The Emperor of Lies [NOOK Book]


Winner of the August Prize, Sweden's most important literary award

A 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 ...

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The Emperor of Lies

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Winner of the August Prize, Sweden's most important literary award

A 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 ghetto's very existence.

A haunting, profoundly challenging novel, The Emperor of Lies chronicles the tale of Rumkowski's 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-Sandberg's singular talent to help us understand the truth of this chilling history.

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Editorial Reviews

Daphne Merkin
…a freshly felt, fully absorbing novel about the Holocaust…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. Sem-Sandberg's mostly artful use of archival material gives the fictional reconstruction a gravitas, a form of legitimacy, it might not have on its own, while the fictive element allows us as readers to call upon all our powers of empathy and projective identification to imagine ourselves into the doomed fates of the ghetto's denizens.
—The New York Times
From the Publisher
Praise for The Emperor of Lies

Library Journal (starred): “This is the story of the Lodz ghetto, located in Poland’s 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. Death’s 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-Sandberg’s 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 else’s 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-Sandberg’s 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-Sandberg’s 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 book’s 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 Sweden’s significant authors. The book deserves marked attention.” —Markus Huss

“Majestic . . . Frankly speaking it’s 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

Kirkus Reviews
A Swedish bestseller, this sprawling, Dickensian novel of the Holocaust now lands in America, where it is sure to attract attention.

Based on historical fact and a real-life central character, Sem-Sandberg's magnum opus is set in the Jewish ghetto of Lodz, Poland. The time is the winter of 1940, when the Nazi invaders have newly arrived to find an apparently willing accomplice in a very unpleasant man named Chaim Rumkowski. Sadistic and abusive in every possible way, Rumkowski has an odd dream: He believes that he can "demonstrate to the authorities what capable workers the Jews are," thereby convincing the Nazis to turn all of Lodz into what would eventually become "a Jewish free state under Nazi supremacy, where freedom had been honestly won at the price of hard work." Against the awful figure of Rumkowski, who Sem-Sandberg allows to come out of the shadows only slowly, stand other characters, real and imagined: Rumkowski's sister, horrendous in her vanity; Gertler the policeman, a law unto himself; Adam, hooked of nose and in care of a mentally disabled sibling, both the kind of people the Nazis want very much to exterminate. The Nazis, of course, are very bad indeed, as they reveal with little ceremony from the first, and especially when the deportations to the death camps begin. But the Jewish administrators of the ghetto are perfectly capable of inflicting terror on their own people; Sem-Sandberg risks courting controversy by revisiting this complicity with evil, as he does by allowing the possibility that Rumkowski may have honestly believed that he was saving his fellow Jews by his acts—a possibility that historians have lately been wrestling with. Sem-Sandberg is very good with period details, and most of his scenarios seem well founded, though often the prose strays into melodrama.

Of a piece with Jonathan Littell'sThe Kindly Ones(2009) as a philosophically charged novel of an ever-more-distant time, written by one who was not there to see those terrible events firsthand.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781429968843
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 8/30/2011
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 672
  • Sales rank: 78,660
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Steve Sem-Sandberg was born in 1958. He divides his time between Vienna and Stockholm.

Steve Sem-Sandberg was born in 1958. He divides his time between Vienna and Stockholm. He is the author of books including The Emperor of Lies.
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Read an Excerpt


© Lódz City Archive

The ghetto: as flat as a saucepan lid between the thundercloud blue of the sky and the cement grey of the earth.

If geographical barriers were no concern, it could go on for ever: a jumble of buildings on the verge of rising up out of their ruins or tumbling back in again. But the real extent of the ghetto only becomes fully obvious once you are inside the rough barrier of planks and barbed wire that the Germans have put up all around it.

If it were, in spite of everything – from the air, for example – possible to create an image of the ghetto for yourself, you would clearly see that it consists of two halves or lobes.

The eastern lobe is the larger of the two. It extends from Baluty Square and the old church square with the Church of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary in the middle – its tall, twin spires could be seen from everywhere – through the remains of what was once the ‘old town’ of Lódz and out to the garden suburb of Marysin.

Before the war, Marysin was little more than a run-down area of allotments and small dwellings, filled in with a random collection of huts and workshops, pigsties and outbuildings. After the ghetto was cut off from the surrounding area, Marysin’s little plots of land and cottages have been turned into an area of summerhouses and convalescent homes for the ruling elite of the ghetto.

Also situated in Marysin is the big Jewish cemetery and, on the other side of the fence, the railway yard at Radogoszcz where the heaviest goods and materials arrive. Units of the Schutzpolizei, the same force that guards the ghetto round the clock, lead brigades of Jewish workers from the ghetto every morning to help load and unload at the platform, and the same police company ensures all workers are led back into the ghetto at the end of the working day.

The eastern lobe of the ghetto comprises all the districts east and north of the main thoroughfare of Zgierska Street. All through traffic, including Lódz’s north–south tram link, is routed through this street, which is guarded by German police at virtually every street corner. Of the ghetto’s three, wooden-vaulted bridges, the two busiest cross Zgierska Street. The first bridge is down by the Old Square. The second bridge, called Hohe Brücke by the Germans, goes from the stone base of the church of St Mary over Lutomierska Street to the other side of Kirchplatz. The wastern lobe comprises the districts round the old Jewish cemetery and Bazarowa Square where the old synagogue (now converted into stables) once stood. The four blocks of flats in the ghetto that have running water are located in this area.

Another main road, Limanowskiego Street, leads into the ghetto from the west, thus cutting the western lobe into two smaller sections, a northern and a southern. Here there is a lesser-used wooden bridge: the bridge at Masarska Street.

In the middle of the ghetto, at the point where the two main streets, Zgierska and Limanowskiego, meet, lies Baluty Square. You could call this square the stomach of the ghetto. All the materials the ghetto needs are digested here, and then taken on to its resorty, the factories and larger workshops. And it is from here that most of the products of the ghetto’s factories and workshops go out. Baluty Square is the only neutral zone in the ghetto where Germans and Jews meet, totally isolated, surrounded by barbed wire, with only two permanently guarded ‘gates’: one to Lagniewnicka Street and one out into ‘Aryan’ Litzmannstadt at Zgierska Street.

The German ghetto administration also has a local office at Baluty Square, a handful of barrack buildings back to back with Rumkowski’s Secretariat: Headquarters, as it is popularly known. Here, too, is the Central Labour Office (Centralne Biuro Resortów Pracy), headed by Aron Jakubowicz, who coordinates labour in the resorty of the ghetto and is ultimately responsible for all production and trade with the German authorities.

A transitional zone.

A no man’s or, perhaps one should say, an everyman’s land in the midst of this strictly monitored Jewish land, to which both Germans and Jews have access, the latter however only on condition that they can produce a valid pass.

Or perhaps simply the specific pain node at the heart of the ghetto that is the explanation of the ghetto’s whole existence. This gigantic collection of dilapidated, unhygienic buildings around what is basically nothing but a huge export depot.

THE EMPEROR OF LIES Copyright © 2009, 2011 by Steve Sem-Sandberg

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Reading Group Guide

Capturing a chilling, often overlooked chapter in Holocaust history, The Emperor of Lies reimagines the controversial reign of Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, a Jewish businessman and orphanage director appointed by the Nazis to lead the Jewish ghetto in the Polish city of Lódz. Overseeing the second-largest ghetto, where more than 200,000 captives would fight for survival between 1940 and 1944, Rumkowski was scorned by many as a power-hungry opportunist, while others credited him with saving lives.

Remarkably, Rumkowski insisted that the leaders of Lódz maintain a comprehensive archive, the Ghetto Chronicle, preserving thousands of written and photographic records of daily existence in the ghetto from 1941 to the final transports. The award-winning novelist Steve Sem-Sandberg carefully traces all aspects of that world as revealed in the Chronicle. Also woven with correspondence, speeches, and personal details uncovered through meticulous research, The Emperor of Lies brings to light a full panorama of humanity, from former members of an elite ruling class to uneducated but devout farmers: people of all ages, from all walks of life, forced to become cogs in an industrial complex that Rumkowski believed would make them indispensable to the Nazi regime.

Introducing one of Europe's most significant literary talents to America, this mesmerizing book explores essential questions about human nature in the face of dehumanizing circumstances. We hope this guide will enrich your discussion of Steve Sem-Sandberg's unforgettable masterwork.

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Customer Reviews

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( 8 )
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  • Posted October 9, 2011

    A graphic and vivid book.

    This book was very well written and you could almost feel the cold, the despair and the hunger of the Jewish people confined to the ghetto during World War II. Humankind must be reminded periodically of this tragic time in our history to avoid the repetition.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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