The Emperor of Lies by Steve Sem-Sandberg

The Emperor of Lies by Steve Sem-Sandberg, translated by Sarah Death

Can be found on the Adult Fiction shelves under S.

Plot Summary : This book tells the stories of a number of Jewish residents of the Lodz Ghetto in Poland during WWII from its establishment in February 1940 to liberation in August 1944 by the Russian army.

The Lodz Ghetto became the second largest Jewish ghetto in Poland with around, at it’s peak, 500,000 people crammed within the wire fence that surrounded the Old City.

The leader in the ghetto, The Eldest of the Jews, was a businessman in his 60s, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski (“the tributary king of the ghetto, the self-proclaimed steward of the fates of nearly a hundred thousand long-settled and newly arrived Jews” – p374). A controversial figure, Rumkowski was narcissistic, despotic and self-serving but he also recognised that the survival of the ghetto’s inhabitants depended on them being indispensible to the Nazi regime. Factories were set up that provided various goods (weapons, clothing and utensils for instance) required by the Wehrmacht. His aim seems to have been achieved; production was efficient and proceeds were high and in 1942 alone the Gettowaltung (the German civilian administrators of the ghetto) mad a net profit of almost 10 million Reichsmarks from the labour of the Jews.(p.433)

 Comments : This is an immense book , both in subject matter and in physical size (those 650+ pages would usually have me run a mile but the cover picture had me in hook, line and sinker). It definitely qualifies as an ‘Amazing Read’ for me on several levels (National Year of Reading theme for January)

 I find the whole Holocaust a time of wonder and have done since watching The World at War documentary series with my Grampa in the mid 1970s when I was not yet in my teens (what were my parents thinking?). It has never ceased to fascinate me that the Holocaust should have happened at all, that a whole people were deemed worth less than vermin, the experiences that people had to endure, that people survived those horrors at all and that they went on to live full and productive lives. What amazing reserves of courage and resolve Holocaust survivors must have had!

The events described in the novel come from the ‘Ghetto Chronicle’ which is a document of around 3,000 pages which was the collective work of a handful of employees in the ghetto’s archive section (it’s amazing that all this horror was documented so thoroughly with the Nazi administration’s blessing).  Sem-Sandberg gives us the stories of numerous men, women and children of the ghetto, including Rumkowski. 

Rumkowski’s character is especially interesting and complex.  In his own mind in charge and having one over on the Germans and it’s easy to see him as rather ridiculous as well as corrupt, but it’s soon revealed that they are quite aware of the ‘trick’ he’s playing. Biewbow, head of the German civilian administration tells him,”You thought you could buy yourself power and influence, that you could go on extending your perverse and filthy nest within the walls of a Greater Power and then carry on embezzling and misappropriating just as people like you have done so many times before throughout history, as it is in your nature to do” (p372).  Ooh the distain, the prejudice of the Master Race.

But perhaps he wasn’t all bad. He has an especial interest in rescuing the children of the ghetto from deportation by ensuring as many as possible become indispensible by having jobs. This is a tactic used for the adults too. When the ghetto was first created the Jewish administration had around 100 employees working for it. By June 1943 there were more than 13,000 ghetto residents making a living “from one of the many offices and departments, divisions, labour offices, control bodies and inspection units presided over by Rumkowski” (p380) – the archive section alone comprised 44 employees, 1 director, 23 secretaries, 12 draughtsmen and printmakers, 4 photographers and 4 odd job men (p645). Recognition should be made that Rumkowski did save many many lives and there was a system of food rationing to ensure all were fed.  But then again, Rumkowski later makes a speech urging parents of the remaining young children to give them up for deportation (and the ghetto dwellers knew by then that this was deportation to certain death) in order to save the adults. Machiavelli would have much to learn from this man.

Lesser characters include Rumkowski’s family – his wife, and a boy they adopt to assuage Rumkowski’s guilt at not being able to save all the children. There’s Adam Rzepin who tries to keep his intellectually disabled sister out of harm; Vera who has to wall her mad, sick mother up behind a wall for the same reason; Rosa Smolenska who looks after the orphans; Dawid Gertler the Jewish police chief. Some characters are followed at intervals during the course of the novel, others appear and disappear. They cross over each other like film extras playing in a busy street scene.

The vast number of pages allows the reader to get an impression of the long drawn out length of time of suffering and there is plenty of time to describe the day to day tribulations of eking out an existence with minimal rations, sanitation and housing space. It frequently seems to be winter – deep, dark, bitter winters like we cannot concieve of here in Australia and there’s a black market in coal, wood and other potential fuels. People had to live by their wits and be very enterprising, even the children, to survive. The time until the Soviets liberate the ghetto seems to pass very slowly yet at the same time this is an absolute page-turner of a book and once I got into it I read over 200 pages in one sitting and finished it in another couple of big gulps. I recommend it very highly.

Reviewed by : Alba

Listen to the Listeners in the Mist podcast which features a discussion of The Emperor of Lies

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