Neal Ascherson

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 559

The plunge attempted by Leslie Epstein in King of the Jews required not merely courage but a degree of self-confidence approaching the suicidal. Epstein has written a novel about the Holocaust, a monumental study of the leader of a Judenrat. The scene is the Ghetto of Lodz, in Nazi-occupied Poland, and the central character is based on Chaim Mordecai Rumkowski, that legendary figure who ruled the ghetto, terrorized its inhabitants into passivity and submission, and persuaded them that a policy of "co-operation"—of letting one category after another be rounded up and driven into the trains bound for the gas chambers—offered a chance of survival for the dwindling remnant.

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It isn't overstating the matter to say that there is no more terrible story in the history of the world than this, and for more than thirty years the Jewish people have been trying to come to terms with it, sometimes by outright denial, sometimes by total condemnation, sometimes with mercy and understanding. But nobody, I think, has seriously tried to understand Rumkowski and his like, still less to find mercy for them. It is easier to accept a personality like Adam Czerniakow, head of the Warsaw Judenrat, who killed himself when he understood that he would have to hand over children for the next transport.

Epstein seems undismayed. His own background was remote from these events…. He has said that "it may take a third-generation Jew from LA to write a novel about the Holocaust," and seems well aware of the distaste which his enterprise may provoke. But that sally does him less than justice.

Isaiah Trumpelman, the main character, is brilliantly described. (p. 28)

The portrait of Trumpelman has great power. He is indeed a "King of the Jews." But the novel around him, vivid and engrossing as it is, remains a feat of pastiche. Epstein has drawn from the Jewish fiction of Eastern Europe, Yiddish or vernacular, the qualities of combined farce and horror, of stifling claustrophobia, and exaggerated them so that to turn for a moment to a page of Isaac Bashevis Singer or of Bruno Schulz is a relief, a contrast in its lucidity and even its calm. The introversion of the dying ghetto is heightened. Although these events are taking place in the midst of a large Polish industrial city, the Poles feature only in the occasional apelike shadow of a passing anti-Semitic peasant. The Polish resistance does not appear at all. And the Soviet failure to relieve the Warsaw Rising is transformed and transferred into a deliberate Russian plan to let the Jewish partisans of Lodz be wiped out before the Red Army arrives in the city.

Epstein is in no way trying to make light of what took place; there is no question about his grief and passion—or of his talent. Satire was probably the only possible medium for his task. But finally one's conviction in the work stays suspended. Yes, but was it really that way? And Trumpelman/Rumkowski … is it possible, after all, that he was not a tragic figure but, like those whose orders he obeyed in the Final Solution, a demon whose moral features were banal? (p. 29)

Neal Ascherson, "The Damned," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1979 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVI, No. 5, April 5, 1979, pp. 27-9.∗

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