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on 2 July 2011
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.
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It is really no overstatement to compare Swedish author Steve Sem-Sandberg's epic novel about the people in the Lodz ghetto during World War II to Tolstoy's War and Peace, published almost one hundred fifty years earlier. The real life dramas which the book illustrates, the memorable characters, the carefully developed themes which Sem-Sandburg treats in new ways, and the magnitude of the horrors easily make this book the equal of Tolstoy's epic. The nature of the subject matter, of course, precludes any hint of romanticism here, but Sem-Sandburg is so good at varying scenes involving a series of fully human, repeating characters, that I cannot imagine any reader not becoming fully engaged with them. Beautifully written to memorialize the people of the ghetto, rather than the horrors of the Holocaust itself, this book is an awe-inspiring literary achievement.

Taking place between 1940 and 1944, the novel opens with two contrasting passages. The first, a memorandum from December, 1939, announcing the Germans' intention to enclose the two hundred twenty-thousand Jews in Lodz within a ghetto--"a temporary measure." In the second passage, a scene from September 1 - 4, 1942, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowsky, Chairman of the Jews' Ruling Council of Elders, must give the population news so inhuman and so devastating, that the Chairman of the Warsaw ghetto, took cyanide rather then give that same news to his own people. Ten thousand residents, chosen from babies and children under the age of ten and "elderly" over the age of sixty-five, were to be handed over to the Gestapo for immediate "relocation."

After Rumkowsky makes the dreaded announcement in September, 1942, the novel backs up to 1940, providing details from Rumkowski's life and the lives of others in the ghetto, along with other decisions he has had to make in the months leading up to September, 1942. His goal has always been utilitarian--"the greatest good for the greatest number" so that ultimately some of the population could be saved from the Germans, primarily because they had become so productive that they were essential to the German war effort.

Wonderful repeating characters from various levels of society come alive here, among them Mara, a paralyzed mystic, the daughter of a rabbi; Vera Schulz, a young woman who develops an underground life; Adam Rzepin, a young street urchin who fears nothing and who has a sister who hears angels; Rosa Smolenska, the loving teacher who runs the orphanage on the outskirts of the ghetto; and Stanislaw Stein, a young orphan who finds a new home. Not all the ghetto characters are good. Street gangs and Jewish crooks act as bullies and shake down those who need favors, including the head of the ghetto police and a member of the Resettlement Commission, who is getting rich from bribes.

Throughout Rumkowsky's administration, there are also domestic issues over which he has little real control but which the German administration expects him to solve: food riots by starving people, epidemics, strikes by workers, horrific overcrowding, and the psychological trauma of the population as truckloads of "recycled" clothing, smelling of disinfectants, arrive every day, some still containing personal possessions.

Ultimately, as history tells us, Rumkowski runs out of options, and his tenure as head of the ghetto remains a controversial subject. Some believe that he was heartless, morally bankrupt, inhuman. Others, especially some who survived their eventual deportation, believe that Rumkowski was their savior--they lived because they were able to earn enough food by working. This novel provides a wide perspective from which to regard his actions. Mary Whipple
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VINE VOICEon 13 September 2011
Steve Sem-Sandberg uses the novel form to explore one of the most controversial figures in the Holocaust, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the 'Elder' who was the spokesperson for the Jews in the Lodz ghetto in Poland. Rumkowski was in effect the 'king' of the ghetto, a vain dictator who issued his own Ghetto currency and postage stamps, backed up by his own police force. Rumkowski thought that by working with his German captors he could somehow save 'his people' - but he was just a dupe of the Nazis. (It isn't a matter of historical hindsight: many of the people around him realised it at the time.) Sem-Sandberg's uses a vast cast of historical figures and fictional characters to paint an all too vivid picture of what it must have been like to live in this hellish universe, where hunger and fear turned moral values upside down. Sem-Sandberg is Swedish but his range and depth of storytelling reminded me more than anything of the great Russian novelists. This vast book is a challenging read - but is also endlessly thought-provoking and humane. Recommended.
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on 7 August 2011
I was initially dubious about the idea of a novel about these events, but I'm also aware that there is a real difference between reading any number of factual and historical accounts of an event, and the new insights a well-imagined and well-crafted piece novel or story can give me. In the end, Sandberg does succeed in allowing us to imagine the horror of these times, in particular individuals' fears, and their isolation and powerlessness, when they don't even know what is going on around them. His characterisation of Rumkowski is well-realised (in the end small details of historical veracity are not that important in fiction) because the complexity of the moral dilemma facing an individual is clear, and not avoided.

It's a shocking and harrowing read in places. It reminds me, in a strange way, of the power of Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones. Maybe such fictional explorations are now coming into their own as we get further away in time from the events, and those who were able to bear actual witness are no longer with us.
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on 21 February 2012
This is an extraordinary piece of Literature that I think really must be read. The book centres on life in a Jewish ghetto, mixing both fact and fiction, giving the reader an insight into the Jewish life and their Chairman. Whether or not we agree with the Chairman's actions, his character is very well written and is very believable.

The only downside to the book is that it gets really tedious half way through, where I think some more editing could've been done.

On the whole, its very much worth a read!!
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An amazing and horrific account of life in the Lodz Jewish ghetto - second largest in Poland. The head of the ghetto, Chaim Rumkowski, set to turning 'his' town into an industrial centre that would become invaluable to the Nazis, and so- he hoped- save the inhabitants. Certainly it was the longest lasting ghetto, surviving in part at least until 1944. Yet at the same time Rumkowski definitely feathered his nest on the proceeds, living comfortably and eating well while the rest starved.
Not a consecutive narrative, but a series of 'snapshots' of the wartime experiences of the inhabitants, perhaps most terribly the regular demands by the Nazis that the ghetto periodically hand over set numbers of its people to go to 'work camps'.
"They demand that we give them the very things most valuable to us- our children and our old people....I must now reach out my hands and ask: Brothers and sisters, give them to me. Give me your children!"
Perhaps the part that will remain most vividly with me is the heartbreaking final section where one of the young men hides from transportation and attempts to live out a Polish winter with almost no food or heat in an almost deserted ghetto.
The author doesn't attempt to solve the controversy that has always persisted about Rumkowski; I didn't finish the book with a 100% certainty of what I felt about him. Sem-Sandberg doesn't describe 'the Emperor's' feelings as he does other characters, and while he had huge personal failings, he was in an impossible political position.
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on 27 July 2012
Well, the Holocaust has now been done from every angle. What's new? What can shock us? What can we learn?
This book is unusually well-written - at a time when so few are - so, from that point alone, it's a masterpiece. But what takes it a step furthur is the focus on this one man and his lies - a study in manipulation - and the focus on the fact of ghetto life.
It is unrelentingly grim though. There is no joy, anywhere and that is my one criticism - you don't engage awith any characters. None of them are sympathetic and that will spoil this for many who might not stay the course.

Still brilliant. Still worth every penny.
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VINE VOICEon 11 December 2011
This is a hard book to read, but well worth the effort. At times it was difficult to seperate the enormous background research iin facts from the dramadocumentary style of writing. However hard this book is to read the outcome is positive. To understand the workings of the minds of those unfortunates who were involved in this cataclysm is hard, but there are insights here that should be studied and considered by everyone. A tour de force.
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on 16 February 2014
I really enjoyed this, although it is terribly sad. Fascinating, frightening and very educational. A whole area I haven't previously known about. If you enjoy (enjoy probably not the appropriate word) this type of history, then you'll think its a great book.
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on 5 February 2012
Hard to read at times and brutal aspects of the Ghetto are illustrated in stark reality of just how hard life was in a place where systematic starvation was happening.
The life of Rumkoski is portrayed with out judgement leaving the reader to make his/her own mind up about the man and his work.
However the book does change from one year to the next as a flashback but it can take a while to catch up, often long in parts that the story didnt need to be.
This is a great reminder of how people suffered and were fed lies and propaganda from the very authorities that were supposed to protect and serve.
Quite how a brutal regime expected a human being to produce work to a high standard whilst nearly fainting of hunger is beyond comprehension, this book takes you to the heart of the people is never patronising or glib.
A really good discussion book for readers groups and it is one book that should be read by the younger generation.
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