Book review: The Emperor of Lies by Steve Sem-Sandberg

An award-winning Swedish novel brings the Lodz ghetto to life

The Emperor of Lies

By Steve Sem-Sandberg (Faber & Faber, 664pp, 14.99)

FIVE years ago Jonathan Littell's huge, sometimes brilliant, frequently repulsive, highly ambitious and deeply flawed novel about Nazi Germany and the "Final Solution to the Jewish Problem", The Kindly Ones, won the Prix Goncourt in France and received a less ecstatic welcome here and in Germany. For all its glaring faults, which led some to condemn it as "Holocaust porn", it was a bold attempt to give suitable fictional expression to one of the 20th century's three supreme horrors, a time when, as George Steiner put it, belief in Hell having faded, men created Hell on Earth.

Now, Swedish novelist Steve Sem-Sandberg has addressed the same subject, though his novel is more limited in temporal and geographical scope, but no less ambitious in theme, than Littell's. The Emperor of Lies has won Sweden's equivalent of the Goncourt (or the Booker), the August Prize. It deserves to do better here than The Kindly Ones did, for, unlike Littell's novel, it engages with a real moral dilemma, and its central figure, Mordecai Chaim Rumkowski, a real historical figure, is more interesting, more convincing, and more troubling than Littell's narrator, who was as improbable as he was repulsive.

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Rumkowski is the man of the title, the Emperor of Lies, the boss of the Jewish ghetto established by the Nazis in 1939 in what had been the Polish city of Lodz (renamed Litzmannstadt). The Lodz ghetto was unique, a self-governing Jewish mini-state existing within the Nazi empire as a factory and workshop for the conquerors. It produced all manner of goods, boots, uniforms, even bras, for its masters. In 1942 it made a profit of ten million reichsmarks for the Nazis. It was a tyranny within a tyranny. The masters of the ghetto lived well while the mass of the people endured malnutrition, slow starvation, and insanitary conditions which led to typhus epidemics. Rumkowski's little empire had hospitals, schools and an orphanage, banks, shops, its own currency and a House of Culture for dramatic and musical performances. It was administered by a Jewish police force of 400 officers, and it had three jails where dissidents were subjected to torture.

Rumkowski - whose earlier life had been one of repeated business failure - was its harsh, even brutal, dictator; a sexual abuser of women and children. Many hated him; more probably feared him. He tolerated no dissent and was ruthless in its suppression. He has been portrayed as a collaborator, which he undoubtedly was, and a traitor. Yet he may also be seen to have had a vision. How could the Jews survive in the Nazi empire? Only by being useful. "Work," he insisted, "was the future livelihood for the Jews of Europe". Not only the livelihood, but the life. Rumkowski's position was that of countless collaborators in every country conquered and occupied by the Nazis. Many certainly had an ideological affinity with the Nazis, but many more collaborated because they saw no alternative. They were caught in a trap, from which many in the West - France, the Low Countries, Denmark and Norway - were able to extricate themselves in time. There was no such way out for the Jews.

They were condemned to labour for their masters till they were deported to be murdered. Rumkowski, in his mini state, collaborated until at last he found it impossible. Even being a Jewish Fascist was not enough.

Sem-Sandberg's recreation of the Lodz ghetto, utterly convincing, rich in sympathy and understanding, is more a lightly fictionalised documentary than a work of the imagination. Nevertheless it needed that form of imagination which goes by the name of empathy to enter this world of horrors and show how individuals sought to survive or succumbed. Remarkably, he has a wealth of material on which to draw, for the life of Rumkowski's subjects was recorded day by day in The Ghetto Chronicle. It is a harrowing document, into which Sem-Sandberg's breathes life, presenting us with an extraordinary range of characters among whom Rumkowski is only one of the more remarkable. There is also David Gertler, the polished, even elegant, Jewish police chief with the morals of a gangster, who somehow - it has never been clear - survived. There is a lame boy, Adam Rzepin, caring for his retarded sister, and living by theft.

There is Zawadski the resourceful smuggler, who knows his way over the rooftops and through the dark narrow lanes behind the houses, and Pinkas the accomplished forger. Then there are the Czech Jews, brought to the ghetto without knowing their destination, who are resented and despised because they can speak neither Yiddish nor Polish.

And on the other side of the coin, as it were, there is Rumkowski's sister-in-law, Helena, known as "the Princess" on account of her high and mighty airs; she lives in luxury, poses as a patroness of the arts and delights in her cages of singing birds.

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Sem-Sandberg sentimentalises nothing. There is courage in adversity, heroism and examples of selfishness, but there is also meanness, cowardice, dishonesty - inevitable in the terrible conditions which set inmates of the ghetto, existing on their miserable diet of an inadequate supply of bread and thin soup, against each other in the struggle for survival. Inevitably, one feels, "treachery", as he writes, "began to cast its long shadows into the ghetto, Jew against Jew…" And then the deportations to the death camps begin. First go the old and the children who cannot work, and then, as the Nazi madness takes full hold, even those who are still capable of being productive.

Rumkowski himself at last became surplus to German requirements.In his afterword, the author raises the question: if the Second World War had ended sooner - if, for example, the July 1944 plot against Hitler had succeeded or if the Red Army had not stood aside while the Wehrmacht crushed the Warsaw Rising - might Rumkowski be seen as a man who, by collaboration, had saved a portion of the Jewish people, rather than as a villain and traitor? The question, posed at the end, runs through the novel: what other course was open to the Jews of Lodz?

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The translation is clear and serviceable, without flourishes; one assumes, a faithful rendering of the style of the original. The glossary of Yiddish phrases, however, is inadequate and I would have liked to have had a map of the ghetto. Perhaps these things might be attended to in the future in any new edition?