Isn't that Oprah Winfrey something? She has just found herself promoting another invented memoir, this time written by a concentration camp survivor.

The billionaire talk show host has so much staff that she probably has a vice-president in charge of collecting her toenail clippings.

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Herman and Roma Rosenblat in their North Miami Beach home. Rosenblat's "Angel at the Fence" had been scheduled to come out in February, but Berkley Books, an imprint of Penguin Group, withdrew the memoir following allegations by scholars, friends and family members that his tale was untrue. (J. Pat Carter/Associated Press)

But she has made the managerial mistake of hiring people too much like herself, people so relentlessly high on self-belief and inspiration that skepticism must hide its face in shame at story meetings.

This is why she so often falls for the lure, indeed the syrupy narcotic allure, of sentiment. It's human, it's understandable and, to a certain extent, it's even praiseworthy. But, even for her, this was a severe case.

Winfrey called it "the single greatest love story" she has encountered in her TV career, the story of Herman Rosenblat, a young boy who survived the Buchenwald concentration camp with the help of apples thrown across the fence by a little girl from the area.

Years later, Rosenblat, who is now an adorable, 79-year-old, retired Florida TV repairman, met the then adult girl on a blind date. She became his wife.

Didn't anyone ask?

Rosenblat went on to chronicle this tale in a romantic two-paragraph story that won a 1995 contest in the New York Post (a Rupert Murdoch paper naturally). Winfrey then had him on her show back in 1996 and Rosenblat subsequently wrote a book called Angel at the Fence: the True Story of a Love that Survived.

But it wasn't true. Rosenblat did survive Buchenwald, but there was no little girl and no fruit was tossed. His lie now uncovered by historians, Rosenblat said: "I wanted to bring happiness to people. I brought hope to a lot of people. My motivation was to make good in this world."

I believe him. He only wrote what the Oprahs of this world want to hear, which makes it awkward that she can't have him on her show and chew him up for lying, as she did to that other fantasist James Frey.

Not big on subtlety, Winfrey can't interrogate and punish herself for wishing humans were different than they are.

No rescuing hand

Rosenblat, a nice man, did something we all like to do, which is to pretend that a stubborn individual will do the right thing in the face of a hectoring bullying crowd. I defy you to watch the 2006 film The Lives of Others  and not hope that if you were stuck in Communist East Germany, there would be a previously obedient Stasi spy like Capt. Wiesler  to have a crisis of conscience and risk his life by reaching out his hand to you.

Many people like to assume that they themselves would be that Stasi saviour. But they aren't, nor is anyone else; there will be no rescuing hand.

German historians are still piecing together the shredded documents of the Stasi; they say that they have yet to find evidence of a single instance where anyone disobeyed orders.

In her book Stasiland, which I test the patience of my readers by continually recommending, the journalist Anna Funder says there were no heroes in that regime.

"What is more likely to save us from going down the wrong path again," she says, "is recognizing how human beings can be trained and forced into faceless systems of oppression, in which conscience is extinguished."

I'm glad he lied

I'm glad Rosenblat lied. Part of me wishes he had never been found out. I have this sentimental streak that I can't extract. It's in my bone marrow. It's probably in yours too.

I understand the objections to my advising that you avoid sentiment. It saves us after all.

Splendid, wonderful Canadians haul people out of burning car wrecks all the time. Neighbours gather to search for missing children. A teenage boy, who can't make it home on an Air Canada flight cancelled by winter storms, is handed 50 bucks for food from the guy behind him in line (saw it on The National; a great moment).

But here's the key. There isn't a huge crowd behind these heroes telling them not to do it, that the victims are worthless or that the boss is watching and you will lose your job.

Real life has us milling in crowds and crowds turn nasty. In these hard economic times, are your office friends going to complain when you're selected to be laid off? Nonsense, they probably put your name in the Suggestion Box.

Forget the facts, ma'am

Then there is the lure of sentiment, which tells you to forget the facts and go for the fantasy.

Case in point: Josef Stalin was just voted the third most popular historical figure in Russian history (a dubious contest run by Vladimir Putin state-TV toadies, but still).

The competition among Mao, Stalin and Hitler for most humans slaughtered in the most cruel manner is tightly fought. But such is the sentimental longing for a heroic figure that Russians seem prepared to still kiss the boot that stomped them.  

The lure of sentimentality is particularly strong in the U.S. Barack Obama's call for hope, his chant of "yes we can," would have Brits snickering. But if it's part of that storied, ridiculous American optimism, I suppose it has its place.

This week I read a fine piece on Salon.com by the writer Randall Sokoloff about his father, a podiatrist for 35 years who turned investor. The father sank into a deep depression after losing his $33 million fortune on the stock market.

The son, who has always lived modestly, was trying to tell his shattered father about the considerably less fortunate in Zimbabwe and was reading T.S. Eliot and Franz Kafka aloud to cheer him.

I wasn't surprised the father, still physically healthy, was depressed. He was just lying there thinking about having to return to a life of shaving calluses and slicing bunions. But letter writers ignored that part of the equation and simply mocked Sokoloff for reading Eliot and Kafka. So depressing, so intellectual.

Read Little House on the Prairie to him, they wrote. "Something with a little uplift." Another suggested Who Moved My Cheese, Spencer Johnson's motivational book that is peopled by bewildered mice. Naturally, another recommended Chicken Soup for the Soul.

There is irony in that. In 1999, the New York Times reported, Herman Rosenblat's story was included in the Chicken Soup series, in Chicken Soup for the Couple's Soul.

The lure of cheap sentimental is strong indeed. If Rosenblat is at fault, so were his media enablers and so is every charity that thought Bernie Madoff, the latest fallen Wall Street legend, was just a nice family man.

But some facts are too good to check, as the Times observed, and here we are burned but still vulnerable, our heartstrings still twanging like a guitar when someone tugs on them.


This Week  I should call it "This Night," because once you pick up Child 44, the just-published thriller by a certain Tom Rob Smith (he is at Cambridge; it's his first novel), you will not be able to sleep. You will not wish to sleep because you don't know the fate of Russian state security officer Leo Demidov. This is The Lives of Others for Russians and it's bloody good. Any sentiment here is, I would judge, just about plausible.