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 banal inflexibility of the totalitarian mind during the Holocaust seems to have found its corollary in this presentation of the hyperactive Jewish moral imagination. But the debates, which include many classical ghetto arguments culled from various Holocaust anthologies, are phrased in snappy one-liners that make the "excruciating moral dilemmas" of the Jews sound like entries on a multiple-choice exam.
Had the novel engaged any of the issues it raises, it might have risked literary significance, for Epstein is a professional and engaging writer. But instead, the author has approached his subject with the deliberate naiveté of Dennis the Menace, and with a boyish nihilism that reduces the Jewish tragedy to a hollow metaphysical joke. The book's narrator is the key to its small success and larger failure. Presumably a survivor himself, this narrator speaks with touching intimacy about "our town," lingering over familiar landmarks with unforced authority. At the same time, he assumes the currently fashionable pose of the literary impresario, offering his audience a tale he cannot undertake to judge: "It is possible that everything would have happened just as it did, even if there hadn't been a terrible strike and even if the Elder had never arrived. Ladies and gentlemen, you decide." The idea that a ghetto survivor, in the face of his own remembered experience, would be subject to this degree of doubt about its meaning is an unintentional bit of farce at the author's expense. Such temporizing can only be the product of a tender, untried American imagination,...
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masquerading as a "survivor" with about the same success as a child dressed up in his father's clothes. (It is also hard to trust a "survivor" who makes four mistakes in two quoted lines of Yiddish.)
This novel is narrated by a neutered survivor about a neutered people it calls the Jews. The family, which looms largest in authentic memoirs of the ghetto and is inevitably the source of the most wrenching pain, appears in this novel only in distorted and corrupted form. The book's characters are orphans, or representative types—the rabbi, the rich man, the thief. Lacking intimate bonds with one another, they move atomistically through the novel, arousing little compassion in one another, and even less in the reader. (pp. 76-7)
The Jewish polity is yet more seriously misrepresented. From the chaotic images of Jewish organizational life, one would never guess that the Jews were a people with a long history of communal survival, and that the Jewish political strategy of the ghetto had evolved through many centuries with not inconsequential success. The book's most conspicuous omissions are of Zionism, as both ideal and actuality, and of the secular and religious culture in which the Polish ghettos were steeped. Among Jewish political parties only the Bund and the Communists are mentioned, as though the author had deliberately expunged those elements of Jewish cultural and political life that have survived the Holocaust to give the lie to its finality. (p. 77)
Ruth R. Wisse, "Fairy Tale," in Commentary (reprinted by permission; all rights reserved), Vol. 67, No. 5, May, 1979, pp. 76-8.