The Emperor of Lies, by Steve Sem-Sandberg (translated from Swedish by Sarah Death ) Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 664 pages, $30
With Holocaust books, there's always that particular scene that doesn't go away. And no matter how much you try to get it out of your head or how long it's been since you've moved on to other things, it just remains with you, sometimes popping in for a visit in the dead of the night when you suddenly find yourself wide awake, sometimes creeping up on you during those long drives when there's little else to occupy the mind.
So be warned: Steve Sem-Sandberg's "The Emperor of Lies," a work of historical fiction recently translated from Swedish into English, has a few such scenes, though they aren't what you might consider - and I'm loath to use the word - typical. His account of life in the Lodz Ghetto is painful to read not so much because it depicts unspeakable acts of savagery committed by the Nazis and the unbearable suffering endured by the Jews- though it does much of that, too - but because it pits Jew against Jew, venturing into territory even farther outside the comfort zones of many of us. Those heart-wrenching scenes of Jewish policemen tearing children out of the arms of their screaming mothers and of Jewish prison guards administering torture for crimes as petty as the theft of a few crumbs of bread - be warned, they will haunt you long after you've put the book down.
In Sem-Sandberg's novel, the Jews, or rather the Jewish elite of the ghetto, are forced to serve as Nazi henchmen and carry out the task of compiling the dreaded transport lists. And while initially, it may not have been clear where these transports were headed, it was obvious to all concerned that staying in the ghetto was a far better option than the alternative.
Lodz was obviously not the only place where the Germans forced the Jews to do their dirty work for them, but it is arguably the best example of how effective this strategy could be when cooperation was more than forthcoming. The Lodz Jewish council leader, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski - one of the most disputed figures of the Holocaust and the character to inspire the title of this book - was an outspoken advocate of such cooperation, and he showed little tolerance, to put it mildly, for those who dared question its efficacy.
Largest after Warsaw
The Lodz Ghetto was sealed in May 1940, eight months after the Germans had conquered Poland. Of the more than 200,000 Jews who resided there before the mass deportations of 1942, barely 7,000 are believed to have survived the war. After the Warsaw Ghetto, it was the largest Jewish ghetto in Europe. It was also the longest lasting, with up to 8,000 Jews confined there until the final deportation of late August 1944, nearly all of whom were murdered in Auschwitz. Rumkowski, too, made his way to Auschwitz on that last transport. The Lodz Ghetto survived that long not because the Nazis had a soft spot for its Jews, but because it had managed to establish itself as a huge industrial labor camp and a key, almost indispensable, supplier for the German military. It was a place where even 10-year-old children were employed full time in sweatshops sewing army apparel.
"The Emperor of Lies," winner of the August Prize, Sweden's largest literary award, is not the first book to grapple with the complex, larger-than-life, and often tyrannical personality of Rumkowski, a man who wheeled and dealed with the Germans out of a deep conviction that the best way to save the Jews, or at least some remnant of the Jewish people, was to cooperate with the enemy rather than resist. The character of I.C. Trumpelman, in Leslie Epstein's 1979 novel "King of the Jews," is also modeled in large part on Rumkowski.
Judging by most accounts, the "Eldest of the Jews," as the Nazis dubbed him, was a megalomaniac, who lived a life of luxury, complete with his own horse-driven chariot and bodyguards, while others starved, a man who despite his advanced years, was prone to preying on helpless young women, the younger the better.
At the same time, though, Rumkowski was also known to be an extremely resourceful and skilled administrator. Although he has been treated harshly in most of the literary and eyewitness accounts of the period, had events taken a slightly different turn, as Sem-Sandberg points out, he could as easily have gone down in history as one of the great saviors of the Jewish people. "If von Stauffenberg had succeeded in his coup against Hitler in July 1944, for example, or if Stalin had not agreed to halt the Red Army offensive at the River Wisla, then Poland might conceivably have been freed from German occupation six months earlier, and Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski could have stepped from the ruins of the Jewish ghetto of the city of Lodz as what he perpetually strove to be, the liberator of his imprisoned people..." he writes in the afterword.
The book chronicles life in the Lodz Ghetto, renamed the Litzmannstadt Ghetto by the Germans, from its establishment in 1939 until the last deportation. It is mostly based on a 3,000-page document known as the Ghetto Chronicle, an archive of news from the ghetto that served as the official mouthpiece for Rumkowski, though it would be discovered only long after the war. Another primary source of material was "Rumkowski and the Orphans of Lodz" (1999 ), an autobiographical account of life in the ghetto by Lucille Eichengreen, who serves as the inspiration for the fictitious character of Vera Schulz, one of the thousands of Jews from Prague transported to the Lodz Ghetto. Schulz eventually joins a group known as the "listeners" - a group that did, in fact, exist in the ghetto - who follow developments in the outside world through illegal radio broadcasts and ultimately expose Rumkowski's lies about where the Jews of Lodz were to be "resettled."
Although it is a work of historical fiction, Sem-Sandberg's book features many real characters, among them Rumkowski, Hans Biebow, the German head of the ghetto administration, and Dawid Gertler, commander of the Jewish police. But there were many others, like Schulz, who are at least partly made up, and still others whose identity is unclear. This mish-mash, for me as a reader, was one of the weaknesses of "The Emperor of Lies," for it is difficult to come out of this book feeling any more educated about the Holocaust when it is not always certain which characters were real and which were fictitious, what really transpired and what was made up.
Factories and workshops
For the first two years of its existence, life in the ghetto was as good as could be expected for Jews in those times. There were hospitals, schools, orchestras, theater groups, and most of the population was gainfully employed in the myriad of factories and workshops set up by Rumkowski. The first hint that the Nazi beast was not to be as easily domesticated as the "Eldest of the Jews" had thought came in September 1942, when the Germans had the ghetto hospitals evacuated and all their patients deported without bothering to notify Rumkowski in advance. It was not long after that they demanded he deliver to their hands 20,000 children and old people. By then it was clear that despite promises to the contrary, the deportees were not being transported to labor camps but to their deaths. After all, what good could children and old people do in labor camps?
Still convinced, however, that deference to the Nazis would pay off, Rumkowski made an emotional plea to the thousands of Jews congregated in the ghetto square awaiting details of the horrific edict: "Brothers and sisters, give them to me," he told them, "Give me your children," explaining in what have since become notorious words that it is necessary "to amputate the arms to save the body."
Rumkowski never had children of his own. Before the war, he worked as a textile manufacturer and ran an orphanage in Lodz. He was not a member of the Jewish elite of the city, most of whose members had fled to Warsaw when the war broke out, nor was he particularly educated. It was more or less for lack of a better choice that the elderly widower was anointed leader of the Jews by the Germans when they occupied Lodz. In 1941, after he was firmly established in his new position in the ghetto, he surprised many by marrying Regina Wajnberger, a young lawyer 30 years his junior. When they were unable to conceive a child on their own, they adopted a 12-year-old orphan from the ghetto. The story told in Sem-Sandberg's account is that Rumkowski physically pulled the boy off the children's transport of September 1942, just as it was about to take off for the Chelmno death camp.
And that, at least according to "The Emperor of Lies," is where all his good intentions ended. Once the boy moves in with the family, Sem-Sandberg, in very graphic terms, lets us in on a terrible secret pertaining to the newly adoptive father's sexual proclivities, which, it turns out, extended beyond very young girls. The vivid descriptions of what goes on in "the little room" of the Rumkowski family apartment I found to be quite problematic, even objectionable. Not because I'd rather not know - though, truthfully, I'd rather not - but because it's difficult for the reader to ascertain whether this really happened or not. It would seem that Sem-Sandberg let his imagination get the better of him here, since the only two people who would have been able to provide such elaborate detail are long dead. In which case, you ask yourself: What's the point? And even if poetic license allows writers of historical fiction to take certain liberties, I couldn't help wondering whether such liberties would have been taken were the characters still alive.
Aside from that, Rumkowski gets pretty fair treatment in "The Emperor of Lies." He emerges as a man driven primarily by the desire to save as many Jews as he can from the grip of the Nazis, even if his tactics are questionable. He clearly has a soft spot for the orphanage children, even if he does eventually hand them over. And he does manage to keep the Jews of Lodz alive longer than those in most other ghettos, even if they are eventually doomed. According to Sem-Sandberg's depiction of events surrounding the children's deportation of September 1942, Rumkowski even suffered a breakdown of sorts at the time, locking himself in his room and letting the commander of Jewish police take over as chief henchman. Adam Czierniakow, his counterpart in the Warsaw Ghetto, chose to kill himself when faced with a similar quandary. As far as Rumkowski was concerned, though, that would have been the cowardly thing to do.
Judy Maltz is the producer and co-director of "No. 4 Street of Our Lady," an award-winning Holocaust documentary about the Polish-Catholic rescuer Francisca Halamajowa.