Some Holocaust issues have remained controversial. The institution The Jewish Council, or as it was known in German as the "Judenrat" is one of them. Were the heads and members of the Councils collaborators and traitors or heroes who have done all they could in order to save their berthren from the evil machine of the Nazi hordes?
This is the subject of "The Emperor of Lies", whose hero or anti-hero is Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, an elderly Jewish businessman, who was chosen to be the leader of the Lodz ghetto in Poland, the second greatest Jewish ghetto there. This ghetto was established by the Nazis in February 1940 and it hosted a quarter of a million Jews. It was separated by barbed wire. Rumkowski,or "King Chaim", as he was better known, was cynical, ambitious, devious, monarchical, devilish, arrogant, cunning, vain and " uneducated who resorted to the coarsest of threats and insults" and with whom "no one even wanted to share a table". He managed to establish a whole industry of workshops manufacturing many products to be sent to the Nazi army and administered tens of thousands of Jews under the slogan which he created, namely: "Our only way is Work". This is a reminder of what the Nazi beasts engraved at the entrance of Auschwitz: "Arbeit Macht Frei". Thus starts the odyssey of the reader into the dark, sombre and tragic times of the ghetto, and whose fate is well known. The novel is a stupendous achievement, because of some reasons.
First, this is a great work of imagination, which manages to recreate not only the ghetto but also the historical context of it. The book has many and various characters and episodes which come all alive and the reader has the impression that he is watching each and every moment of them.
Second, the narrator is there, sometimes commenting but most of the time remaining or trying to remain neutral, letting you, the reader, decide on major issues and alternatives. There are comic episodes as well, all of which are supported by newspaper reports from those times photos, messages and broadcasts.
In addition,there are the Jewish crooks, the smugglers, the prostitutes, the common people,
the tailors, the piano tuner and players, the doctors and carpenters, the secretaries, the Jewish orphans as well as the SS henchmen who populate most of the plot, most of them telling their stories in the form of flashbacks or short monologues. The same goes for additional characters, such as the Rumkowski family members. There are authentic passages in Hebrew, Polish and Yiddish which were not translated and left in the original. The same goes for the jokes,sayings, prayers and aphorisms, which appear in the original. Here is the point where I would like to praise the job done by the traslator of the book, who has done a brilliant job. The language is smooth and simple, yet rich and sometimes proverbial.
Personally, I believe that Rumkowski was a dirty old fellow, a traitor and an opportunist. Suffice it to mention the words of Adam Czerniakow, the head of the Warsaw Jewish ghetto. Here are his words:
"We had a meeting with Rumkowski today.
The man is unimaginably stupid, self-important, officious. He goes on and on about his own splendid qualities. Never listens to what anybody else says.
He's dangerous, too, because he insists on telling authorities that all is well in his little reserve".
One is definitely familiar with the famous speech delivered by Rumkowski in 1942 after getting an order from the Nazis to gather tens of thousands of people, including many children and sick Jews, to be deported to the planet of hell Auschwitz. This speech called : "Give me your Children" is the high and turning point of the novel. It is from here onwards where the reader can only come to one conclusion, although Mr. Sandberg does not pass any judgement on Rumkowski. Hans Biebow, who was the German administrator of the ghetto and the darling of Rumkowski, has only comtempt for the old Jew and utters this:
"You are an old man from an obsolete age, Rumkowski. You thought you could buy yourself power and influence, that you could go on extending your perverse and filthy nest within the walls of a Greater Power and then carry on embezzling and misappropiating just as people like you have done so many times before throughout history, as it is in your nature to do. But let me tell you something, Rumkowski: that age is now past. That age is auf ewig vorbei".
The end is well known: everybody perishes or is murdered at Auschwitz or other crematoria. There are no winners, only losers.
This book will haunt you for many years to come. In spite of some extremely horrible and graphic scenes, it will be engraved on you memory whether or not you like Rumkowski and his other members of the Jewish Council. A great novelist is living among us, hitherto unknown, but from this point onwards marking his place in the pantheon of the greatest writers of humanity.