The only way to demonstrate the soul of Chaim Rumkowski is through a novel, explains Swedish author Steve Sem-Sandberg. In Emperor of Lies (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) Sem-Sandberg gives a gripping and grim account of the Lodz Ghetto and its boss Chaim Rumkowski.
Months after conquering Poland and parts of the Soviet Union, the Nazis ordered the Jews into ghettos, usually fenced in and sealed, and located in the poorest parts of a city. The Nazis held the Jews in ghettos until they could be deported to concentration camps and ultimate death. As native Jews were moved out of the ghettos, their places were filled by Jews evacuated from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia.
The Nazis appointed a Judenrat (Jewish Council) to oversee the civil administration of the ghetto, taking care of food distribution, public health, housing, social services and policing. Persons appointed to the Judenrat had little choice but to serve. Even if the members had good intentions, they ended up carrying out Nazi orders.
The Nazis found their ultimate collaborator in Chaim Rumkowski, a businessman and director of the largest orphanage in Lodz. They appointed him Eldest of the Jews of Lodz.
Rumkowski devised a survival strategy. He turned the Lodz Ghetto into an industrial complex—a city of workers—manufacturing uniforms, military equipment and consumer goods for the Germans. Rumkowski hoped that Lodz would be so productive and so valuable that the Germans would never liquidate the ghetto.
He was wrong. In July and August 1944, the Lodz Ghetto was liquidated. Rumkowski and his family were placed on the last train to Auschwitz, where he died.
Sem-Sandberg bases his fictional account of the Lodz Ghetto on the daily Chronicle published by the Judenrat, diaries left behind in the Ghetto, memoirs and interviews with survivors. However, one cannot distinguish actual events from incidents made up by the author.
Nevertheless, the character portrayed by Sem-Sandberg is clear, strong and disgusting. Rumkowski was not a politician. He was a stooge of the Germans and dictator over the Jews. He carried out German orders. He had little bargaining power with the oppressors. He directed the Ghetto administration to prepare lists of Jews for deportation.
Rumkowski was corrupt. Compared to the other Ghetto residents, Rumkowski lived like a king. He had adequate food, clothes and at least two residences. He gave his friends and family jobs in the Ghetto administration. He was a child molester and sexual predator. He built a cult of personality. His face appeared on postage stamps. Automobiles were banned inside the ghetto. He was driven around in a fancy carriage drawn by a white horse.
Lodz Ghetto postage stamp shows picture of Rumkowski. The Germans renamed the city Litzmannstadt.
Ultimately, Rumkowski’s strategy failed. When the Russians arrived in Lodz in January 1945, only 800 of the 200,000 Jews who once lived in the Ghetto, remained. They were detailed to dismantling the industrial equipment and cleaning up the Ghetto, before they themselves would have been deported.
Chaim Rumkowski, The Emperor of Lies, exemplifies the evil of collaboration.
Steve Sen-Sandberg discusses book at Kansas City Public Library.