The Emperor of Lies

Written by Sarah Death (trans.) Steve Sem-Sandberg
Review by Patricia O’Sullivan

Lodz, Poland was home to the second-largest Jewish ghetto during the Second World War. Established in 1940 with a population of 230,000, it was liquidated in 1944. When Soviet troops liberated the ghetto in 1945 only 877 people were living there. The Emperor of Lies is the story of the Lodz ghetto. In particular, it is the story of the ghetto’s controversial leader, Jewish businessman Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski.

Appointed by the Nazis, Rumkowski turned the ghetto into a factory over which he controlled even the smallest details. Some historians praise Rumkowski’s management of the ghetto, pointing out that Lodz’s Jews fared better than those in most other ghettos. However, other historians portray Rumkowski as a collaborator who abused his power. Sem-Sandberg takes a more objective stand, showing how both accounts of Rumkowski may have merit. In his afterword he writes, “There was clearly a point at which even Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski felt obliged to look away and say no. This novel revolves around that moment.”

Sem-Sandberg’s graphic details of ghetto life and his careful adherence to the historical record make this an important contribution to Holocaust literature. However, the thoroughness of the narrative means that the story includes a large cast of characters, none of whom the reader gets to know intimately. In fact, there are times when the novel reads more like a non-fiction account. On the other hand, with its short chapters and plain writing, the novel is very readable.