The Emperor of Lies, by Steve Sem-Sandberg.
When does a lie begin?
A lie, Rabbi Fajner would say, has no beginning. A lie runs downwards lie a rootlet, branching an infinite number of times. But if you trace the rootlets down, you never find a moment of inspiration and vision, only overwhelming desperation and despair.
A lie always begins with denial.
Something has happened -- yet you do not want to admit that it has.
That is how a lie begins. - from The Emperor of Lies, page 25 -
The Lodz ghetto was established by the Nazis in 1939 and was home to over a quarter of a million Jews. Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski was its leader -- a business man and the director of an orphanage who was chosen by the Nazis to rule the ghetto. Rumkowski thought by establishing the ghetto as a productive center for the Nazis, he (and likewise the ghetto) would become indispensable to the regime.
Was his dictatorial rule really designed to save Jews? Or was Rumkowski motivated by greed and power in his collaboration with the Germans? This question has been debated by scholars and students of history. Rumkowski was surrounded by controversy. Although he attempted to make the ghetto a community, he also worked hand in hand with the Germans as they began to "resettle" the Jewish inhabitants in concentration camps where they were systematically murdered. Many survivors remember Rumkowski as a tyrant. However, many scholars have pointed out that the Lodz ghetto was the last ghetto in Eastern Europe to be liquidated and nearly 7000 Jews from that ghetto survived the war -- although Rumkowski himself was murdered in Auschwitz. For me the question is: Does the end justify the means?
Steve Sem-Sanberg's novel is a mesmerizing, albeit disturbing, look inside the Lodz ghetto and examines the life of its most controversial member. The book is a door-stopper at over 600 pages and introduces dozens of significant characters -- many of whom are historical figures. The narrative focuses on several central characters as they struggle for survival in the ghetto.
Sem-Sandberg has done a vast amount of research for his novel and there were moments when the book felt more like nonfiction than fiction. Readers who are hoping for an answer as to whether or not Rumkowski was a villain or hero will be disappointed because the author does not really answer that question. Rather, he lays out the facts through fiction and allows the reader to come to her own conclusions.
This is not an enjoyable novel. Often the realities of life in the Lodz ghetto are horrifying, dark, depressing and overwhelmingly sad. The Emperor of Lies reminds the reader that the Holocaust is a very real part of our recent past. Despite the passage of years, it still feels acutely painful to re-live.
Steve Sem-Sanberg won the August Prize for The Emperor of Lies and it is easy to see why. The book is magnificent in its scope, painstakingly researched and an astonishing accomplishment. That said, readers should be warned that this is an emotionally difficult historical novel.
Five stars out of five.
FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog.
Catch all of Wendy Robard's reviews in her fabulous blog, "Caribousmom".