The Emperor of Lies: A Novel

  • Steve Sem-Sandberg
  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • 672 pp.
  • September 16, 2011

In this work of fiction the author uses historical documents ― and a dose of magical realism ― to reimagine Poland’s Lodz ghetto under Nazi rule.

Reviewed by Marc Masurovsky

In the Nazi-created ghetto in Lodz, Poland, the despair of the human condition under Nazi rule is profound. Every choice made by victims, opportunists and perpetrators alike hinges on unacceptable ethical and moral compromises. Swedish author Steve Sem-Sandberg explores this horrific setting in his work of historical fiction, The Emperor of Lies.

Following the chronological sequence of actual events in the collected papers and documents that constitute the Lodz Ghetto Chronicles, the author weaves imagined stories into an imagined reality. He dares to examine the darkest corners of humanity under Nazi rule — collaboration with the Nazis; class conflict; intra-Jewish cultural, linguistic and economic cleavages; and most provocatively, the sexual exploitation of women and children. The Emperor of Lies reminds us of previous works which blended Holocaust history and fiction (The Emigrants by W. G. Seebald, Mila 18 by Leon Uris and The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Lyttell, to name a few). He flirts with magical realism, as some of his characters experience mystical, dreamlike states that blur their perception of reality, as in the case of Adam Rzepin and his sister, Lida, or the peculiar Mara, who is cast as a prophetic herald straight out of the Old Testament.

The urban landscape of the ghetto takes on as much significance in Sem-Sandberg’s narrative as his characters. He associates specific locations like workshops, hospitals, the Central Prison, streets and neighborhoods with the growing misfortunes of the ghetto’s inhabitants. The overall effect is to transform the ghetto into a complex array of fiefdoms, bounded by hallways, buildings and streets that take on the nightmarish proportions of a medieval rendering of hell on earth.

No narrative of the ghetto can exist without the omnipresence of Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the “Emperor of Lies.” By his own admission, Rumkowski, leader of the ghetto’s Jewish Council, owns everything and everyone. His ghetto is an empire of slaves, which he is forced to share with the Germans. A firm believer in the virtues of work, Rumkowski selects who lives and who dies based on his understanding of fitness to toil.

As months and seasons pass, starvation sets in, disease spreads, desperation poisons the souls of men, women and children, and something like a vision of hell on earth takes hold, while Rumkowski is convinced that “alles gut” (all is good) as long as things are done his way. To displease Rumkowski means either to be handed over to the Central Prison, or worse, to the Nazi Secret Police. He is judge, jury and executioner for all Jews in the ghetto.

In a way, Rumkowski has sublimated the Nazis’ own death camp adage: “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Shall Set You Free). In his twisted vision of a Jewish kingdom on earth, work and loyalty are the pillars of his New Order. If you failed him, you might end up on one of his numerous “lists” of those ripe for deportation. The question is: Should Rumkowski be hailed as a savior for sacrificing tens of thousands of individuals labeled as the weakest members of the Jewish community of Lodz in order to save the vast majority? Or should he be viewed as a war criminal who facilitated the implementation of the Nazi-orchestrated Final Solution of the Jewish Question? Sem-Sandberg lets his imagined Rumkowski answer the question.

The emperor’s lies echo the false hopes uttered by Hans Biebow, Rumkowski’s Nazi overlord, which aim to mislead the dispossessed Jews into accepting their “resettlement” to other parts of occupied Poland, where they will ultimately be murdered. Biebow and Rumkowski co-exist as rulers of this “Empire,” a network of shops (“resorts”) staffed by Jewish slave laborers who toil for the benefit of the Third Reich and the personal profit of the Jewish aristocracy centered around the Rumkowski clan.

Rumkowski’s inner demons fuel his sexual depravity by feeding on young women and children, young boys especially. Staszek becomes the chosen one, a boy he adopts from the orphanage he establishes inside the ghetto. The adoption does not prevent Rumkowski from engaging repeatedly in homoerotic, sadomasochistic and pedophilic encounters with Staszek, some of which are witnessed by his wife, Regina. This perverse cocktail of sex and death in the context of Nazi persecution harks back to D.M. Thomas’ The White Hotel and films like “The Night Porter.”

One of the ubiquitous themes of Holocaust history centers on collaboration, the aiding and abetting of Nazi racial, economic and political crimes. In Sem-Sandberg’s ghetto, the collaborators are Jewish. Whether born of a desire to save lives or to save oneself, most of Sem-Sandberg’s characters have made their uneasy peace with the Nazis.

Instances of resistance are sparse. Negative resistance takes on the form of suicide, the ultimate power a Jew had in Lodz to control his or her destiny. Positive resistance is encapsulated by Vera Schulz’s character, a young, dynamic, idealistic, well-educated Jewish woman from Prague, whose father, a renowned Czech doctor, was too busy plying his trade to think of his family’s future. Vera meets Alex Gliksman, an odd, intellectual sort whose hideout is a ramshackle underground haven where Jews can actually think beyond the confines of a coal cellar and read bits and pieces of underground newspapers and listen to broadcasts in Polish, German and English.

Stylistic hiccups pockmark this lengthy novel. Sudden transitions from past to present tense make it difficult on occasion to change one’s focus, and sentence structures are sometimes flawed, the result of an unevenly edited English translation. Surprisingly, after imagining so much of the daily life of Jews in the ghetto, Sem-Sandberg steers clear of the circumstances of Rumkowski’s death in the last transport to Auschwitz from the Lodz ghetto. An unexpected omission for someone who so carefully maps the individual and collective fates of the Lodz ghetto Jews.

Marc Masurovsky is co-founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project and a former director of research for the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States. He is currently completing a manuscript in French on the wartime art market in German-occupied France for Editions Fayard in Paris.

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