‘Em­peror’ of the Lodz ghetto

Prize-win­ning novel de­picts a des­per­ate, de­praved col­lab­o­ra­tor in the dark­est of worlds

Ottawa Citizen - - BOOKS - NEIL BES­NER

The Em­peror of Lies By Steve Sem-sand­berg, Anansi, $35

Seventy-one years ago, the Ger­mans es­tab­lished the Jewish ghetto of Litz­mannstadt in the city of Lodz in Poland. The Ger­man au­thor­i­ties or­dained that this con­cen­tra­tion of some 250,000 peo­ple was to be over­seen by Morde­cai Chaim Rumkowski, a Jewish busi­ness­man, the chair­man of the “Coun­cil of El­ders” and Steve Sem-sand­berg’s “Em­peror of Lies.”

Sem-sand­berg, a cel­e­brated Swedish nov­el­ist who di­vides his time be­tween Stock­holm and Vi­enna, has given us a har­row­ing fic­tion founded upon painstak­ing re­search — to be­gin with, in the Ghetto Chron­i­cles, a 3,000-page doc­u­ment that pro­vides his­to­ri­ans and nov­el­ists with a minutely de­tailed ar­chive of this dark time. More im­por­tant, The Em­peror of

Lies is a novel that probes Rumkowski’s char­ac­ter to in­quire, ul­ti­mate- ly, into the na­ture of all the lay­ers of power, and its ex­er­cise, con­ferred by the Ger­mans on Jews in the ghet­tos.

Tra­di­tional ac­counts of Rumkowski de­pict him as one of the most no­to­ri­ous ex­em­plars in Holo­caust his­tory of Jews who gained power and priv­i­lege by col­lab­o­rat­ing with the Nazis in the ad­min­is­tra­tion of the ghet­tos. But Sem-sand­berg is not con­tent merely to echo this rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

Be­gin­ning with his ti­tle, he gives us all the in­con­tro­vert­ible ev­i­dence sup­port­ing this read­ing. But The Em­peror of Lies, the win­ner of Swe­den’s top lit­er­ary prize, goes far be­yond the his­tor­i­cal record on which it is founded.

In his char­ac­ter study of Rumkowski, Sem-sand­berg gives us a com­plex por­trait of a man who pro­fessed him­self to be ded­i­cated to sev­eral mu­tu­ally exclusive causes: to cre­ate in Litz­mannstadt the model in­dus­trial base to serve the Ger­man war ma­chine; to save the ghetto’s chil­dren; and to be­come the ghetto’s most il­lus­tri­ous, most heroic Jew, a fig­ure to be revered by all — in­clud- ing his Ger­man masters.

The con­tra­dic­tions among these am­bi­tions are ev­ery­where ap­par­ent, as are Rumkowski’s perver­sions, his ex­trav­a­gant lies, his mon­u­men­tal ex­cesses. And yet what emerges, fi­nally, is not sim­ply an ex­po­sure of Rumkowski’s mo­tives or a con­dem­na­tion of his hypocrisy.

Rather, Sem-sand­berg seeks to un­der­stand Rumkowski in a wider con­text — that of all the ghetto’s in­hab­i­tants, amid all of the forces op­er­at­ing within this teem­ing and riven and des­per­ate world.

Ter­ri­ble pri­va­tions, chief among them hunger, stalk ev­ery­one at street level in Liz­mannstadt, and with these stark hard­ships come ev­ery imag­in­able form of cun­ning and du­plic­ity, treach­ery and ag­gres­sion.

Sem-sand­berg takes us down ev­ery al­ley­way, through ev­ery daily rou­tine, into ev­ery hid­den cor­ner of the ghetto in sharp de­tail, lay­ing bare the in­ter­twin­ing lay­ers of Ger­man and Jewish bu­reau­cra­cies. Where and how does col­lu­sion in­ter­sect with mo­ti­va­tion, per­sonal des­per­a­tion with love of fam­ily?

Whose ver­sion of Rumkowski’s eth­i­cal and moral im­per­a­tives are we to be­lieve? Amid the unimag­in­able suf­fer­ing of more than 200,000, the de­por­ta­tions, the rou­tine hu­mil­i­a­tions, what mea­sure of ac­count­abil­ity, what as­sess­ment of the priv­i­leges of au­thor­ity should ob­tain?

The vivid streetscape of the ghetto is com­ple­mented, made au­di­ble in the bevy of lan­guages at play, a Ba­bel of tongues — Yid­dish, Ger­man, Pol­ish, He­brew — as the pop­u­la­tion swells and ebbs with suc­ces­sive waves of Jews brought in from Prague, from Ham­burg, Mu­nich, Ber­lin.

Con­di­tions worsen as the Ger­man war ef­fort be­gins to crum­ble and the Rus­sians and Al­lies ad­vance; but for Litz­mannstadt, these dis­tant ru­mours re­main at a hazy re­move un­til far too late. On Aug. 28, 1944, Rumkowski, too, is taken in the “last trans­port to Auschwitz and mur­dered there, with his whole fam­ily, prob­a­bly the same day.”

The his­tory of the Warsaw and Lodz ghet­tos has been am­ply recorded, doc­u­mented and de­picted else­where, in ar­chives and in fic­tion. But to date, no novel has in­quired so pro­foundly or res­o­nantly into the labyrinths of a heart and soul and mind like Rumkowski’s — or made read­ing it so vi­tal or com­pelling an obli­ga­tion. Lit­er­ary scholar Neil Bes­ner is vi­cepres­i­dent, re­search and in­ter­na­tional, at the Univer­sity of Win­nipeg. His re­view first ran in The Win­nipeg Free Press.

Steve Sem-sand­berg’s heav­ily re­searched, prize-win­ning novel re­counts the fate of the ghetto in Lodz, Poland, and its Nazi-ap­proved leader Chaim Rumkowski.

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