Mon­strous mercy

A work of fic­tion rooted in the fact of Chaim Rumkowski’s rule of the Lodz ghetto ques­tions his claim to be a ‘saviour’

The Jewish Chronicle - - Books -

AS THE body of Holo­caust l i t - er­a­ture grows year on year, one might e x p e c t a n e mo­tional tough­en­ing-up among read­ers. Surely there is a limit to the breath that is beaten out of us by a So­phie’s Choice, a Schindler’s Ark or a Suite Fran­caise?

It seems not. You know the end, yet still you weep at The Em­peror of Lies. SemSand­berg’s chron­i­cle of the Lodz ghetto and its du­bi­ously au­to­cratic “Chair­man” — busi­ness­man and or­phan­age di­rec­tor Chaim Rumkowski — feels like 650 pages of lit­er­ary thumb­screws.

Drawn in part from an ex­tra­or­di­nary, sur­viv­ing archive, and in part from the au­thor’s dark, Cha­gal­lian imag­in­ings, the novel cen­tres on the con­tro­ver­sial char­ac­ter of “King Chaim”.

Some his­to­ri­ans have por­trayed the man who moulded the ghetto’s 250,000 Jews into a highly pro­duc­tive work­force as a mis­guided ma­gus bent on sav­ing lives by mak­ing “his” peo­ple in­dus­tri­ally in­dis­pens­able to the Ger­mans (Lodz fac­to­ries turned out ev­ery­thing from um­brel­las and corsets to boots and mu­ni­tions).

But Rumkowski’s deal­ings with the Nazis smack more of a power-mon­ger- ing mon­ster. When rab­bis were for­bid­den to of­fi­ci­ate, Rumkowski took it upon him­self to per­form mar­riages. His ghetto cur­rency was the “Rumkie” and postage stamps bore his im­age. The self-styled “fatherly saviour” ran his own Jewish po­lice force and prison.

Sem-Sand­bergsug­gest­saman­scarred in child­hood for grass­ing on class­mates who, af­ter Talmud school, would play on a dan­ger­ous stretch of the river and who os­tracised him from their games. Un­cov­er­ing him as a snitch, these class­mates stoned young Chaim. Then, for good mea­sure, the teacher beat him.

Did this episode con­trib­ute to Rumkowski’s ca­pac­ity to lie, deny, fawn, de­ceive and, ul­ti­mately, in Septem­ber 1942, meet the Nazi de­mand that all ghetto chil­dren un­der 10, the in­firm and over 65s (some 24,000 souls in all), be given up for de­por­ta­tion?

Sem-Sand­berg quotes Rumk­sowski’s in­fa­mous speech to the de­part­ing fam­i­lies: “It takes the heart of a thief to de­mand what I de­mand of you now. But put your­self in my shoes. I can­not act in any other way than I do, since the num­ber of peo­ple I can save this way far ex­ceeds the num­ber I have to let go.”

The fate of the young — whose in­no­cence the im­pe­rial or­phan­agedi­rec­tor-gone-rogue was surely primed to pro­tect — per­me­ates this novel. What man­ner of Jew sets him­self up as judge of who, among his fel­low Jews, should live and who should die? By 1945, when the Rus­sians ar­rived, fewer than 1,000 ghetto folk re­mained.

The story of Lodz is, through any prism, a grim tale. But, if it must be told (and, for all the pain, it must) then it is in re­deem­ing hands with Sem-Sand­berg. Through the dis­tort­ing mir­ror of one man’s evil, he recre­ates the lost cast of thou­sands, among them, the black-mar­ket medicine boy car­ry­ing a wooden cross laden with bot­tles and phials; the lovely, crazed Lida, forced to dance for the Ger­mans; and a tzad­dik’s paral­ysed daugh­ter, be­lieved to con­vey mys­tic heal­ing who is hoisted through the streets…

Madeleine Kings­ley is a free­lance writer

PHOTO: AP

Im­ages at Lodz sta­tion site from where 150,000 Jews were de­ported

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