A Heartbreaking Novel About the Man Who Ruled the Lodz Ghetto

Reviewed by Anna Porter
Globe and Mail, October 18, 2011

This is a brilliantly constructed novel, massive, detailed, teeming with characters; it captures the reader from almost the first page and does not let go – if only because there is still a glimmer of hope here and there in its unremitting darkness that someone (anyone!) will survive to redeem the horrors the characters and the reader have endured. They don’t. Sem-Sandberg had to be true to his material and keep faith with those whose true stories are the basis of his novel.

The story unfolds from 1940, when the Lodz Ghetto was created by the occupying German authorities, to 1944, when the last of its inhabitants were deported to the death camps. During those few years, the ghetto was ruled with ruthless cruelty by Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, empowered by the Germans, enriched by his greed, engorged by his monumental appetites and his enormous self-regard and feared, despised but sometimes also loved – as most emperors have been loved – by those he viewed as his subjects. Known as the Chairman, he is driven around in a horse-drawn carriage, he punishes and rewards according to his whim. His 500 policemen are eager to obey his commands with as much gusto as the German officers who throw newborns out of the windows of the hospital. He funds an orphanage where he abuses the children he fancies. He has sex with the women he wants. Yet he is infinitely humble before his German masters.

It is Rumkowski’s belief that so long as the ghetto produces exemplary work for the Wehrmacht, its surviving inhabitants will be too valuable to kill. He is, of course, wrong about that. First, it is the sick and the elderly. Then the children, then about 1,000 a week, and finally everybody. To the end, though, he remonstrates that so long as he is responsible for the selections to meet the German demands, those who remain will be spared. It is to this slender hope that the ghetto clings, the possibility that all appearances to the contrary, the Chairman will be able to negotiate their survival.

While the Chairman and his retinue are well fed, the rest of the ghetto starves. “It was not so much the cold and damp as the hunger that made life a daily torture … weakness was like a weight in every limb.”

In this Dickensian world of degradation and constant, yawning hunger, there are stories that will break your heart. Adam Rzepin, who almost outwits fate, and his beloved beautiful sister, who never has a chance; the late-arriving Czech and German contingent, who think they will be afforded special treatment but learn quickly that the ghetto forces its humiliation onto all; Vera, the bright, tenacious young girl who finds the one job she is suited for in a place where backbreaking labour is the norm; Mrs. Schulz, Vera’s middle-class mother, who chooses a closet for her last living space, as she slowly loses her mind.

Sem-Sandberg must have felt some pity for her when he allowed her to die imagining she is back in her spacious Prague home. There is Dawid Gertler, the young Jewish police commander, wearing his almost magical gabardine raincoat, defying the Chairman’s orders and getting away with it because of his ability to obtain anything for the right bribes. Werner Samstag, the orphan with no name, becomes like the Chairman he hated after witnessing the rape of a pretty little girl in the orphanage.

In the midst of all the horrors, there are grotesque evening entertainments, speeches, theatre, musicals, the Chairman’s glittery wedding party, the banquet where all the participants vomit after filling themselves with rotten meat. It is this last scene of utter degradation that leads to the humiliation of the Chairman himself at the hands of Amtsleiter Hans Biebow, the German boss of the ghetto, who has always spoken of Rumkowski’s Jews as his own Jews, whose work contributes an annual profit of almost 10 million reichsmarks to the war effort.

In Dante’s Inferno, these words appear on the balustrade of hell: “All hope abandon ye who enter here.” These were the words that came to mind as I was reading this well-crafted novel, words meant for those who entered the Lodz Ghetto, a hell that no human being should ever have to endure.

The Emperor of Lies won Sweden’s two grand literary prizes, has been translated into 25 languages and shall, no doubt, keep many readers of Sarah Death’s flawless English translation awake through profoundly sleepless nights.