A catalogue of brutality

Lodz ghetto novel focuses on controversial leader

"That man is a monster," writes Vera Schulz, a fictional Jewish girl in the Lodz Ghetto in December 1941. She is pouring her heart out in a diary, describing Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the historic head of the Jewish Council of the ghetto.

"His only achievement to date: selling out his own people in record time and stealing or embezzling all they own. Yet still a quarter of a million people look up to him as a god! What kind of human being is it who deliberately sets out to demean and dishonour as many people as possible, simply for his own advancement?"

Rumkowski's misdeeds and motivation serve as the main focus of Swedish writer Steve Sem-Sandberg's epic novel about the Lodz Ghetto, The Emperor of Lies. Sem-Sandberg is not the first to find in Rumkow-ski a horrifying muse. In Mr. Sammler's Planet, Saul Bellow referred to Rumkowski as "king of rags and shit - ruler of corpses." Rumkowski was also the inspiration for the title character of Leslie Epstein's Holocaust novel King of the Jews, and the subject of a documentary film titled The Story of Chaim Rumkowski and the Jews of Lodz.

The most nuanced treatment of this controversial and repellent figure is to be found in none of the above, however, but in Chava Rosenfarb's panoramic trilogy of the Lodz Ghetto, The Tree of Life, first published in Yiddish in 1972, and later translated into English by Rosenfarb's daughter, Goldie Morgentaler. In it, Rumkowski's actions are shown in all their cruelty and, yes, monstrousness - yet the man isn't depicted as a fiend, but as a deeply flawed, profoundly isolated human being.

I will state my interest here. Rosenfarb, a one-time Montrealer who died earlier this year, was my cherished friend. In my opinion - as both friend and critic - The Tree of Life is a masterpiece of Holocaust literature, stamped with a special imprimatur of authenticity. That authenticity stems from both its author's gifted pen and from her role as eyewitness to history, for Rosenfarb herself was a survivor of the ghetto.

Sem-Sandberg clearly cannot bring this bone-bred realism to The Emperor of Lies; for starters, he was born in 1958, 13 years after the end of the war. But he has done a prodigious amount of research, lacing his narrative with maps, photographs, news-paper excerpts, a glossary, footnoted translations and reconstructed speeches. In addition, he brings his own imaginative vision to one of history's darkest pages.

He starts the novel in December 1939 - three months after the German occupation of Poland - by reproducing a detailed Nazi memo that outlines plans for a ghetto. Its ghastly last paragraph reads: "Naturally, the establishment of the ghetto is only a temporary measure. I reserve the right to decide when and how the City of Lodz is to be purged of Jews. The ultimate aim must be to burn away this infectious abscess entirely, once and for all."

Rumkowski's career must be viewed in the context of this strategy. Sem-Sandberg depicts him as a social pariah, sexual predator and corrupt thug, whose nickname even before the outbreak of war was Mr. Death. He believed he understood the Nazis and could outwit them at their own game. In re-turn for autocratic power over the internal affairs of the ghetto, he promised to make it an industrial powerhouse supplying the German army with all manner of goods.

As despicable as he undoubtedly was, to an extent he succeeded. Though deportations to death camps were regular occurrences, and starvation, disease and terror dogged the lives of the ghetto's unfortunate inhabitants, it survived until August 1944, the last of the ghettos in Poland to be liquidated. This was in large part due to the astonishing productivity of the Jewish work-force under Rumkowski's iron rule.

The cost of this productivity was epic suffering. Sem-Sandberg's treatment of this misery is at times almost unreadable. Atrocity follows appalling atrocity, betrayal upon betrayal in an unrelieved catalogue of brutality. It doesn't help that the text jerks back and forth in time, the jagged chronology mirroring the disorienting nightmare of ghetto reality. Nor that so much space is devoted to Rumkowski's depraved inner circle, including his adopted son, portrayed as a perverted personification of evil. There is little evidence of the famed cultural life of the ghetto and none of its many illegal schools and underground synagogues.

Sem-Sandberg kills off all his characters, good guys and bad, an artistic choice that collides with historic truth. According to Wikipedia, about 10,000 of the 204,000 Jews who had been in the ghetto eventually survived.

A bestseller in Sweden, where in 2009 it won the Augustpriset, widely considered that country's highest literary honour, The Emperor of Lies is fast becoming a publishing phenomenon. It has been translated into more than 20 languages and has sold in the hundreds of thousands. Eminent British author Hilary Mantel has written that the novel "helps us to do what is so hard, simply to think about the Holocaust." Reaching those who have difficulty contemplating the Holocaust is a significant educational achievement. But those for whom the Shoah is an ineluctable reality may want to pass on a book in which Jews seem destined merely to slip from agony to death.

The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Elaine Kalman Naves is the author of the memoirs Journey to Vaja and Shoshanna's Story.

The Emperor of Lies

by Steve Sem-Sandberg
translated from the Swedish by
Sarah Death Anansi

Review published in

November 26, 2011

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