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Steve Sem-Sandberg, De fattiga i Lodz (The Destitute of Lodz)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2009. ISBN: 9789100122669

Reviewed by Anna Paterson in SBR 2010:1

English Translation: The Emperor of Lies, translated by Sarah Death. Faber and Faber, 2011. ISBN 9780571259205.

Steve Sem-Sandberg’s novel The Destitute of Lódz reached the bookshops in September 2009; within a few days, the book-buying public as well as the critics had turned it into a literary sensation. Barely two months later, this weighty, serious case study of oppression was selected as the winner of the August Prize, the most prestigious of Swedish literary awards. All of which is exceptional. The author had previously written interesting, insightful novels, most recently about other instances of political chaos and human suffering in twentieth-century Europe, but never a bestseller with this reach. The narrative is drawn from documentation of the ghetto in the Polish city of Lodz, a closed world of displaced Jews, as alien and as terrifying as a medieval leper colony. By the end of 1939, a large chunk of western Poland had been incorporated into the expanding German Reich, with Germanisation and ghettoisation projects running in parallel. Lodz, one of the principal cities, was recast as Litzmannstadt, a model urban development. Ethnic Germans were shipped in, outranking and displacing the original citizens. Everyone suffered, but only the Jews were systematically robbed of all they owned (‘destitution’ was part of the plan) and incarcerated behind makeshift walls in a run-down part of town. It is only too easy to see why this captive population listened when their German-appointed Elder, Chaim Rumkowski, insisted that their only salvation lay in working for the war effort. Slave labour was just what their new overlords had in mind, at least in the initial stages of meeting the objective known as ‘solving the Jewish problem’. Rumkowski is a central character and an arresting, troubling figure. The lonely charity organiser in his sixties changed almost overnight into a tirelessly active, autocratic chief executive, running an administration ready and able to take on whatever tasks the Germans demanded. ‘His’ ghetto turned into a place of remarkably successful industry. Despite the general poverty, it was a complete class society of haves and have-nots, which sustained a House of Culture, but also – presumably with the Elder’s tacit knowledge – brothels, dungeons and torture cells. Where other Jewish leaders fought back (and invariably lost), Rumkowski calculatedly submitted, but there was more to him than wheeling and dealing. He stayed faithful, after a fashion, to his visionary dreams of a freed Jewish people and acted with determined pragmatism. At first, when the Germans seemed invincible, negotiating was the prudent option. Later, when even the ghetto had picked up rumours of a likely defeat, there was a theoretical chance of rescue. The constants of starvation and illness, and the increasing toll of the deportations (carried out with vicious assistance from the Elder’s mini-state apparatus) had reduced the ghetto population from about 300,000 to 78,000, but Rumkowski – ‘[who] raised uncertainty into a state ideology’ – still told himself that he might well save many more lives than the leaders of the rebellious Warsaw ghetto. Sem-Sandberg’s multi-faceted portrayal of Rumkowski is a fascinating display of the novelist’s skill. The old man’s simplicity, neediness and arrogance, sustained by visionary fantasies, merge into a complex whole that is both human and grotesque. The touch is sure, lightened by humour: ‘Yahweh needed seven days to create and order the world. It took Rumkowski three months.’ There are many other vivid portraits of the ghetto people. Some are only glimpsed as they work, play, go mad, submit, fight back or oppress. Others emerge from the crowds and come alive in interlocking stories, written with irony, insight and compassion: Feldman, a resourceful gardener and gravedigger; Vera, the cool, urbane woman from Prague; Benji, a crazed philosopher and resistance man; Rosa, doomed to care. Little Staszek, his mind twisted out of shape by a predatory Rumkowski, and Samstag, who may or may not have been a born psychopath, but also Adam, loyal, inventive and instinctively brave, a living affirmation of all that the evil-doings of others make us doubt. He is a survivor, but we are not allowed to hope for reconciliation. During the last days of the ghetto, he, too, dies. In the end we’re all dead, that’s true; then, what matters are the records we kept. The twentieth-century upheavals have proved sources of creative inspiration not only because we still feel part of the historical drama, but also because human conflicts seem more sharply defined, just like the ‘real life’ scenes caught by photographic reportage. Sem-Sandberg uses a variety of sources – official documents, personal diaries and, indeed, photographs – to stay consistent with the brief he set himself: ‘I had to make my own choices ... above all I wanted to tell of life in this illusory world, this pseudo-world’. He achieves a paradoxically wide insight into what he calls ‘the mechanisms of oppression’ by intently focusing on an isolated group, connected to the world outside only by hearsay, scraps of information gleaned from stolen German newspapers and forbidden BBC broadcasts. Lumping individuals into a crowd is one such oppressive device; the cover photograph, taken by a keen German photographer, shows grey people, defined by the yellow stars on their chests, milling about in a cobbled ghetto street. A heart-rending image of a collective, but what matters is to observe each individual member. Victimhood is not a single, uniformly pitiable state. One of the many triumphs of this book is that it shows how the mechanics of persecution operate within a society of the persecuted.

Anna Paterson

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