Review: The Emperor of Lies

A work of fiction rooted in the fact of Chaim Rumkowski's rule of the Lodz ghetto questions his claim to be a 'saviour'.

By Madeleine Kingsley, August 19, 2011
Images at Lodz station site from where 150,000 Jews were  deported

Images at Lodz station site from where 150,000 Jews were deported

By Steve Sem-Sandberg
Faber £14.99

As the body of Holocaust literature grows year on year, one might expect an emotional toughening-up among readers. Surely there is a limit to the breath that is beaten out of us by a Sophie's Choice, a Schindler's Ark or a Suite Francaise?

It seems not. You know the end, yet still you weep at The Emperor of Lies. Sem-Sandberg's chronicle of the Lodz ghetto and its dubiously autocratic "Chairman" - businessman and orphanage director Chaim Rumkowski - feels like 650 pages of literary thumbscrews.

Drawn in part from an extraordinary, surviving archive, and in part from the author's dark, Chagallian imaginings, the novel centres on the controversial character of "King Chaim".

Some historians have portrayed the man who moulded the ghetto's 250,000 Jews into a highly productive workforce as a misguided magus bent on saving lives by making "his" people industrially indispensable to the Germans (Lodz factories turned out everything from umbrellas and corsets to boots and munitions).

But Rumkowski's dealings with the Nazis smack more of a power-mongering monster. When rabbis were forbidden to officiate, Rumkowski took it upon himself to perform marriages. His ghetto currency was the "Rumkie" and postage stamps bore his image. The self-styled "fatherly saviour" ran his own Jewish police force and prison.

Sem-Sandberg suggests a man scarred in childhood for grassing on classmates who, after Talmud school, would play on a dangerous stretch of the river and who ostracised him from their games. Uncovering him as a snitch, these classmates stoned young Chaim. Then, for good measure, the teacher beat him.

Did this episode contribute to Rumkowski's capacity to lie, deny, fawn, deceive and, ultimately, in September 1942, meet the Nazi demand that all ghetto children under 10, the infirm and over 65s (some 24,000 souls in all), be given up for deportation?

Sem-Sandberg quotes Rumksowski's infamous speech to the departing families: "It takes the heart of a thief to demand what I demand of you now. But put yourself in my shoes. I cannot act in any other way than I do, since the number of people I can save this way far exceeds the number I have to let go."

The fate of the young - whose innocence the imperial orphanage-director-gone-rogue was surely primed to protect - permeates this novel. What manner of Jew sets himself up as judge of who, among his fellow Jews, should live and who should die? By 1945, when the Russians arrived, fewer than 1,000 ghetto folk remained.

The story of Lodz is, through any prism, a grim tale. But, if it must be told (and, for all the pain, it must) then it is in redeeming hands with Sem-Sandberg. Through the distorting mirror of one man's evil, he recreates the lost cast of thousands, among them, the black-market medicine boy carrying a wooden cross laden with bottles and phials; the lovely, crazed Lida, forced to dance for the Germans; and a tzaddik's paralysed daughter, believed to convey mystic healing who is hoisted through the streets…

Madeleine Kingsley is a freelance writer

Last updated: 10:20am, August 19 2011