Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Emperor of Lies by Steve Sem-Sandberg

A really difficult book to read and even hard to describe my feelings about it.  This is the story of the Lodz ghetto and, in particular, its Jewish leader, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski.  At first the book seems to strike a tone that is not quite serious enough given the subject matter.  But as I got into it I realized that's because it's written from the perspective of the ghetto inhabitants who, early on, cannot fathom the gravity of their situation.  The book struggles with the question of whether Rumkowsi was an opportunist collaborator driven by a lust for power or merely a practical collaborator who did what he had to in order to save as many Jews as possible.  I came away concluding it was the former - he was portrayed as a despicable man, particularly in his treatment of the children under his care at an orphanage and the son he ultimately adopts.  Though the title of the book refers to Rumkowski, the perspectives of many other ghetto inhabitants are explored which results in a vivid portrayal of events between 1942 and the Russian liberation of the ghetto in 1945.  Occasionally the changing perspectives make the book a bit confusing as it results in a departure from strict chronological order.  The book is well researched and contains actual excerpts from journals and ghetto publications, though in an afterword the author explains that even the ghetto publications were prepared under Rumkowski's scrutiny and were undoubtedly sanitized.  I also had trouble following the occasional German or Yiddish phrases which were not translated and whose meaning was not obvious (at least to me) from the context. Although the end was not a surprise, it was nonetheless horrific to read.

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