Book excerpt

The Emperor of Lies

A Novel

Steve Sem-Sandberg; Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death

Farrar, Straus and Giroux


© Lódz City Archive

The ghetto: as flat as a saucepan lid between the thundercloud blue of the sky and the cement grey of the earth.

If geographical barriers were no concern, it could go on for ever: a jumble of buildings on the verge of rising up out of their ruins or tumbling back in again. But the real extent of the ghetto only becomes fully obvious once you are inside the rough barrier of planks and barbed wire that the Germans have put up all around it.

If it were, in spite of everything – from the air, for example – possible to create an image of the ghetto for yourself, you would clearly see that it consists of two halves or lobes.

The eastern lobe is the larger of the two. It extends from Baluty Square and the old church square with the Church of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary in the middle – its tall, twin spires could be seen from everywhere – through the remains of what was once the ‘old town’ of Lódz and out to the garden suburb of Marysin.

Before the war, Marysin was little more than a run-down area of allotments and small dwellings, filled in with a random collection of huts and workshops, pigsties and outbuildings. After the ghetto was cut off from the surrounding area, Marysin’s little plots of land and cottages have been turned into an area of summerhouses and convalescent homes for the ruling elite of the ghetto.

Also situated in Marysin is the big Jewish cemetery and, on the other side of the fence, the railway yard at Radogoszcz where the heaviest goods and materials arrive. Units of the Schutzpolizei, the same force that guards the ghetto round the clock, lead brigades of Jewish workers from the ghetto every morning to help load and unload at the platform, and the same police company ensures all workers are led back into the ghetto at the end of the working day.

The eastern lobe of the ghetto comprises all the districts east and north of the main thoroughfare of Zgierska Street. All through traffic, including Lódz’s north–south tram link, is routed through this street, which is guarded by German police at virtually every street corner. Of the ghetto’s three, wooden-vaulted bridges, the two busiest cross Zgierska Street. The first bridge is down by the Old Square. The second bridge, called Hohe Brücke by the Germans, goes from the stone base of the church of St Mary over Lutomierska Street to the other side of Kirchplatz. The wastern lobe comprises the districts round the old Jewish cemetery and Bazarowa Square where the old synagogue (now converted into stables) once stood. The four blocks of flats in the ghetto that have running water are located in this area.

Another main road, Limanowskiego Street, leads into the ghetto from the west, thus cutting the western lobe into two smaller sections, a northern and a southern. Here there is a lesser-used wooden bridge: the bridge at Masarska Street.

In the middle of the ghetto, at the point where the two main streets, Zgierska and Limanowskiego, meet, lies Baluty Square. You could call this square the stomach of the ghetto. All the materials the ghetto needs are digested here, and then taken on to its resorty, the factories and larger workshops. And it is from here that most of the products of the ghetto’s factories and workshops go out. Baluty Square is the only neutral zone in the ghetto where Germans and Jews meet, totally isolated, surrounded by barbed wire, with only two permanently guarded ‘gates’: one to Lagniewnicka Street and one out into ‘Aryan’ Litzmannstadt at Zgierska Street.

The German ghetto administration also has a local office at Baluty Square, a handful of barrack buildings back to back with Rumkowski’s Secretariat: Headquarters, as it is popularly known. Here, too, is the Central Labour Office (Centralne Biuro Resortów Pracy), headed by Aron Jakubowicz, who coordinates labour in the resorty of the ghetto and is ultimately responsible for all production and trade with the German authorities.

A transitional zone.

A no man’s or, perhaps one should say, an everyman’s land in the midst of this strictly monitored Jewish land, to which both Germans and Jews have access, the latter however only on condition that they can produce a valid pass.

Or perhaps simply the specific pain node at the heart of the ghetto that is the explanation of the ghetto’s whole existence. This gigantic collection of dilapidated, unhygienic buildings around what is basically nothing but a huge export depot.

THE EMPEROR OF LIES Copyright © 2009, 2011 by Steve Sem-Sandberg

Steve Sem-Sandberg was born in 1958. He divides his time between Vienna and Stockholm.