Trishnyc's Reviews > The Emperor of Lies

The Emperor of Lies by Steve Sem-Sandberg
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Jul 16, 2011

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Read in July, 2011

In 1939 as the Nazis furthered their reign of terror on Poland and quarantined a large number of Jews into the Lodz ghetto, Chaim Rumkowski presented himself as a representative of his people. The understanding was that he would help control his people by making them useful to the government and turning them into a massive workforce. The Nazis, glad to further exploit this population agree to Rumkowski's offer and allow him almost unfettered power over the ghetto. Through this agreement, a few thousand Jews are saved, even if temporarily, and are mobilized as workers to fuel the Nazi state. At first the people are glad to be alive and with one of their own at the helm they believe their situation will not be as bad as they had feared. But they realize that despite Rumkowski's assurances, they remain tired, hungry and overworked. While he berates them, accusing them of laziness and ingratitude, Rumkowski himself does not seem to be as starved as they are.

For me there is no argument of Rumkowski's role in the Lodz ghetto. He was not a reluctant oppressor of his people or a modest savior. Rather he was a megalomaniac with delusions of grandeur who used his position to abuse his people. If the building of an effective workforce managed to keep the inhabitants of Lodz alive, then it was an aside, a means to an end but not his main concern. He preached eloquently of his noble intentions, telling anyone who would listen of how he was saving Jewish lives but in reality, all he cared about was power and influence. He was pompous, drunk on power and never ceased to claim credit even if he had nothing to do with it. The Lodz ghetto was his platform and he gladly rested that platform on his people's backs. No, Rumkowski was not a hero, he was a bully and an abuser. Worst of all, he was a child molester who preyed on the weakest and most defenseless of the suffering population. I was not expecting an Oskar Schindler but I was still shocked the depths of depravity Rumkowski was able to achieve.

The reason I can't give this book a higher rating is the actual writing. The material was fascinating and riveting. It broke my heart and made my skin crawl and I wished I could intervene as innocent men, women and children were brutalized because of their religion and ethnicity. But my appreciation of the work was tempered by the fact that the writing felt very jumpy and oddly informal. Something about the author's style of writing made it hard for me to concentrate and at six hundred and fifty pages, concentration was vital. It is very possible that this is a problem of translation and if I had read it in its original Swedish it may have flowed better. I also felt that the scope of the book was so large that any real character development was stifled. People are introduced, you get to know them a little and then they disappear for another one hundred pages. I was also bothered by a scene where the graphic rape of a child is depicted in all its lurid details. Other instances of abuse were discussed but they were alluded to and not actually shown. But the aforementioned scene is vivid in all its stomach churning details and bothered me in part because it felt sensationalized.

For me, the actual story gets a 5/5 and the writing gets a 3/5.

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