The Emperor of Lies: A Novel

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9780374139643: The Emperor of Lies: A Novel

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.

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About the Author:

Steve Sem-Sandberg was born in 1958. He divides his time between Vienna and Stockholm.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


The Chairman Alone
(1–4 September 1942)

Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.

Ecclesiastes 9:10

That was the day, engraved forever in the memory of the ghetto, when the Chairman announced in front of everyone that he had no choice but to let the children and old people of the ghetto go. Once he had made his proclamation that afternoon, he went to his office on Bałuty Square and sat waiting for higher powers to intervene to save him. He had already been forced to part with the sick people of the ghetto. That only left the old and the young. Mr Neftalin, who a few hours earlier had called the Commission together again, had impressed on him that all the lists must be completed and handed over to the Gestapo by midnight at the latest. How then could he make it clear to them what an appalling loss this represented for him? For sixty-six years I have lived and not yet been granted the happiness of being called Father, and now the authorities demand of me that I sacrifice all my children.

Had any one of them an inkling of how he felt at this moment?

(‘What shall I say to them?’ he had asked Dr Miller when the Commission met that afternoon, and Dr Miller had extended his ravaged face across the table, and on his other side Judge Jakobson, too, had looked him deep in the eyes, and they had both said:

Tell them the truth. If nothing else will do, you’ll have to tell them that.

But how can there be Truth if there is no Law, and how can there be any Law if there is no longer any World?)

With the voices of the dying children roaring in his head, the Chairman reached for the jacket Miss Fuchs had hung up for him on the hook on the wall of the barrack hut, fumbled with the key in the lock and had scarcely opened the door when the voices overpowered him again. But there was no Law standing outside his office door, and no World either, merely what remained of his personal staff in the form of half a dozen clerks exhausted by lack of sleep, with the tireless Miss Fuchs at their head, neatly dressed on this day as on all others in a freshly ironed, blue-and-white-striped blouse, with her hair in a chignon.

He said:

If the Lord had intended to let this, His last city, go under, He would have told me. At the very least He would have given me a sign.

But his staff just stared back uncomprehendingly:

Mr Chairman, they said, we are already an hour late.


The sun was as it usually is in the month of Elul, a sun like the approaching Judgement Day, a sun that was a thousand needles piercing your skin. The sky was as heavy as lead, without a breath of wind. A crowd of some fifteen hundred people had gathered at the fire station. The Chairman often made his speeches there. On other occasions it was curiosity that brought people to listen. They came to hear the Chairman speak of his plans for the future, of imminent deliveries of food, of the work awaiting them. Those present today had not gathered because they were curious. Curiosity would hardly have induced people to leave the queues for the potato depots and distribution points and walk all the way to the square in front of the fire station. Nobody had come to hear news; people had come to listen to the sentence that was to be passed on them – a life sentence or, God forbid, a death sentence. Fathers and mothers came to hear the sentence that was to be handed down to their children. The elderly summoned the last of their strength to listen to what fate had in store for them. Most of those gathered there were old people – leaning on thin sticks or on their children’s arms. Or young people, holding their children tightly by the hand. Or children themselves.

With heads bowed, faces distorted with grief, with swollen eyes and throats constricted by tears, all these human beings – all fifteen hundred assembled in the square – were like a town, a community in its final moment; waiting under the sun for the Chairman and his downfall.

Józef Zelkowicz: In jejne koshmarne teg

(In These Nightmarish Days, 1944)


The whole ghetto was out on the streets that afternoon.

Although the bodyguards succeeded in keeping the majority of the mob at a distance, a few grinning whipping boys found their way up into his carriage all the same. He leant back against the hood, too feeble to brandish his stick at them as he usually did. It was as malevolent tongues were always saying behind his back: he was done for, his time as Praeses of the ghetto was over. Afterwards they would say of him that he was a false shoyfet who had taken the wrong decision, an evedhagermanim who had acted not for the good of his people but just for the power and profit he could engineer for himself.

But he had never acted for anything but the good of the ghetto.

Lord God, how can You do this to me? he thought.

People were already filling the fire-station yard in the scalding sunlight. They must have been standing there for hours. As soon as they caught sight of the bodyguards, they hurled themselves towards him like a pack of ferocious animals. A line of policemen formed a human chain at the front and wielded their batons to drive back the crowd. But it was not enough. Sneering faces still hung over the policemen’s shoulders.

It had been decided that Warszawski and Jakobson would speak first, while he waited in the shade of the platform, to temper as far as possible the pain in the hard words he would be forced to speak to them. The only trouble was that, by the time he came to climb up onto the speaker’s rostrum they had improvised for him, there was no longer any shade, and no platform either: just an ordinary chair on a rickety table. He would be forced to stand on this tottering pedestal while the loathsome black mass jeered and gaped at him from down in the shade on the other side of the yard. Faced with this body of darkness, he felt a terror unlike any he had ever felt before. This, he now realised, must have been how the prophets felt the moment they stepped before their people; Ezekiel, who from besieged Jerusalem, the city of blood, spoke of the need to cleanse the city of evil and all filth and set a mark on the forehead of all those who rallied behind the true faith.

Warszawski spoke, and he said:

Yesterday, the Chairman received an order to send away more than twenty thousand of us . . . among them our children and our very oldest people.

Do not the winds of fate shift strangely? We all know our Chairman!

We all know how many years of his life, how much of his strength, his work and his health he has devoted to the upbringing of the Jewish children.

And now they demand that he, HE, of all people . . .


He had often imagined it possible to converse with the dead. Only those who had already escaped the incarceration could have said whether he acted rightly or wrongly in letting people go who would not have had any other life anyway.

In the first, difficult period – when the authorities had just begun the deportations – he had ordered his carriage so he could visit the cemetery in Marysin.

Endless days at the start of January, or in February when the flat country round Łódź, the vast potato and beet fields, lay shrouded in a raw and pallid haze. At long last, the snow melted and spring came, and the sun was so low on the horizon that it seemed to cast the whole landscape in bronze. Every detail stood out against the light: the stark mesh of the trees against the ochre shade of the fields, and here and there a splash of bright violet from a pond or the line of a brook hidden in the undulations of the plain.

On days like these he sat huddled and unmoving in the rearmost seat of the carriage; behind Kuper, whose back assumed the same curve as the horsewhip balanced in his lap.

On the other side of the fence, one of the German guards would stand stiffly, or pace restlessly up and down around his sentry box. Some days a fierce wind would blow across the open fields and pasture land. The wind swept sand and loose soil along with it, and also blew a litter of paper over the fence and walls; and with the smoking soil came the cackle and mooing of poultry and cattle from the Polish farms just the other side of the fence. At times like these it was so evident how arbitrary the drawing of the boundary line had been. The guard stood impotent, head down into the persistent wind, with his uniform coat flapping pointlessly around his arms and legs.

But the Chairman sat there as still as ever while the sand and soil whirled around him. If all that he saw and heard had any effect on him, he did not show it.

There was a man called Józef Feldman who dug graves as a member of Baruk Praszkier’s gang of diggers. Seven days a week, even on the Sabbath since the authorities had ordered it, he was there digging graves for the dead. The graves he dug were not large: seventy centimetres deep and half a metre wide. Just deep enough for a body. But considering there was a requirement for two, perhaps even three, thousand graves a year, it was obviously heavy work. Usually with the wind and loose soil whipping him in the face.

In winter, digging was out of the question. The graves for the winter had to be dug in the warmer half of the year, which was therefore the time when Feldman and the other diggers had to work hardest. In the colder months, he retreated to his ‘office’ for a rest.

Before the war, Józef Feldman had been the owner of a small plant nursery in Marysin. In two greenhouses he had grown tomatoes, cucumbers and green vegetables, salad leaves and spinach; he had also sold bulbs and packets of seeds for spring planting. Now the greenhouses were empty and deserted, their glass broken. Józef Feldman himself slept in a simple wooden cabin off one of the greenhouses, which he had form...

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