King of the Jews

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Creating a fictional account of one facet of life during the terrible years of the Jewish Holocaust may, to some, seem an impossible task. How, one could ask, is it possible to explain the horror of mass killing? How is it possible to deal with the absolute brutality of the persecutors—men and women who, it is always said, were part of a sophisticated European culture—while doing justice to those millions who perished at their hands? To be sure, the historical record is replete with primary materials that accent the horror: diaries, official documents scrupulously kept by the killers, testimonials written or spoken by the survivors, and the matter-of-fact documentation gathered by the Nuremberg Tribunal at the end of World War II. We know the facts; yet in spite of their existence, we are continually stunned by them.

Leslie Epstein’s novel King of the Jews attempts to make the Holocaust not so much an understandable historical phenomenon rendered via fiction but instead a horrible event that can be approached through the experiences of one man whose contradictory actions as head of a ghetto Judenrat—a council of Jewish leaders established by the Nazis to serve as a shadow governing body for the Jews enclosed within—involve him in the Holocaust. Isaiah Chaim Trumpelman, the chief Jewish elder of the novel’s fictional Judenrat in the town in Balut, Poland, becomes, in fact, the ironic “King of the Jews,” a human being caught up in a universe where horrendous moral choices must be made.

Epstein’s Trumpelman exists in a world that literally comes apart: there is little sense of morality in the environment that is being destroyed by the Nazis. To a large extent, however, Trumpelman’s tale is a kind of moral fable intended to depict a system in which survival is the sole concern for many and compromise with the persecutors and the killers becomes a way of life. Trumpelman, with his shadowy past—he arrives from a host of places to make his mark as a physician with dubious credentials—is a flamboyant concoction of sophistication and pomposity, of eagerly offered kindness and shrewd manipulation. He is a survivor himself, a man who has managed to make a partial peace with life and who becomes the object of the Balut ghetto’s reverence and hatred once the Nazis—always referred to as the “occupying powers” by Epstein—overtake and subjugate the country and its Jewish populations.

Trumpelman, the caring physician who arrives shortly before the outbreak of war in the town of Balut, becomes involved in the material interests of his charges: he turns out to be a stock swindler and a medical charlatan, whose favorite form of treatment is the deftly prescribed placebo or candy. Still, something about his personality and presence commands respect. In his own morally perverse way, he cares for the Jews of Balut and recognizes their frailties as part of human nature; the fact that he attempts to prosper at the expense of those he serves causes the good doctor little moral anguish. Once exposed for the fraud he is, Trumpelman vanishes for a time, appearing again just as the invasion begins and the death-call for the town’s Jews is about to begin.

The war does not come to Balut in the wake of thundering Panzer tanks rolling across the horizon; rather, it is described as a kind of nightmare that has some of the characteristics of nature playing out a drama. A small plane appears floating above the town, a speck of darkness in a clear September sky, and begins to drop its bombs “lazily.” Not only does this placid beginning emphasize the horror, but also the understatement itself—silvery wings in a clear, blue sky—contrasts against what is to follow: occupation by the invaders, isolation of the “inferior types,” and eventual extermination.

Dr. Trumpelman reappears in Balut after a short period of self-imposed exile and is quickly overtaken by events; he is chosen to become the chief leader of the Balut ghetto’s Judenrat, a position he readily accepts. There is a madness Epstein attributes to Trumpelman at this point: the elder rides around the ghetto in a long limousine, dispensing aid and advice and directions to his charges; he allows his likeness to be imprinted on the special ghetto currency that sustains the economy of the captured Jews; and he believes...

(The entire section is 1777 words.)