I had thought to begin this first column on books of Jewish interest with a review of “The Emperor of Lies” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by Steve Sem-Sandberg (translated from the Swedish by the eerily named Sarah Death).
It is a thinly fictionalized although richly imagined account of the Lodz Ghetto, peopled with a panoply of characters worthy of Dickens at his grimmest. It is a portrait, particularly, of Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, its contradictory and complicit chairman. Rumkowski, you may or may not know, dealt with the devil, perhaps following the precept of Jeremy Bentham, the 18th century legal theorist, of “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Rumkowski handed over the elderly and children to the Nazis in a doomed attempt to keep the other ghetto inhabitants “productive” and presumably, therefore, worth more alive than dead. And yet, he had founded a home for orphans and called himself their “father.” (See the speech he delivered to the ghetto on Sept. 4, 1942. By the summer of 1944, the ghetto had been liquidated and Rumkowski himself was sent to Auschwitz.)
Those are the bare bones of a morally repellent history, and Sem-Sandberg imagines it into flesh, and himself into Rumkowski’s tangled mind and motives. It is a terrible tale of human frailty and destruction, minutely and even hypnotically told.
I must confess, however, that I cannot bear to finish it. Despite the fact that – and because – the ghetto and its people are so meticulously recreated and re-imagined, it is as claustrophobic as the ghetto itself must have been. I keep beginning the book and putting it aside and picking it up again.
Here is an exemplary passage:
“He thought he knew that when the Germans spoke of Jews, they were speaking not of human beings, but of a potentially useful although basically repulsive raw material. A Jew was a deviation in himself: the very fact of a Jew asserting some kind of individuality was a monstrosity. Jews could only be referred to in collective form…. Quotas, quantities. This was how Rumkowski thought: To make the monster understand what you meant, you yourself had to start thinking like the monster. See not one, but a larger number.”
Note the careful phrasing: “He thought he knew….” While Sem-Sandberg’s Rumkowski, however, is not monster enough to think like the still more monstrous Nazis, in passage after passage, such as the following, the author makes clear what comes of seeing not one individual, but a larger number:
“Those patients who had been hiding in the hospital grounds…were felled with blows from batons or rifle butts; those who had strayed out into the road were cold-bloodedly shot by the German guards….[S]creams and stifled cries were heard from the cluster of relatives … who were powerless to help the infirm as they were led out…from the hospital building….
“[W]hen the Chairman reappeared at the main entrance after those thirty minutes, he did not glance at the loaded trailers. He just walked briskly back to his horse and carriage….” Note the word “briskly.”
There is a long-running debate about whether it is proper to write fiction “after Auschwitz” – and it is true that some novels, films, etc., of the Shoah are simplistic, poorly conceived and poorly written, with nasty villains, sterling heroes, and obvious morals. To do them justice, many have narrative urgency. But they often tell the same – in the words of a recent New Yorker cartoon – “story of courage and the strength of the human spirit,” worthy but tired. And they tend to reinforce preconceptions about good and evil and to elevate the reader when good triumphs – or should. They are, in a way, comforting.
“The Emperor of Lies,” however, is of an another order entirely. Like a true work of art, it challenges and disturbs.
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On a lighter note, if you liked Maggie Anton’s “Rashi’s Daughters” series and applauded Barbra Streisand’s version of “Yentl,” you will find much to appreciate in Talia Carner’s “Jerusalem Maiden” (Harper).
The story of the struggle for independence of a gifted young female artist in a rigid charedi community begins in B’nei Brak in 1911 and ends in Paris in 1968, but remains as relevant today as ever (see the article on pages 10-15). The story is vividly told, with an abundance of literally colorful detail about a little-understood community.
Full disclosure: I read the first part in an early draft when the author and I were in a class at the 92nd Street Y.
I was caught – on the very first page – by the image of a gecko who “popped up on the chiseled stone of the windowsill and scanned the room with staccato movements….Her fingers moving in a frenzy, she drew the gecko’s raised body, its tilted head, its dark orbs focused on her. She studied the transparency of the skin of the valiant creature that kept kitchens free of roaches. How did God paint their fragility? She picked up a pink-gray pencil and traced the fine scales. They lay flat on the page, colorless. She tried the lightest brown –
“Her hand froze. What was she thinking? A gecko was an idol, the kind pagans worshipped.”
In those few words, we see not just a gecko (who keeps the kitchen free of roaches), but the girl who sees and draws him, and her narrow world.