Leslie Epstein Ruth R. Wisse - Essay

Ruth R. Wisse

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Leslie Epstein's novel, King of the Jews, is loosely based on events in the ghetto of Lodz under the German occupation of World War II. (p. 76)

Although its central character, I. C. Trumpelman, is based on the actual chairman of the Lodz Judenrat, and though the book's descriptions of the local conditions derive from documented ghetto history, King of the Jews does not attempt a historical interpretation of either the ghetto Elder or of the ghetto itself. The book bears the same relation to the Holocaust as M∗A∗S∗H does to the Korean war. Its flat caricatures, cabaret style of narration, and stylized theatrical staging for all the main events of the plot belong to the category of farce. Like other American war farces, Epstein's book isolates the moral angst of the situation from the historical conditions in which it originated: from the aggression of totalitarian regimes or, in this case, from the articulated program of genocide. True evil seems not to be a suitable subject for this genre. Thus the Germans, under euphemistic designations, remain outside the "problem" of this book, which concentrates on the destruction of the Jews as an internal Jewish matter. To use the kind of fairytale analogy in which Epstein delights, this is like the story of Red Riding Hood, but without the wolf. The wolf's lurking presence is admitted as part of the atmosphere, but the real subject is the credulity of Red Riding Hood, and the nature of her guilt in directing the wolf to granny's door.

The book's main thematic concern is with what the jacket copy calls the "excruciating moral dilemmas" of those charged with executing German orders, and of those not so charged whose initiatives had still to be weighed against the threat of collective reprisal. To dramatize this moral plight of the Jews, the book is studded with relevant debates…. There is even a debate … on whether children being deported to their death should be lulled with bright dreams or told that "Oswiecim is the homeland of the Jews." Hannah Arendt's thesis of the...

(The entire section is 859 words.)