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The Emperor of Lies
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The Emperor of Lies

3.6 8
by Steve Sem-Sandberg

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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



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.

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

“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

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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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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© 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

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.
Sarah Death is a translator, literary scholar, and editor of the UK-based journal Swedish Book Review. She lives and works in Kent, England.

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Emperor of Lies 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
MariluMLB More than 1 year ago
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.
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