The Emperor of LiesSteve Sem-Sandberg Farrar, Straus & Grioux, $30, 664 pp.
The Lodz ghetto was the second largest Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland, with some 230,000 residents at the time of its establishment, to whom in 1941 the Nazis added about 20,000 Jewish Czech refugees. After their invasion of Poland, the Nazis ringed the ghetto with barbed wire and armed guards, and appointed a Jewish leader, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the so-called Chairman, or Eldest of the Jews. The Chairman ran the ghetto like a company town, overseeing a set of factories that helped produce materials for the German war machine, and assisting in the selections that led to the transportation of the old, the sick, and the young to concentration camps.
Rumkowski had a police force under his supervision, a prison, and a bureaucratic administration with thousands of employees. The Lodz ghetto had its own currency, named after Rumkowski, and the ghetto’s postage stamps bore his face. There was a daily paper, The Ghetto Chronicle, that reported his speeches and his doings. Rumkowski believed (or claimed to believe) that if the Jews of Lodz could prove their usefulness to the Germans, then their lives in significant numbers would be spared. He was wrong. At the end of the war there were fewer than a thousand survivors. Nearly a quarter-million people were killed, either by starvation, disease, or systematic murder.
The story of Lodz has been chronicled in novels by ghetto survivors, including Jakob the Liar by Jurek Becker and the three-volume Tree of Life by Chava Rosenfarb, and the story has been retold notably by Primo Levi in his essay “The Story of a Coin” and by Leslie Epstein in his tragic-comic novel King of the Jews. Left behind after the war was an extraordinary trove of documents, and the archival footage and still photographs were fashioned into the highly acclaimed documentary Lodz Ghetto by Alan Adelson and Kate Taverna, a film whose script is a stark collage of voices from the ghetto, culled from diaries, letters, and other records.
Any novelist wading into this territory anew faces daunting challenges. On the one hand, how to be responsible to the complex, almost unfathomable human horror of history? On the other, how to make any particular retelling new and felt and fresh? The Emperor of Lies, the new novel by the Swedish author Steve Sem-Sandberg, takes a daring approach, mixing careful study of historical documents with wild flights of the imagination, and blurring the lines between the two. The book comes to the United States having been translated into some twenty-five languages, having won Sweden’s premier literary prize, and having been highly praised by many British reviewers. It is hard to overstate the 660-page novel’s sweep. The Emperor of Lies does not focus on any single aspect of ghetto life, but takes on all of it—from the founding of the ghetto in December 1939 to its dissolution in August 1944, from the boardrooms and factories and police stations to the music halls and hospitals, from Rumkowski’s family apartments to the beggars in the streets. The novel ends with a six-page list of 111 “Main Characters,” and in style the book ranges from scrupulously footnoted passages to broadly symbolic grand guignol.
Sem-Sandberg displays a comprehensive knowledge of his subject. (He writes in an afterward that the book’s outline follows the record of the Ghetto Chronicle, to whose three thousand-plus archived pages the author has devoted considerable study.) He has a gift for physical description and is able to conjure the ghetto’s weather and its filth, its bodies and its streets. In short asides he notes evocative details—for instance, the way that potato peelings, the thicker the better, passed almost as a currency among ghetto residents. Particularly in the early sections, the merging of the historical and the imagined can be subtle and effective, as when a fictional Czech refugee brings with her to Lodz a German typewriter, hoping it will gain her employment, and then in her diary (presented as if archival) writes: “And how right I was! And how wrong! In the offices here they only use Polish typewriters.” Her misplaced hopes cut deep.
It’s hard to imagine something more wrenching than the historical scene of Rumkowski standing in front of the ghetto asking that the assembled citizens hand over to him every child under eight years old so that he can hand the children over to the Germans, “Give me these sacrificial victims in order that I may save others from being sacrificed, in order that I may save a hundred thousand Jews,” and Sem-Sandberg wisely presents this as a transcript, unadorned. Earlier, he tells us that Rumkowski “seemed to seep a sharp but sweetish odor that clung about his clothes like tobacco smoke.”
But as The Emperor of Lies continues, the mix of history and imagination becomes hyperbolic. Primary sources do indicate that while emptying out hospitals for the Nazis, the ghetto’s Jewish policeman did actually throw living children out of windows—but were there really, as Sem-Sandberg would have it, German soldiers underneath, catching the babies on the blades of bayonets? It does seem true that Rumkoski was a child molester; but Sem-Sandberg has the man binding his own son, and smearing him with whipped cream and rancid butter before violating him anally, then leaving him bound and gagged in a closet for a week. In Sem-Sandberg’s imagination, the Eldest of the Jews creeps through the hospital, secretly poisoning his brother-in-law with a cup of water and arsenic. Jews, in repeated allegorical vignettes, torture small caged animals, rats, and birds.
Another awful fact: Hans Bieber, Rumkowski’s German overseer, warmly shook hands with the Chairman before tricking him into the baggage car that would take him to the concentration camp and certain death—but here again Sem-Sandberg raises the volume: Rumkowski is driven to the train station in a hearse, “its roof is taller than any collapsing building around the square.” When Sem-Sandberg’s characters love each other, they do so “with a love that is probably beyond all human understanding.” Sometimes it feels as if ordinary human love and evil and suffering were not enough for this writer, as if the actual horror of the ghetto were insufficiently dramatic for his novelistic ambitions.
Milan Kundera defined kitsch as “the second tear.” The first tear, according to Kundera, is the tear of genuine emotion. But the second tear is self-referential, a tear cried over oneself, over the drama of one’s own being moved. Sem-Sandberg frequently conjures that first tear of genuine feeling. He can make the terror of a Nazi selection come to life. His novel is not by any ordinary definition kitschy. But as the book goes on, flying from character to character and horror to horror, those second tears flow. The subtleties of personal and historical tragedy are obscured by the author’s histrionics. A pimp appears, largely so that a mob can gouge his eyes out on a water pump, and later so that he can be shot. But the girl with the typewriter? She gets put in an imaginary basement with every book in Lodz and every book about Lodz. There, Sem-Samberg loses track of her.