Author discusses larger-than-life subjec of his fact-based novel

Steve Sem-Sandberg

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

Author Steve Sem-Sandberg, whose novel “Emperor of Lies” has become an international bestseller, is based on the history of the Lodz ghetto and Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, who ruled it with an iron fist under Nazi direction. Recently the Jewish Light discussed Sem-Sandberg’s novel with him by email, as he traveled in Europe before coming to the Jewish Book Festival in St. Louis next month.

Why did you choose the Lodz ghetto as a subject for a novel?

It was the actual place of the former ghetto of Lodz, the old Baluty-district, which I visited for the first time in the early 2000s, which really made an impact on me. To this day, this part of Lodz remains a haunting place. Many of the buildings from the period are still standing, and the place is, in many ways, still as downtrodden, poor, as it must have been in 1940. The spirit of this place, where a quarter of a million Jews were forced to spend their lives for months or years before they were finally deported and killed, had a profound effect on me when I visited. I meant to stay only for a few days, but I stayed for many weeks.

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Explain about making Rumkowski the central character.

Rumkowski was the Nazi-chosen leader of the Jewish council (Die Altestenrat) in Lodz and was given absolute power within the confines of the ghetto itself. So it would have been impossible not to have him as a central figure in the book. But what interested me as well was the moral ambivalence of his character, the fact that he actually was the one who had to pick and choose those who were to be put on the deportation lists. He knew the deportees were to be killed from (almost) the very first. Still he did comply, thereby trying to “save” as many as possible.

Through Rumkowski the book raises some important but very difficult questions. The fact that he chose to (or felt that he had no choice but to) subordinate himself to the Nazis – what does it make him? A collaborator or even a perpetrator himself? Or is he more correctly seen as actually the first victim of Nazi terror? He who had to bear the brunt of the onslaught?

I have no definitive answer, and the longer I have been working on this novel the less sure I am that there is one. What I do in the book is trying to portray him from as many different angles as possible, not to judge or make excuses for him or his acts, but (to try) to portray him as the man he probably would have been and try to understand the way he might have thought about himself and his own role in this tragedy.

What would you say to encourage readers to read a novel about something so heartbreaking?

I would say that the book is not only about suffering. Read closely, and you will see. It is a book about everything that suffering can bring out in humans. Bad things, yes, but also good. The book describes many instances of courage and solidarity, even love. For example, the relationship between the Czech Vera Schulz and the Polish Jew Aleksander Gliksman and their attempt to find out about themselves and about what is happening outside the ghetto walls. There is no black-and-white, pure evil or pure good, but a story of survival. It is a book of life itself, about how we will cling to it by any means, and the heartbreaking courage and stand-fastness shown by people whose choice were taken from them.

Was it difficult to write about these historical events in a fictional way?

What was difficult was to write the book in a way that was not sentimental, that showed real life and real characters, and being fully true to their actual destinies. Not trying to find closure at any cost, which so many books about the Holocaust do. If my novel is compelling I believe it is because the writer is not trying to take the reader by the hand and tell him/her what he/she shall feel about the events depicted. It portrays actions and characters as they actually were. It leaves the interpretation and the question of how to judge Rumkowski to the reader.

The book is filled with fascinating characters. Were some of them real people?

The character of Helena Rumkowska is based in a real character, with which I have taken some liberties. Her excesses are quite well-documented. Adam Rzepin and his sister are totally fictitious. In general terms, characters in the book which had an official function in the ghetto appear under their real names, although it has to be remembered that they appear here as characters in a novel.

Steve Sem-Sandberg

BOOK: ” Emperor of Lies”

SESSION: 1 p.m., Nov. 14