Synopses & Reviews
Winner of the August Prize, Swedens most important literary awardA Globe and Mail Best Books of the Year 2011 Title
To be published in more than twenty-five languages
A major international literary event
“This is real literature. A great work of fiction.” —Per Svensson, Dagens Nyheter
In February 1940, the Nazis established what would become the second-largest Jewish ghetto, in the Polish city of Lódz. The leader they appointed was Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, a sixty-three-year-old Jewish businessman and orphanage director—and the elusive, authoritarian power sustaining the ghettos very existence.
A haunting, profoundly challenging novel, The Emperor of Lies chronicles the tale of Rumkowskis monarchical rule over a quarter-million Jews for the next four and a half years. Driven by a titanic ambition, he sought to transform the ghetto into a productive industrial complex and strove to make it—and himself—indispensable to the Nazi regime. These compromises would have extraordinary consequences not only for Rumkowski but for everyone living in the ghetto. Drawing on the detailed records of life in Lódz, Steve Sem-Sandberg, in a masterful feat of literary imagination and empathy, captures the full panorama of human resilience and probes deeply into the nature of evil. Through the dramatic narrative, he asks the most difficult questions: Was Rumkowski a ruthless opportunist, an accessory to the Nazi regime motivated by a lust for power? Or was he a pragmatist who managed to save Jewish lives through his collaboration policies? How did the inhabitants of the ghetto survive in such extreme circumstances?
A critically acclaimed breakout bestseller in Sweden, The Emperor of Lies introduces a writer of great significance to American readers. The archives detail daily life in the Lodz ghetto, under the reign of Rumkowki, but it takes a writer with Sem-Sandbergs singular talent to help us understand the truth of this chilling history.
Praise for The Emperor of Lies
Library Journal (starred): “This is the story of the Lodz ghetto, located in Polands second-largest city. Unlike the bigger Warsaw ghetto, the one that the Germans established at Litzmannstadt (their name for Lodz) was highly organized and offered jobs to thousands of Jews, who made items for use by the German army and civilian population—before they were gradually shipped off to the death camps. Masterminding this giant enterprise was Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the Eldest of the Jews and the “Emperor” of the title. How this initially unmarried and childless man, whom some would call a misfit, came to a position of preeminence in the ghetto is the heart of this riveting narrative. Sem-Sandberg, who lives in both Vienna and Stockholm, relied on the Ghetto Chronicle, secretly compiled by the Jews of Lodz, which he has deftly fictionalized. Readers must struggle with the issue of whether Rumkowski was a crass opportunist or saved countless lives through his near monarchical rule. Deaths translation is first-rate, and the reading group guide should be especially helpful. VERDICT This portrait of hell is highly recommended to knowledgeable readers with a love of world literature and an interest in the era.” —Edward Cone, New York“This extraordinary work of fiction is a historical novel in a deeper than the usual sense, since the author concedes that truth rather than fiction supplies the crucial detail that directs our moral vision . . . Sem-Sandbergs success lies in the way he conveys the moral tragedy not in retrospect but in its duration. As well as any other novelist of the Holocaust, he conveys someone elses nihilism as your experience, answering dehumanization with modest and convincing portraits of humanity.”—Timothy Snyder, The Times Literary Supplement
“It would seem all the more difficult . . . from this remove in time and after so much retelling, to write a freshly felt, fully absorbing novel about the Holocaust — and yet this is exactly what Steve Sem-Sandberg has done . . . Was Rumkowski a sinner or saint? Collaborator or liberator? It is around this central question that The Emperor of Lies swirls, providing along the way an almost Dickensian cast of characters and cinematic richness of detail that invites immersion in the way few contemporary novels of serious ambition do . . . The Emperor of Lies is a chilling and illuminating look at a period of history that has been analyzed and reconstructed before but rarely in quite so three-dimensional a fashion.” —Daphne Merkin, The New York Times Book Review
“A Swedish bestseller, this sprawling, Dickensian novel of the Holocaust now lands in America, where it is sure to attract attention.” —Kirkus Reviews
“[An] extraordinary novel . . . The story has been told many times before . . . yet rarely with such imaginative empathy . . . A brilliantly sustained work of historical fiction.” —Ian Thomson, The Sunday Telegraph
“This is fiction of true moral force, brilliantly sustained and achieved. It helps us to do what is so hard, simply to think about the Holocaust. Normally, the mind sheers away in horror after exposure to the accumulation of grueling detail and to the ungraspable weight of the statistics. It is so difficult to focus our imagination, our empathy, and Sem-Sandberg provides a way for us to do that, guiding the reader through the mass of information to the human heart of these appalling events. Fiction here is operating at its best, to close the gap between past and present, between them and us: not through sentiment, but through real understanding.
This is a stunning achievement and one to be applauded. I have lived with the book over several days, feeling I was living inside it, even dreaming about it. To read this novel is both an ordeal and a privilege, and I hope it commands the attention it deserves. It could be life-changing. I find it difficult to think of any book that has had such an immediate and powerful impact on me. So often there seems no way to approach these horrors but sidelong, at a tangent. What I admire and applaud is the author's direct engagement, the commitment to reality he has made. He shows us this fearful world in all its ambivalence and its human particularity. And yet you are not transfixed with horror; you are not forced beyond thought; you are debating all the time, what could they have done, what should they have done, how could it have been different? You are commanded to live through it and rethink it.
If there is one detail that for me selects itself as unforgettable it is the image of the X-ray plates of the children: the record of pathology preserved, the living subjects long ago lost and perished. Even if we have only the ghost of bones, this brave and brilliant author has made them a fitting commemoration.” —Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall, winner of the Man Booker Prize
“Sem-Sandberg's recreation of the Lodz ghetto, utterly convincing, rich in sympathy and understanding, is more a lightly fictionalised documentary than a work of the imagination. Nevertheless it needed that form of imagination which goes by the name of empathy to enter this world of horrors and show how individuals sought to survive or succumbed.” —Allan Massie, The Scotsman
“Sem-Sandbergs achievement is that this history becomes but a background to a multitude of vivid characters, the ordinary Jewish people of the ghetto, whose experiences he weaves expertly into a mesmerising whole . . . The Emperor of Lies is a novel about heart-wrenching suffering and extraordinary evil, transformed by Sem-Sandbergs talents into an irresistible work of fiction, absorbing from first page to last . . . Dickens would have been very pleased with this novel.” —Carmen Callil, The Guardian
“[The story] is told in almost dispassionate prose which because of its sheer understatedness makes it all the more potent . . . Sem-Sandberg is an intensely visual writer and scene after scene comes vividly to life. The vast company of characters are memorably drawn and naturally the emperor of lies dominates . . . The final section of the book rises to startling heights of descriptive writing as the steadily emptying ghetto becomes a freezing snowscape barely populated other than by the ghosts who have perished. The concluding pages are almost unbearable . . . The Emperor of Lies is a memorable examination of human resilience and the will to survive. It is a most distinguished addition to the literature of the holocaust.” —Peter Burton, The Daily Express
“The author uses the Ghetto Chronicle, a 3,000-page archive set up by Rumkowski in 1940, to give this novel an extraordinary immediacy and power.” —Kate Saunders, The Times (London)
“In this vast and impressive book, the Swedish novelist Steve Sem-Sandberg revisits these five years of barbaric history. The chronology from April 1940 to January 1945 is handled with great skill . . . [and] the book is immeasurably strengthened by its multiple points of view . . . Yet the book is not a mere recitation of crime and evil. There are compound ironies in the fact that Rumkowski wanted to make the authorities acknowledge that ‘the ghetto was a special place . . . Perhaps the books chief virtue is that it doesn't attempt to resolve these complexities.” —Tom Deveson, The Sunday Times (London)
“Steve Sem-Sandberg re-creates the ghetto with intelligent meticulousness and passionate invention . . . With this book, Sem-Sandberg steps into the magic circle of leading European writers . . . A] masterly novel.” —Anna Paterson, The Independent
“Sem-Sandberg has achieved something monumental, but with a strange and necessary lightness of touch. The Emperor of Lies is sobering, scarifying, and, in its hunger for the truth, enthralling.” —Sebastian Barry, author of The Secret Scripture
“With The Emperor of Lies Steve Sem-Sandberg cements his position as one of Swedens significant authors. The book deserves marked attention.” —Markus Huss
“Majestic . . . Frankly speaking its an amazing novel . . . Part of the great achievement here is owed to how masterfully Steve Sem-Sandberg has managed to filter his material to a story with both cinematic flexibility and graphic clarity.” —Mikael van Reis, Göteborgs-Posten
"Mesmerizing...An irresistible work of fiction, absorbing from first page to last...Dickens would have been very pleased with this novel."—Carmen Callil, The Guardian (London)
"Was Rumkowski a sinner or a saint? Collaborator or a liberator? It is around this central question that The Emperor of Lies swirls, providing along the way. . . cinematic detail that invites immersion in the way few contemporary novels of serious ambition do."—Daphne Merkin, The New York Times Book Review"A resolute masterpiece, The Emperor of Lies looks for truths in the great domain of dissolving syntax and shadows we call history....A great achievement."—Sebastian Barry, Salon
"Fiction of true moral force, brilliantly sustained and achieved...I find it difficult to think of any book that has had such an immediate and powerful impact on me...Brave and brilliant."—Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall
In February 1940, the Nazis established what would become the second-largest Jewish ghetto in the Polish city of Lódz. Its chosen leader: Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, a sixty-three-year-old Jewish businessman and orphanage director. From one of Scandinavia's most critically acclaimed and bestselling authors, The Emperor of Lies chronicles the tale of Rumkowski's monarchical rule over a quarter million Jews. Driven by a titanic ambition, he sought to transform the ghetto into a productive industrial complex and strove to make it —and himself — indispensable to the Nazi regime. Drawing on the chronicles of life in the Lódz Ghetto, Steve Sem-Sandberg captures the full panorama of human resilience and asks the most difficult questions: Was Rumkowski a ruthless opportunist, an accessory to the Nazi regime driven by a lust for power? Or was he a pragmatic strategist who managed to save Jewish lives through his collaboration policies?
About the Author
Steve Sem-Sandberg was born in 1958. He divides his time between Vienna and Stockholm.
Reading Group Guide
1. Discuss the novels title. How did the circumstances of the Jewish ghetto destroy the concept of truth? How do the ideas of Rabbi Fajner on page 25 (“A lie has no beginning . . . A lie always begins with denial”) capture the truth of Rumkowskis situation?
2. Steve Sem-Sandberg chose to begin the novel with the memorandum that outlined the creation of the Lódz ghetto. How were you affected by the tone of the memo and its closing promise to “burn away this infectious abscess entirely”? How does the memo underscore the value of preserving historical records?
3. What systems of leverage—for food, for warmth, for being spared deportation to death camps—emerged in the ghetto? Did Biebow really need Rumkowski, or were Biebows actions part of a sadistic mind game, forcing an elder Jew to assign values to the lives of his people?
4. Reread the prayer that opens Part II on page 283. What does it say about the nature of faith in the face of horrific religious persecution? How did the ghettos religious leaders (particularly Moshe Karo, keeper of holy books) make sense of tragedy?
5. Pages 22 through 24 present a story from Rumkowskis boyhood, describing his ill-fated attempt to become an informant and win the respect of his Talmud teacher, Stromka. What does the story reveal about Rumkowskis temperament and his idea of ethics?
6. Rumkowskis infamous speech (“give me your children”), delivered 4 September 1942, is reprinted on pages 257 to 261. Read portions of it aloud. What is the effect of hearing the words, rather than letting them remain silent on the page? If you had been in Rumkowskis position, would you have complied with the demand, or would you have rallied ghetto residents to resist at any cost?
7. Marysin is described on page 147 as “a place for the others: the wealthy, men with power and influence”—the opposite of deeply impoverished Baluty. Discuss the social order that emerged in Lódz, including attitudes toward the Prague Jews. Who rose to the top in this complex network, where any attempt to overturn the system could be punishable by death?
8. As head of the Special Department (Sonderabteilung) police force, did Dawid Gertler mirror the German officers in some ways, or did Gertler have noble intentions?
9. What is evoked by the story of Adam Rzepin as he tries to protect his sister Lida and come to terms with his uncle Lajbs downfall? Why is it appropriate for the novel to close with an image of Adam having shot a German, then experiencing a tragic “liberation”?
10. What hungers did Rumkowski satisfy when he married Regina and adopted Stanislaw? How did sex and power feed each other in Rumkowskis world? What were the costs and benefits of being part of his inner circle?
11. Page 269 depicts Mrs. Herszkowiczs attempts to impress the German officer with her perfect assembly, costing Lida her life. What explains her desire to impress him rather than protect her neighbors? How did her actions reinforce her idea of herself as being part of an educated class?
12. The spectrum of characters ranges from Princess Helena, with her chandelier and smorgasbord, to Rosa, who tenderly cares for the children of the Green House; Józef, who oversees life (as an orchard grower) and death (as a grave digger); the Czech-speaking Vera, who honors her frail mother until the end; and many other distinct identities. Which of the characters were most memorable for you? In circumstances such as theirs, what determines who will remain generous and who will become self-preserving?
13. Discuss the ultimate question at the heart of Rumkowskis legacy: Was it shameful of him to comply with the Nazis, or was he a heroic victim?
14. In this novel, what are the makings of a survivor? What separated those who ran to the fence, like Cwajga Blum, from those who were determined to stay alive? Was compassion a liability in Lódz?
15. In his afterword, Sem-Sandberg contemplates the authors of the Ghetto Chronicle and their motivation. On one hand, the Chronicle served as the mouthpiece for Rumkowski. Yet it was also intended to be a testimony for future readers (us). How were you affected by this knowledge, and by Sem-Sandbergs description of the challenges it posed? What can novels say better than history books?
16. How does The Emperor of Lies differ from other key works of Holocaust literature, such as Schindlers List or Elie Wiesels Night Trilogy, that you have read?
Reading group guide written by Amy Clements/The Wordshop, Inc.