Theodore Adorno famously said "writing poetry after the Holocaust is barbaric." Others would expand the characterization to include all art-making after the Holocaust, or even any return to "normal life." The 20th century turned out to be a bad, but not unique, one for humanity, with a sad, long list of state genocides around the globe over the decades, including some that rival the Nazis'. However, the pre-eminent modern symbol of human evil remains the Holocaust.
This is true because, among other reasons, in the 66 years since the end of Hitler's government, others by the thousands have not taken Adorno's path, confronting the Holocaust in journalism, scholarship, histories, memoirs, biographies, testimonies, novels -- such as "The Emperor of Lies" -- stories, poetry, movies, plays, music and visual art. That's the human response encapsulated by the Santayana quote etched in stone at the Auschwitz memorial in Poland: "The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again." (Santayana actually said, in "The Life of Reason," volume 1, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.")
"The Emperor of Lies" is the first American edition of Swedish writer Steve Sem-Sandberg's massive 2009 novel "Di Fattiga I Lodz" ("The Poor of Lodz") about Poland's Lodz ghetto (the Nazis' second largest), and about its Nazi-appointed Jewish overseer, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski. (In some weird synchronicity, the translator's name is Sarah Death.)
The original novel won Sweden's most prestigious literary prize, the August Prize (named after August Strindberg). Sem-Sandberg, who has no personal Holocaust connections, told a Swedish newspaper after the award, "So much of the literature, and especially films, about the Holocaust always focus [sic] in some way on those who survived so that we as readers can breathe out and say, 'Yes, it turned out well in the end.' " In a world-class understatement, he continued: "I have not written such a book."
Anyone looking for a tale of redemption or the triumph of the spirit should go see "Cars 2." Anyone looking for an absorbing magisterial novel should read this. As America found in its public turn to poetry in speechmaking and commemorations and news broadcasts and other public discourse during the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, art does what nothing else can do in expressing the inexpressible, in this case depicting the inconceivably aberrant Lodz ghetto and the curious man in charge.
Sem-Sandberg's novel is beautiful and brutal, and epic in its detail and depth of understanding, and builds a profoundly dark world pierced only occasionally by flashes of light, as a ghetto resident hiding in a fetid cellar spider hole might, very occasionally, catch glimpses of a frigid sun in a winter sky; or thanks to starvation and pain and grief, hallucinate a sun.
The emperor of the title, Rumkowski, is a real figure, as are other major characters here, and a fascinating one in Holocaust history. Rumkowski as the book begins is 63, an orphanage director and businessman appointed by the Nazi civilian administration of Lodz as "Eldest of the Jews": in charge of the lives of more than a quarter-million people once the ghetto was created.
His strategy was to make himself and "his" people indispensible to the Nazis by producing war materiel. He believed the key to survival at the individual and community level was work. He set up a system of factories and workshops producing a variety of goods and services for the German world outside the ghetto walls, and ran these and the ghetto's general administration with a mercurial, autocratic, self-aggrandizing hand, frequently outdoing the Germans in cruelty.
The ghetto, however, was neither a social experiment nor a trade zone: it was not even a prison. It was a huge septic holding pen for "animals," where random, absurd abuse, violence and death; malnutrition; and sadism were the only reliable standards. Whatever Rumkowski believed he was accomplishing was ultimately, heartbreakingly, naive. When the Russians captured Lodz in January 1945, of the German-estimated 320,000 original Jewish inhabitants in 1939, only approximately 500 were left: the rest killed by execution, violence, starvation, accidents and disease, or shipped to concentration camps. The latter fate awaited even Rumkowski, the Emperor, who was taken to Auschwitz on Aug. 28, 1944, and there murdered with his entire family.
Sem-Sandberg breaks the narrative into five sections, beginning with a 1939 memo about the establishment of the ghetto, followed by a "Prologue" and four sections covering the years 1942 to 1945. While it is in Rumkowski's point of view that most of the book unfolds, his is not the only lens: Sem-Sandberg provides a mosaic of characters to embody life in the ghetto, in prose that is clear, elliptical, surreal, poetic, heart-wrenching, numbed, elegant, or brutish as needed by the material.
As the novel follows the ghetto's deterioration, symptomatic of the Reich's decline, the final section focuses on a single brutalized young Jewish man, attempting to stay alive in hiding after the ghetto's become a dangerous ghost town populated by roving German soldiers and other feral survivors, as Russian artillery and bombs randomly fall.
The novel ends with this man, symbolically named Adam, seeing "the barbed wire and fencing have been torn down, the sentry box where the German ghetto guard used to stand with his machine gun on his stomach has been thrown on its side. He can't restrain himself any longer. He runs past the barbed wire that has been tossed aside, straight out into the open field, and starts dancing round -- whooping with joy -- with his arms stretched up toward the boundless white sky.
"Then the first shot finds its target. And another straight after it."
This ghetto cannot be escaped, literally, metaphorically, historically. Anton Chekhov wrote, "Man will become better when you show him what he is like": Sem-Sandberg's novel manages to be beautiful but true to the ugliness of its material, a difficult task, and a rare accomplishment.
Ed Taylor is a freelance Buffalo writer and critic.
The Emperor of Lies
By Steve Sem-Sandberg
Farrar Straus Giroux672 pages, $30