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The Emperor of Lies by Steve Sem-Sandberg
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The Emperor of Lies (2009)

by Steve Sem-Sandberg

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During WWII, the Lodz ghetto was the last to be evacuated. Its chairman Rumkowski had turned it into a special production zone, whose inhabitants produced useful output for the German war economy and thus were spared the transfer to the extermination camps until very late in the war. At the same time, Rumkowski had to accommodate the Germans, and eliminate all non-productive elements from the ghetto, amongst which were its children. His notorious "Give me your children" speech is included in the book.

This novel offers descriptions of various characters (many of which actually existed) who lived in this ghetto as it descended into starvation and extermination during the war years. Some of these characters really come alive on the pages, but Rumkowski remains an enigmatic figure, an evil deus ex machina rather than the personification of hamletian ethical dilemmas. At the end the dry narrative style of the book, so effective on describing the hunger, fear and violence, veers off into a rather unfortunate magical realism. What I'll remember from this book are the odd combinations of human pettiness and heroism, ruthless selfishness and suicidal generosity amidst the gradual descent into misery and annihilation. ( )
  fist | Nov 16, 2014 |
Heard about this book on Eleanor Wachtel's Writers and Company. Thought it sounded interesting. However, I really couldn't get into it. Fro me there were too many characters, or perhaps because I'm not familiar with Polish names I just kept getting confused. ( )
  KarenAJeff | Dec 9, 2013 |
The Lodz ghetto was established by the Nazis in 1939 and was home to over a quarter of a million Jews. Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski was its leader – a business man and the director of an orphanage who was chosen by the Nazis to rule the ghetto. Rumkowski thought by establishing the ghetto as a productive center for the Nazis, he (and likewise the ghetto) would become indispensable to the regime.

Was his dictatorial rule really designed to save Jews? Or was Rumkowski motivated by greed and power in his collaboration with the Germans? This question has been debated by scholars and students of history. Rumkowski was surrounded by controversy. Although he attempted to make the ghetto a community, he also worked hand in hand with the Germans as they began to “resettle” the Jewish inhabitants in concentration camps where they were systematically murdered. Many survivors remember Rumkowski as a tyrant. However, many scholars have pointed out that the Lodz ghetto was the last ghetto in Eastern Europe to be liquidated and nearly 7000 Jews from that ghetto survived the war – although Rumkowski himself was murdered in Auschwitz. For me the question is: Does the end justify the means?

Steve Sem-Sanberg’s novel is a mesmerizing, albeit disturbing, look inside the Lodz ghetto and examines the life of its most controversial member. The book is a door-stopper at over 600 pages and introduces dozens of significant characters – many who are historical figures.The narrative focuses on several central characters as they struggle for survival in the ghetto.

Sem-Sandberg has done a vast amount of research for his novel and there were moments when the book felt more like nonfiction than fiction. Readers who are hoping for an answer as to whether or not Rumkowski was a villain or hero will be disappointed because the author does not really answer that question. Rather, he lays out the facts through fiction and allows the reader to come to her own conclusions.

This is not an enjoyable novel. Often the realities of life in the Lodz ghetto are horrifying, dark, depressing and overwhelmingly sad. The Emperor of Lies reminds the reader that the Holocaust is a very real part of our recent past. Despite the passage of years, it still feels acutely painful to re-live.

Steve Sem-Sanberg won the August Prize for The Emperor of Lies and it is easy to see why. The book is magnificent in its scope, painstakingly researched and an astonishing accomplishment. That said, readers should be warned that this is an emotionally difficult historical novel.

Highly recommended. ( )
1 vote writestuff | Jul 28, 2012 |
The Emperor of Lies: A Novel, by Steve Sem-Sandberg is quite the ambitious undertaking, and filled with exceptional, emotional and horrific captures of history. The book has left me for weeks unable to totally formulate a review due to the unimaginable content.

The novel revolves around Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski and his dynamics within the Lodz Ghetto in Poland during World War II. His actions have been debated, applauded and also detested throughout the decades. His motivations have been questioned. Sem-Sandberg brings us depictions of the man and his dynamics within the demeaning setting of the ghetto environment.

Rumkowski was the Jewish Elder, and, in his mind, the ruler of the Lodz Ghetto, with the power to make decisions regarding the Jewish population within the ghetto walls. From the children, the aged and the disabled to the strongest of adults, Rumkowski held their lives in his hands.

He made decisions as to whether one would live or die, and some see him as a savior for his thinking process, yet others see him as a brute, a man possessed with demons of his own. He seemed to me to be a man who did not have a deep regard for humanity, although he would probably state otherwise. His decisions forced men, women and children into labor (labor that was exchanged for life, labor that demanded long hours and hard toiling), and the end result was that the majority of those individuals eventually succumbed to the harsh environment or being deported and finally murdered by the Nazis.

Rumkowski felt and thought that if he had factories built and organized a workforce, that the ghetto would be productive and keep the Nazis from sending the Jewish population to an ultimate death. He seemed to have the mind of a manic personality, from the way Sem-Sandberg describes his actions, with him being euphoric one minute, cruel the next minute, and a man with extreme narcissism, and quite the tyrant.

Every horror imaginable fills the pages of The Emperor of Lies, every minute devastation and form of demeaning and degredadation of humanity, and every depiction of a man crazed with the thirst for power fills the pages. I was riveted and overwhelmed by the haunting depictions.

He felt he had it all, and that his life was one of importance to the Nazis. He was so possessed with his ideas and arrogance that he never imagined the final outcome for himself, just like those 250,000 before him…

Steve Sem-Sandberg has written a historical novel like no other. The Emperor of Lies is so much more than a novel, it is a stunning and historical novel filled with extreme visuals and documentations that were heavily researched. the intensity of the story is compelling, leaving one to wonder, in the end, what was the reasoning and desire in Rumkowski’s mindset. Was he friend or foe? Did he intentionally save lives or destroy other lives under the guise of saving others? Was he a savior or was he a villain in a plot in which he was a co-conspirator? Steve Sem-Sandberg leaves it up to the reader to decide for themselves through his masterful and brilliant writing.

In my opinion The Emperor of Lies is a major piece of Holocaust Literature and a masterpiece. I highly recommend it to everyone. ( )
  LorriMilli | May 5, 2012 |
Glad I read it - didn't know anything about the Lodz getto/Rumkowski, but found the structure and language confusing at times. Not sure why this needed to be a novel instead of nonfiction - left me wondering which parts actually happened and which were created by the author ( )
  pjeanne | Mar 27, 2012 |
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There are, at a reasonable estimate, some 320,000 Jews living in the city of Łódź today.
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Follows the World War II tale of Jewish ghetto director Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, who in an ambitious effort to render the ghetto an invaluable industrial complex makes compromises that have extraordinary consequences.

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