Wasn’t It Bad Enough?

The Emperor of Lies
Steve Sem-Sandberg
Farrar, Straus & Grioux, $30, 664 pp.

The Lodz ghetto was the second largest Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland, with some 230,000 residents at the time of its establishment, to whom in 1941 the Nazis added about 20,000 Jewish Czech refugees. After their invasion of Poland, the Nazis ringed the ghetto with barbed wire and armed guards, and appointed a Jewish leader, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the so-called Chairman, or Eldest of the Jews. The Chairman ran the ghetto like a company town, overseeing a set of factories that helped produce materials for the German war machine, and assisting in the selections that led to the transportation of the old, the sick, and the young to concentration camps.

Rumkowski had a police force under his supervision, a prison, and a bureaucratic administration with thousands of employees. The Lodz ghetto had its own currency, named after Rumkowski, and the ghetto’s postage stamps bore his face. There was a daily paper, The Ghetto Chronicle, that reported his speeches and his doings. Rumkowski believed (or claimed to believe) that if the Jews of Lodz could prove their usefulness to the Germans, then their lives in significant numbers would be spared. He was wrong. At the end of the war there were fewer than a thousand survivors. Nearly a quarter-million people were killed, either by starvation, disease, or systematic murder.

The story of Lodz has been chronicled in novels by ghetto survivors, including...

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About the Author

Gabriel Brownstein, associate professor of English at St. John’s University, is the author of two works of fiction. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W (W. W. Norton & Co.) won the PEN/Hemingway Award in 2002. His novel The Man from Beyond (W. W. Norton & Co.) was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice, and one of Booklist’s Top 10 Historical Novels in 2005.