From the Archives: Embossed Coins
By Steve Sem-Sandberg
Trans. From the Swedish by Sarah Death
Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2011
In his novel The Emperor of Lies, first published to critical acclaim in Sweden in 2009, Steve Sem-Sandberg tells the story of the historical figure Chaim Rumkowski, the Eldest of the Jews in the Łódź ghetto. After Poland’s conquest by the Third Reich, Łódź —which had been the centre of the Polish textile industry—was renamed Liztmannstadt, after Karl Litzmann, a German general who defeated the Russians near the city in World War I. In 1939, Jews made up more than a third of the city’s population of 672,000. As part of their plans to “Aryanize” the city, the Nazis at first envisioned a Jewish ghetto that would function as a transit point for deportation rather than as a place where anyone would live for any length of time. But those plans were soon altered: by May 1940, the ghetto was sealed off; the city’s remaining 160,000 Jews were crammed into a space of no more than five square kilometers. Yet this space was, comparatively speaking, large. In size, the Litzmannstadt ghetto was second only to the one in Warsaw. In duration, it had no rival—its final inhabitants were deported as late as August 1944, shortly before the arrival of the Soviet army. Among those final inhabitants was its Chairman or Praeses, Chaim Rumkowski; he and his family were gassed at Auschwitz.
The story of Rumkowski and the Łódź ghetto has been told before, most significantly by Primo Levi. His version is the one through which all other accounts, even fictional ones like Sem-Sandberg’s, must pass. Levi, an Italian Jew who survived Auschwitz and spent the rest of his life as a chemist and a writer, was preoccupied late in his life by what he calls “the Rumkowski case.” He recounted it twice, once in 1981 in a volume of autobiographical essays called Moments of Reprieve and, five years later, with minor variations, in his final collection, The Drowned and the Saved. Levi’s discussion of Rumkowski is seven pages long; Sem-Sandberg’s is almost 700. In some ways, he offers much more than Levi. His novel is sweeping: its chronology is intricate and its cast of characters vast; it reproduces documents of the period, such as maps, official memoranda and letters, and transcripts of speeches and diary entries. But in more important ways Sem-Sandberg offers less. In particular, he doesn’t take advantage of the things that a fictional representation of a historical situation can do. The problems exist at the level of both execution (weak characterization, confusing chronology, and banal prose) and conception (its indebtedness to a naïve notion of realism means that it is damningly unselfconscious about the fraught task of fictionalizing the Holocaust).
In this regard, the novel feels like a missed opportunity. Certainly, the historical events on which it is based are remarkable. Rumkowski, in Levi’s words, was “a failed minor industrialist,” an “energetic, uncultivated, and authoritarian man.” By the time of the war, Rumkowski was known in Jewish Łódź as a philanthropist of sorts; he directed a number of charities, including an orphanage. But Rumkowski’s standing in the community was in no way commensurate to his rapid rise to power. Indeed no one is certain how he became the leader of the Judenrat—the council of the Jews (the Nazis required that such councils manage local Jewish communities; in so doing they perverted the long existing phenomenon of the kehila, Jewish self-governing community councils that had existed for centuries). Levi attributes this surprising turn of events to Rumkowski’s love of authority. He also suggests, however, that it could have been a shrewd decision on the part of the Nazis, to whom “Rumkowski was, or seemed to be, a fool with an air of respectability—in short, the ideal dupe.” Levi’s hesitation here—“seemed to be”—is his own as much as it is a ventriloquism of the Nazi perspective: what makes Rumkowski a fascinating historical figure is the ambivalence he incites in others. That response stems from the ambivalence of Rumkowski’s own position.
Levi argues that Rumkowski identified with the oppressed as much as with the oppressor, because he was both. The real head of the ghetto, its chief administrator, was a German functionary named Hans Biebow. Biebow—“a small jackal too cynical to take race demonology seriously,” according to Levi—had the sole contract to sell the products of the ghetto to the German government. As such, it was in his interest to keep the ghetto running; the best way to do that was to keep Rumkowski. For Rumkowski held on to the idea that the ghetto and its inhabitants could be saved by making itself indispensible to the Nazi war effort. Under Rumkowski’s direction, hundreds of small factories were established, which, manned by two 12-hour shifts of workers, produced everything from uniforms to bullets for the Reich. Long after other ghettos had been “liquidated,” their inhabitants sent to extermination camps across Poland, Łódź provided work, and thus a subsistence-level existence, for thousands of Jews.
The ghetto’s productivity came at great cost, however. Food was poor and limited, hunger and disease widespread. Levi notes that each worker received rations averaging 800 calories per day, even though “at last two thousand are needed to survive in a condition of total repose.” Dissent against Rumkowski’s regime, provoked by these depredations, was rigorously suppressed—by a Jewish police force. (Strikes and other protests did break out on more than one occasion, though these invariably led to harsher conditions.) Most seriously, the continued life of the ghetto could be purchased only at the cost of regular deportations, of its elderly, its sick, and its children. Eventually, “able-bodied” workers were also deported. Claims that deportees would be taken to “rest camps” were fictions that even at the time few believed; the trains took the deportees directly to the extermination camp at Chelmno. These deportations became more frequent as the war continued, until, with the German army in full retreat on the Eastern front, the ghetto’s final liquidation was initiated in the late summer of 1944. Only about a thousand of its remaining inhabitants were kept behind to dismantle whatever machinery could be shipped back to the ever-shrinking Reich. Rumkowski himself was not among them: he and his family were deported to Auschwitz, despite the letter of protection that, according to some accounts (including Sem-Sandberg’s) Biebow provided Rumkowski.
Levi always refers to these facts as “the Rumkowksi case.” The phrase offers in miniature the complexity we find in Levi but not in Sem-Sandberg. To speak in this context of a “case” is to speak at once of a psychological profile or investigation, of a situation, and of a mystery or crime. The “case” of Rumkowski is in the first sense a matter of an individual whose motivations could be established, in the second sense a matter of a general state of affairs extending beyond the individual, and in the third sense a matter to be solved. With typical economy, Levi thereby points to a central ambiguity in any attempt to make sense of the events in Łódź—is the object of our investigation a man or a place, an individual or a general structure? Sem-Sandberg’s title misleadingly suggests the former, but the trajectory of his book suggests the latter. In fact, Rumkowski hardly appears in the last third of the book. Why, then, isn’t the novel called The Empire (rather than the Emperor) of Lies? The first sentence of the first section of the novel doesn’t feature Rumkowski, or indeed any character: “The ghetto: as flat as a saucepan lid between the thundercloud blue of the sky and the cement grey of the earth.” The problem here isn’t the fact of that ambiguity: undoubtedly we must shuttle between individual and structure, especially when the former so closely tied himself to the latter. After all, Rumkowski presented himself as the father of and to the ghetto, both the originator of the idea that productivity could ensure its salvation and the protector of its inhabitants. The problem instead is the novel’s lack of clarity about how it, as a work of fiction, wishes to understand the relation between individual and structure.
The novel’s portrayal of Rumkowski is oddly hazy. Early on, we are given a single anecdote, surely apocryphal, from Rumkowski’s childhood. The boy Rumkowski runs to his teacher to rat out some classmates who have waded into a forbidden, dangerous stretch of river. Instead of being praised as a rescuer, Rumkowski is punished, first by the teacher, who disparages him for turning informant, and later by the children, who throw stones at him. This is the only direct presentation of Rumkowski‘s childhood, and a moment that Sem-Sandberg has chosen to invent. We might expect it to offer clues to the novel’s attitude toward its sometime protagonist. One such clue might be the anecdote’s conclusion, which describes what the adult Rumkowski took from the experience—his feeling of being a prisoner, trapped in a cage (just as he would later be in the ghetto, or perhaps, just as he would later entrap others):
Yes, over and over again (even in front of ‘his own’ children) he would come back to that barred cage with spaces through which stones and sticks were perpetually thrown or poked at him and he was a prisoner with nowhere to retreat to and no means of protecting himself.
The opening “yes” suggests that this is Rumkowski’s point of view. But the parenthesis with the scare quotes around “his own” suggests it is in fact the omniscient narrator’s. Either way, the novel sets up a potentially telling moment here, but does not return to it. It alluded to only once more. Even the image of the cage is taken up again only twice. The passage suggests that Rumkoski returns to this incident “over and over again,” but the novel doesn’t show him doing this. What are we to make of this discrepancy? Is the emperor lying to himself here about the significance of this incident to his later life? Or has the narrator simply neglected it? It’s impossible to tell. Sem-Sandberg has introduced a moment, flagged it as central, but then failed to mine its potential.
The sense of missed opportunity afflicts the rest of the novel’s characterizations. Most of the characters—and there are so many that it’s hard to keep track of them; readers will be grateful for the extended list presented as an appendix—fit into one of three families. There is Rumkowski’s own, including his wife Regina, whom he married in 1941, and his son Stanislaw, adopted in 1942 (each of whom rapidly disintegrates mentally through his or her intimacy with what the novel depicts as Rumkowski’s corrosive presence). There are the Schulzs, assimilated Jews from Prague who have been deported to the ghetto, including the daughter Vera, who finds work at the Department of Statistics, partly to escape the mad delusions of her mother. And there are the Rzepins, Polish Jews who suffer a series of misfortunes, including the mental illness of their daughter (only their son, Adam, who goes into hiding, survives for any length of time). The historical characters appear surprisingly fleetingly. In addition to Rumkowski, the most vivid ones are his sister-in-law Helena Rumkowska (half Marie Antoinette, half Dickens’s Miss Flite, she lives in a cocooned world of privilege, obsessed with her pet birds) and his wife, Regina (Ruchla) Rumkowska. She enters the novel, and Rumkowski’s life, as a capable, passionate attorney, only to be reduced to a ghost of her former self once she marries Rumkowski; unfortunately, she is unaccountably absent from most of the second half of the novel. The invented characters get most of our attention, especially Vera Schulz and Adam Rzepin, and they function less as fully realized individuals then as placeholders that allow Sem-Sandberg to describe different aspects of ghetto life.
That panorama of ghetto life is the best thing about The Emperor of Lies. We see its political ferment—competing notions of Zionism, Marxism, socialism, trade unionism, messianism, all of which threaten Rumkowski’s leadership and are crushed by (sometimes violent) repression and, even more effectively, by the hunger and deprivation that rapidly become the dominating forces in the ghetto; its social tensions, especially between Yiddish-speaking Polish and East European Jews and German-speaking, largely assimilated Jews from Vienna and Prague who were deported to Łódź in the Autumn of 1941; its bureaucratic and governing structures, including its currency, its postal system, its morticians, its orphanages, its medical system, and its statisticians.
But these are things we might have learned from a history of the ghetto. And learned more elegantly, too. The novel suffers from having to offer a lot of clunky exposition, like this description of Rumkowski’s early political beliefs: “He was a long-standing member of the Zionist Organization, Theodor Herzl’s party, but more for practical convenience than out of any burning belief in the Zionist cause.” Here as elsewhere the language is flat and graceless; in addition to the cliché of “burning belief” there is the clunky apposition explaining that the Zionist party is Herzl’s. Some critics, most notably Simon Schama, have criticized The Emperor of Lies for being weak history. Schama extends his criticism to the very enterprise of fictionalizing the Holocaust. In this he follows the lead of Elie Wiesel who once claimed “that a novel about Treblinka is either not a novel or not about Treblinka.” Against fiction, Wiesel privileged testimony, which, he says, promises the only immediate and thus genuine account of the event.
What is true of non-fictional representations of the Holocaust is of course also true of fictional ones, and the best examples of Holocaust fiction are the ones most self-conscious about the fact of that mediation. To my mind, for instance, two of the most effective examples of Holocaust fiction are David Albahari’s Götz and Meyer and W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, which concludes with a description of the Łódź ghetto. These are fictions that sometimes seem not to be fictions, texts that we might have a hard time classifying and that make productive use of this ambiguity to call attention to the challenges of representing the Holocaust in the first place. These challenges have to do with the extremity and enormity of the event. The Holocaust is a limit experience, felt by both perpetrators and victims alike, by virtue of its scope, horror, and magnitude, to be unrepresentable. Any successful—and just—representation of the Holocaust must therefore grapple with the fundamental incongruity, if not impossibility, of its own existence. The result will inevitably be a representation that is highly aware of itself as representation. Pace Wiesel, then, I believe the Holocaust can be the subject of fiction, and that fictional representations can be just as critically thought-provoking as historical or non-fictional accounts—but only when they achieve this level of self-conscious reflection.
Realism, considered as a mode of representation that seeks to efface its status as such, is not adequate to the demands of representing the Holocaust. Sem-Sandberg’s largely realist novel thus comes across as rather naïve in the corpus of Holocaust literature. Even aspects that might contest that realism aren’t offered for any necessary reason. The most important of these is the novel’s narrative structure. It begins by reproducing the official, classified memo that authorized the establishment of the ghetto, including its Jewish self-government. It then jumps forward, in its first scene, to 1942, when Rumkowski explains to the ghetto’s inhabitants that their children must be deported. It then moves backward to 1940; this chronological scrambling continues throughout the rest of the novel, which proceeds in zigzag fashion, culminating—in suitably subdued, even ironic fashion, since it came too late for most of its inhabitants—with the liberation of the ghetto by the Red Army. But this chronological play is more confusing than illuminating; it isn’t, for example, offered in imitation of the confusion of the period.
The novel’s failure to be more self-conscious is all the more surprising given that it incorporates so many other texts into its narrative. These include quoted excerpts from Rumkowski’s speeches, memoranda from the Nazi overseers, often cited in full, even lyrics from the songs performed in the ghetto cabarets. Sem-Sandberg has naturalized these documents rather than used them as incitements to reflect on his own task of representation, as when he uses an excerpt from the Ghetto Chronicle describing the bar mitzvah of Rumkowski’s adopted son as an introduction to his own depiction of that event. (At least he cites that instance; earlier in the text the curt heading “diary entry” introduces a page-long passage that might be from an actual document of the period, but the passage is not credited to any source, so we can’t be sure.) That is, the documents are there to underwrite or legitimate his narrative rather than to examine what that narrative is and is not able to do. At times, he relies on the authority of documents to give spurious authenticity to his suppositions, as when he switches to dialogue marked in a different sized font. Consider the dramatic moment of Rumkowski’s deportation, when the administrator Biebow forces the Chairman into a cattle car:
Biebow: So it’s time to go, then.
Chairman: But it was agreed we would have our own transport.
Biebow: This is the transport.
Chairman (digging in the inside pocket of his jacket): But it was agreed…?
Biebow: I don’t know what agreement you are talking about. There is a transport leaving Litzmannstadt now, and this is it.
This is presented as a kind of transcript, when in fact, as the parenthetical “stage direction” suggests, it is imagined. But why the shift from narration to dialogue and back to narration? Sem-Sandberg doesn’t have a consistent attitude to his historical material, sometimes incorporating it directly into his text and sometimes aping it.
In the absence of such a theory and its accompanying self-reflection, the novel leans on explicit, shocking presentations of extreme behaviour (criminality, violence, mental illness, sexual deviance), as if to counter its inability to come to conclusions about the real explicit, shocking thing—the very fact of the ghetto’s existence and its part in the so-called Final Solution. Most controversially, Sem-Sandberg presents Rumkowski’s philanthropic interest in children as anything but high-minded; in particular, he characterizes Rumkowski’s relationship with his son, Staszek, whom he “rescued” from the orphanage and legally adopted, as sexually exploitative and pedophilic. (Here he is supported by recent additions to the historical record.) Here is his account of Staszek’s response to Rumkowski’s advances:
What baffled Staszek was not how the different parts of the Chairmanly body could be combined in one figure, but what happened to the other parts in the meantime. Where, for example, did the happy and high-spirited Praeses go, the one who slapped his knee and broke into loud, shrill laughter, like a mechanical toy? And what happened in the interim to the troubled Praeses, who talked to Staszek as if to a little adult about war and ghetto business? Or the cunning Praeses, with the cold, calculating, shifty eyes of a predator?
Given that Staszek has been presented as shrewd, but rather inarticulate, almost feral, this free indirect discourse isn’t very convincing. We can imagine that he’s heard Rumkowski use the term “ghetto business.” But it’s more of a stretch that he would characterize the Chairman’s moods as happy and high-spirited or troubled. And how do those psychological moods relate to the physical body, let alone the poetic phrase the “Chairmanly body,” which the child would also be unlikely to use? Are we to imagine that Rumkowski himself has used the phrases? Sem-Sandberg prefers to slide over such difficulties and linger over sensationalized descriptions of the violence Rumkowski does to the child. The passage ends with him cuffing Staszek “until his head was swimming, and [he] threw up and was left sitting in his own vomit, which was as grey and colourless as the pigeon droppings piling up against the outside of the window to the courtyard.” Descriptions like this misplace the general sordidness of the ghetto, and the disgustingness of what happened to the Jews. The connection between the human vomit inside the room and the animal excrement outside suggest a false analogy between this (horrific, to be sure) instance of domestic abuse and the genocide of a people vilified in Nazi rhetoric as vermin.
Sem-Sandberg has thought most carefully about what he wants to say in the afterword to the novel. In discussing the sources he used in its composition, he is most aware of the relation between testimony and fiction that accompanies every literary representation of the Holocaust. Similarly, the novel itself comes most alive in its descriptions of the way that the Statistics Department, initially established by Rumkowski in 1940 as an instrument of control, became an invaluable, heroic site of covert resistance. The Department provided the ghetto administration with daily briefings, most importantly on the fluctuations of population, through death, birth and deportation. It also produced a chronicle of ghetto life, a document that, by the end of the war, numbered some three thousand pages. As time went on, especially after the arrival in 1941 of several journalists used to working under conditions of censorship, the Chronicle becomes, as Sem-Sandberg puts it in the Afterword, “less formulaic and more polyphonic; other genres are introduced, and even critical voices begin to make themselves heard (often in the form of satire).” Sem-Sandberg is rightly fascinated by this enterprise, and his descriptions of its creation, and the secret resistance work organized by the Department of Statistics—the interpolation of messages of resistance into official documents, the maps of the Allied war effort drawn from the reports made by a series of clandestine short wave radio listeners–is the closest he comes to reflecting on the possibilities of his own representational enterprise.
More often, however, the novel is lumbering rather than stealthy. That crudeness or lack of nuance is at odds with the legacy of Rumkowski, who fascinates because he challenges long-cherished assumptions about the moral clarity of the Holocaust. We might think we know who is good and who is bad, who a victim and who a perpetrator. Faced with a figure like Rumkowski, however, we must think in more discomfiting ways. Sem-Sandberg certainly helps us to see and feel that ambiguity. But for help in understanding that ambiguity we would do well to turn back to Levi. He begins his reflections on Rumkowski by describing a “curious coin of light alloy” that he found in his pocket upon his return from Auschwitz. (Those who have read The Reawakening, in which he recounts his struggle to return to Italy from Poland in the chaos of postwar Europe, know how much is elided in that nonchalant statement.) Levi continues:
Scratched and corroded, on one side it has the Hebrew star (the “shield of David”), the date 1943, and the word getto; on the other side is the inscription QUITTUNG UBER 10 MARK and DER ALTESTE DER JUDEN IN LITZMANNSTADT, that is, respectively, Receipt for ten marks and The elder of the Jews in Litzmannstadt. In short, it was a coin for internal ghetto use.
In the second version of his essay, Levi says he “forgot about its existence” for many years; a statement belied by his fascination with the story and by his claim in the first version that, after not paying attention to it, “for some time [he] carried it in [his] change purse, perhaps inadvertently attributing to it the value of a good luck charm.” Later, in both versions, Levi again returns to Rumkowski’s money, explaining that he got permission from the German authorities “to mint currency—both in metal (that coin of mine) and on watermarked paper that was officially supplied him.” Levi uses this fact, like the postage stamps Rumkowski commissioned with his likeness, like the carriage with his title on it that took him around the ghetto, like the speeches he delivered to his “people”, to show the similarities between Rumkowski and the other autocratic rulers of the period. Indeed, Rumkowski’s money (called “Rumkies” in ghetto parlance) appears regularly in descriptions of his curious case. Hannah Arendt, for example, who in Eichmann in Jerusalem condemned him as the most reprehensible example of the complicity of the Jewish councils, cites the “currency notes bearing his signature” as her primary example of his megalomania.
Sem-Sandberg, too, refers to this money, in greatest length in a scene at the end of the novel in which Adam Rzepin emerges from his hiding place in the cellar of a garden nursery to find the ghetto deserted. In an abandoned house
He came across some money in the bottom of some drawers. Rumkies. The three drawers of a cabinet had all been lined with oilcloth, tacked into place, and under the oilcloth were banknotes, hundreds of them, carefully smoothed flat so that not even the tiniest bulge showed. He stood there with the worthless ghetto marks in his hand, and when he thought about somebody scrimping and saving year after year to amass all this ridiculous paper currency in the belief that they would be able to buy something with it one day, he began to chuckle. He tottered from room to room for a while with the worthless notes in his hand, hooting and cackling with laughter. Eventually he made himself calm down. If he carried on like this, wasting his energy on hysterical outbursts, he would soon have no strength left.
Levi tells his story of the coin as a way to introduce the idea of judgment, not only the particular judgment of Rumkowski that he will level in the course of the essay, but also, more importantly, the value of judgment itself. For Levi, judgment is at once necessary and impossible, at least when it comes to those who inhabit the indeterminate region between victim and perpetrator that he names “the gray zone.” Sem-Sandberg emphazises the futility, the falseness, even the madness of the currency and the man who is metonymically associated with it. But here too he struggles to ties this point to his narrative—indeed, the development of the plot isn’t advanced by this moment, and this moment too serves more as exposition. The obvious point about the money’s uselessness is made painfully clear rather than being let to stand for itself. Sem-Sandberg assumes that the money, because it no longer means what it once did, is entirely meaningless, that its meaning has been liquidated along with Adam’s strength.
Here, at any rate, it might seem that an essay is a much more efficient way of detailing the Rumkowski case than a novel. But my interest in comparing these descriptions isn’t to arraign the idea of Holocaust fiction. Rather, it is to note that, as elsewhere in the novel, Sem-Sandberg can only indicate the intolerable ironies of the situation by gesturing toward an extreme, sensationalized psychological state, “the “hooting and cackling” that gets redescribed in pathological terms as an instance of “hysterical outbursts” (the plural form, where what we see here is only a singular instance, heightens that diagnostic quality and is another instance of the novel’s portentousness). The passage ends with Adam’s insistence to himself, described through free indirect discourse, that he calm down, repudiate that excess, presumably for a clearheadedness that is translated into a corporeal rather than psychological term, “strength.” The passage and the section of the chapter end with this sentence. The difference between Levi and Sem-Sandberg is that the former is always in a position to reflect and analyze, whereas the latter only ever brings us to that position before abandoning it. As always in his work, Levi in these essays seeks to understand the Holocaust as at once a particular, historical phenomenon and as a universal possibility. The resonance of Levi’s work stems from the tension between these two tendencies, where the paradoxically sober, even rational telling of an irrational experience serves his never-fully abandoned belief in a humanism based on ideals of reason. Thus when Levi concludes his essay by universalizing Rumkowski—“we are all mirrored in Rumkowski, his ambiguity is ours”—he does so in the insistence that we make sense of the senselessness that modern forms of authority drive us towards.
In the end, it is no surprise that Sem-Sandberg describes paper currency while Levi emphasizes the coin. The currency has an even more attenuated relation to truth; it is a signifier that floats even further from its referent than the coin, which is at least a “light alloy.” But the coin might help us to remember Nietzsche’s claim in “On Truth and Lies in an Extramoral Sense” that “truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions—they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins.” Levi’s coin is indeed only metal. But in holding on to it, in excavating its history, in reflecting on its debased power, we gain a critical power in a handful of pages and a single coin that is sadly lacking in Sem-Sandberg’s hundreds of pages and paper banknotes.
Dorian Stuber is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Hendrix College, where he teaches British Modernism and Holocaust Literature.