her Book Club in September 2005, and it rocketed to the top of the bestseller lists.
For Frey the sky fell in when, on January 7, 2006, the Smoking Gun website published documents showing that Frey had fabricated many facts about himself, including a criminal record. There were later charges of plagiarism. Frey ran through a benign gauntlet of trial-by-Larry King on January 11, and Oprah called in to stand by her Pick of the Month. She said that what mattered was not whether Frey’s book was true (the Fundamentalist claim for the Holy Bible) but its value as a therapeutic tool (the modern Anglican position on the Good Book).
But by now every columnist and books page editor in America was wrestling the truth-or-fiction issue to the ground. Oprah turned on Frey. On her show on January 26, he clung to the ropes, offering the excuse that the “demons” that had driven him to drink and drugs had also driven him into claiming that everything he wrote about himself was true. Publishers including Random House, which has made millions off him, had rejected the book when he’d initially offered it as a “fiction novel”. Oprah brushed this aside.
“Say it’s all true” is what demons often whisper in an author’s ear. Ask T.E. Lawrence. Did the Bey of Deraa really rape him? Lawrence suggests it in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom in paragraphs of fervent masochistic reminiscence. This and other adventures in Lawrence’s account of British scheming in Mesopotamia against the Ottomans met with the ecstatic admiration of the Oxford-based equivalent of Oprah’s Book Club back in the early 1920s, after Lawrence had the 350,000-word “memoir” privately printed and circulated. He’d written an earlier version in 1919 but claimed this had been stolen while he was changing trains in Reading, on the way to Oxford from London. (Reading has surely been the site of more supposed thefts and losses of “completed manuscripts” and PhD dissertations — “I didn’t make a copy!” — than any railway station in the world.)
Half a century later it occurred to Colin Simpson and Phillip Knightley of the London Sunday Times to ask the supposed rapist for his side of the story. They hurried off to Turkey and tracked down the town to which the Bey had retired, arriving at his home only to learn he’d died not long before. Relatives told the British reporters that the Bey would not have found Lawrence appetizing prey. The Turk was a noted womanizer, and when in Mesopotamia was always getting the clap from consorting with whores on his excursions to Damascus.
It’s fun to think of Oprah grilling Lawrence about his claims, freshly exposed on Smoking Gun, telling him she felt “really duped” but that, “more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of Orientalizing masochists who believed you”.
But hardly had Frey been cast down from the eminence of Amazon.com’s top bestseller before he was replaced at number one by the new pick of Oprah’s Book Club, Elie Wiesel’s Night, which had the good fortune to see republication at this fraught moment in Oprah’s literary affairs. Simultaneous with the Night selection came news that Oprah Winfrey and Elie Wiesel would shortly be visiting Auschwitz together, from which vantage point Oprah, with the lugubrious Wiesel at her side, could emphasize for her ABC-TV audience that there is truth and there is fiction, that Auschwitz is historical truth at its bleakest and most terrifying, that Night is a truthful account and that Wiesel is the human embodiment of truthful witness.
The trouble here is that in its central, most crucial scene, Night isn’t historically true, and at least two other important episodes are almost certainly fiction. Below, I cite views, vigorously expressed to me in recent weeks by a concentration camp survivor, Eli Pfefferkorn, who worked with Wiesel for many years; also by Raul Hilberg. Hilberg is the world’s leading authority on the Nazi Holocaust. An expanded version of his classic three-volume study, The Destruction of the European Jews, was recently reissued by Yale University Press. Wiesel personally enlisted Hilberg to be the historical expert on the United States Holocaust Commission.
If absolute truth to history is the standard, Pfefferkorn says, then Nightdoesn’t make the grade. Wiesel made things up, in a way that his many subsequent detractors could identify as not untypical of his modus operandi: grasping with deft assurance what people important to his future would want to hear and, by the same token, would not want to hear.