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

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In February 1940, when the Nazis turned the old quarters of the city of Lodz into Poland’s second largest Jewish ghetto, one man became virtually the arbiter between life and death.

Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, a 63-year-old Jewish elder and businessman, was the chosen leader and, realising that his survival rested on making the ghetto indispensable, he set about transforming it into a slave labour camp providing supplies for the German military.

Mysterious, ambiguous, monarchical, ‘King Chaim’ was motivated by a titanic ambition but was he just a ruthless opportunist, driven by a lust for power, or was he a pragmatic strategist who managed to save Jewish lives through collaboration?

The Emperor of Lies, one of the great Holocaust novels of the 21st century, is the masterpiece of Norwegian author Steve Sem-Sandberg who draws on genuine chronicles of life in the Lodz ghetto to ask the most difficult questions about survival and oppression.

The Lodz ghetto was first established as a temporary camp for the city’s 200,000 Jews. A wire fence, built around the Old City to separate Jewish families from the rest of the population, was patrolled by police ordered to shoot on sight anyone who attempted to escape.

Rumkowski’s dream was to demonstrate to the authorities what capable workers the Jews were so that when the war was over they would be forced to admit that the ghetto was a special place. ‘Our only way is work’ became his slogan.

To this end, he ruthlessly turned the ghetto into a productive industrial complex, forcing adults and children alike to work punishing hours in workshops to provide supplies from army boots, belts and buckles to corsets and bras for women.

German head of the ghetto administration was Hans Biebow whose philosophy was that ‘workers with full stomachs get bloated’ so the trick was to keep them at a level where they ‘got a little but never quite enough.’

The ghetto was, in effect, a mini Jewish state controlled by Rumkowski with the help of 17 other elders, scores of administrators, 400 policemen and an army of thugs all responsible for a collection of banks with their own currency, shops, orphanages, schools, hospitals, a theatre and a chronicle which recorded the details of their wheeling and dealing.

Those who did not toe Rumkowski’s line were jailed and tortured thus turning Jew against Jew and creating a pernicious hierarchy in which the ‘haves’ ate and made money and the ‘have-nots’ worked slave hours and slowly starved.

Sem-Sandberg uses the known facts and the testimonies of survivors to recreate the Lodz hellhole in the form of historical fiction, populating his novel with real characters and composites of the ordinary people – tailors, piano tuners, musicians, doctors, carpenters, secretaries, black marketeers and children – who lived within the wire perimeter.

And at the helm he paints an unforgettable portrait of the chain-smoking, white-haired Rumkowski who toured his domain in a carriage pulled by a white horse to assure himself that all was in good order.

Of course, there were no winners at the Lodz ghetto ... in 1942, when illness and disease were rife, the Nazis began the process of deporting those Jews still left to the death camps, starting with children aged under ten and the elderly.

In 1944, Rumkowski and his family were eventually deported to Auschwitz, where they died on August 28.

The Emperor of Lies is a haunting, graphic and disturbing evocation of the truly appalling events that took place at Lodz.

Sem-Sandberg makes a valiant job of endeavouring to remain neutral over Rumkowski’s reputation and legacy but, on the smallest of evidence, most readers are likely to conclude that the Jewish elder was no more than a dangerous, egocentric opportunist whose greatest sin was to betray his own people.

(Faber, paperback, £14.99)