‘Emperor’ of the Lodz ghetto
Prize-winning novel depicts a desperate, depraved collaborator in the darkest of worlds
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.