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Runaway Train

Oprah visits Auschwitz: In good taste or bad?

Jennifer Weisberg
May 26, 2006

A friend, knowing I value the perverse and idiotic, sent me an email with an image so ridiculous I burst out laughing: a billboard in Los Angeles featuring the inspirational smile of Oprah Winfrey next to the words “Oprah Goes to Auschwitz. Wednesday at 3 P.M.” Incredulous, I wondered if she’d be taking her studio audience with her, and, if so, would it receive parting gifts, as so often happens in Oprah’s world. It’s hard to imagine what sort of souvenir would be appropriate. Wooden shoes?

As it turns out, Night has been selected for Oprah’s powerful and morally uplifting book club. To mark the occasion, she traveled with Elie Wiesel to Poland. Arm in arm, they strode through the snow-covered wastes of Auschwitz, pausing under the Arbeit Macht Frei gate to ponder the presence of evil in the world and to pose for photographs.

O magazine milks the journey a step further, allowing the reader into the intimate recesses of Oprah’s heart. In her “What I Know for Sure” column, after exhorting her readers to “look around, there’s beauty everywhere,” she takes a look down at her own feet, giving “a prayer of thanks” for her Uggs and “pairs of gloves.”

Taking care to note that she is visiting Auschwitz on her birthday, she promises to give “new life to the memory of the dead.” Such selflessness! Most women would enjoy taking some time for themselves on their birthday. Instead, Oprah channels the sorrows of the world, rectifying them one show at a time, managing even to reunite a long-separated Rwandan family while Elie Wiesel looks on approvingly.

While it’s hard to fault the priestess of self-actualization for wanting to bring Night, and by extension, a greater awareness of the Holocaust to a wider audience, there’s something jarring about the triumphalism of it all. Expanding Night‘s reading public is one thing; incorporating the “hallowed ground” of Auschwitz as a selling point for afternoon television is something completely different. The mawkishness of it all, the Very Special Episode quality, as if Tootie were forced to spend an afternoon with a survivor.

I don’t know what disturbs me more: the cheery billboard image or the presumption that Oprah’s train of self-improvement, once it barrels through the camp gates, will move on to the next topic of the day. Which, as her website tells me, is finding the best fitting bra and an interview with the cast of Grey’s Anatomy.