No easy way out: Writing the gruesome reality of the Lodz Ghetto

by Diana Wichtel / 19 May, 2017

Steve Sem-Sandberg in Paris after winning the Prix Médicis for The Chosen One. Photo/Getty Images

Norwegian-born Swedish writer Steve Sem-Sandberg makes no apology for confronting readers with the gruesome reality of the Łódź Ghetto and the Nazi “euthanasia” of almost 800 children.

Midnight in Vienna: that’s Steve Sem-Sandberg’s idea of a time for a chat. “I’m a night owl,” he emails. Still, I can’t bring myself to call him at the witching hour when there are grim matters to discuss. We settle on 10pm, and even after our hour and a half of steady talking, he sounds like he could carry on till dawn, murmuring into the darkness.

Sem-Sandberg, a Swedish journalist and writer, born in Norway and living in Austria, speaks softly, in excellent English. He makes you lean in and pay attention. His books, too, require commitment. As Sebastian Barry noted in the Guardian, “You don’t so much read Sem-Sandberg as stand in the fiery wind of his prose.”

His 2009 novel, The Emperor of Lies, is a flaying account of the Łódź Ghetto, the second largest, after Warsaw, in German-occupied Europe. The book circles around the monstrous, absurd, deeply problematic figure of the head of the ghetto’s Jewish Council, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, who turned the quarter into his personal kingdom, with a currency that bore his image. Seizing on the Nazis’ vile “Arbeit macht frei” slogan, Rumkowski believed working the starving population of the ghetto near to death offered salvation. With an eye on posterity, he had the life there recorded in a remarkable set of documents collectively known as The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto. The chronicle survived. Rumkowski and most of the prisoners didn’t.

Jews wearing Star of David badges in the Łódź Ghetto. Photo/Getty Images

Jews wearing Star of David badges in the Łódź Ghetto. Photo/Getty Images

Sem-Sandberg’s new novel, The Chosen Ones, translated from the Swedish by Anna Paterson, drags readers into the particular circle of hell that was the real-life Am Spiegelgrund clinic in Vienna in the early 1940s. Ostensibly a reform school and medical clinic, Spiegelgrund was, in fact, a Nazi “euthanasia” centre where children who were disabled or considered misfits or insufficiently Aryan-looking were tortured, experimented upon and murdered by doctors and nurses in the name of science.

No wonder Sem-Sandberg is a night owl. He must be haunted by his own subject matter. “I don’t have any problems sleeping, actually,” he says. “I had nightmares during the day.” He’s referring to endless hours spent in archives in Vienna, where plenty of material, including photographs, survives about the 789 children who died in Spiegelgrund.

“What you see is close to 800 children smiling at you,” says Sem-Sandberg. “They are children, right? And the doctor with his white coat has this curious object, this camera. They wanted to reach out and touch the camera, to see what he is looking into. You can see that the children have the trust that a child has towards an adult.

“It’s horrifying to see these children who are written about as silly, as retarded, as mentally disturbed, smiling towards the camera. That brought me close to tears when I saw it the first time.”

It took until 2002 for the remains of several hundred children – “Some of the victims that were found stowed away in a cellar inside the hospital area,” says Sem-Sandberg – to be buried in a private ceremony. Around then, victims began to publish memoirs. “It takes a while for the victims to be able to speak out about these things. The hideous thing is that the people who feel most ashamed here in Austria for what happened at the Spiegelgrund clinic are not the perpetrators but the victims.”

Jewish children in the Łódź Ghetto in 1940. Photo/Alamy

Jewish children in the Łódź Ghetto in 1940. Photo/Alamy

In 2007 and 2008, Sem-Sandberg was in Vienna on a writing grant, working on The Emperor of Lies. “Suddenly, this fact that Vienna had been the capital city of the child-‘euthanasia’ campaign became a topic again.” He knew immediately that this was a story he wanted to tell. “It struck me that I have to stay on here somehow. It’s eight years now.”

Moving countries: that’s quite a commitment. “To be in Stockholm and write about Vienna, that’s impossible. For me it was a necessity to be here and to not only feel the atmosphere but actually try to understand the mentality, at least to some degree, that made it possible for these things to transpire here.”

It was a very different research process. “With the Emperor of Lies there was difficulty in getting information on the victims. With the children, it was quite easy because all the medical journals were kept. It’s much more difficult to get hold of the perpetrators’ stories.” Many escaped punishment. One Spiegelgrund doctor fictionalised in the novel, Heinrich Gross, built a stellar career in Austria as a neurologist after the war, boasting of his collection of preserved brains of children. Never convicted, Gross died in 2005, having escaped a third trial on the grounds that he was suffering from dementia.

Sem-Sandberg’s account is devastating. There’s the child who sings to bring his mother to rescue him; the torment of mothers trying to get children back; the fury at the clinic when a child in despair steals scissors and kills himself before the doctors can. The story also reveals that, as with anti-Semitism, a culture of cruelty existed before the arrival of the Nazis.

Heinrich Gross, pictured in 1979. Photo/Getty Images

Heinrich Gross, pictured in 1979. Photo/Getty Images

The Chosen Ones presents events through the eyes of young Adrian Ziegler, based on real-life Spiegelgrund survivor Friedrich Zawrel. Adrian, deemed to have “gypsy” features, finds himself among the so-called chosen ones, “life unworthy of life”.

We also inhabit the consciousness of Anna Katschenka, a nurse whose change from dutifully saving lives to dutifully ending them is disturbingly plausible. “She got to be more and more important the more I wrote myself into the book, because without understanding the perpetrator, the people who actually did this thing, I don’t think you understand at all.”

It’s a harsh, reflective light Sem-Sandberg shines on Austria’s dark past and on human nature. Of Adrian’s arrival at the clinic, he writes: “They walk along a corridor where the white winter daylight bounces off the monotonous pattern of rhomboid floor tiles and it will often come back to him afterwards how the floors and walls in corridors and dormitories glowed with an unearthly luminosity as if alive in their own right, independent of the children who stayed there and somehow more substantial than they were.”

The book is an assault on other senses, too: the stench of death and chemicals. The more the Nazis tried to clean up in the name of racial purity, the bigger mess they made. “Exactly,” says Sem-Sandberg. They feared a contagion that could run in their own veins.

Spiegelgrund survivor Friedrich Zawrel. Photo/Parlamentsdirektion/Bildagentur Zolles KG/Mike Ranz

“It’s so much more difficult to fight something that even the Nazis had within themselves, so to speak. How do you define normality then and how do you define your enemy?”

The children and their illnesses are seen unsparingly, grotesquely magnified through a child’s eyes or dehumanised through the cold gaze of doctors. Adrian is dragged naked into a doctor’s lecture on his “gypsy” attributes. “He no longer knows where to look and so simply stops seeing,” writes Sem-Sandberg.

The effect can be uncomfortably dispassionate. That’s not the same as being cold-hearted, says Sem-Sandberg . “If you try to manipulate the reader, you will put yourself in-between the reader and this material and that would be morally unacceptable to do. To sentimentalise would be almost a crime in itself, I think.”

Some critics have questioned whether the agony of his descriptions of violence against children is worth it. “Yeah, is the pain worth the gain?” he sighs, quoting from a New York Times review. “I was really very put off by that. If you don’t want to have any pain, you can do something else. You can be blind to history. Fine. But if you want to go into it, you cannot do it half-way. If you’re in the business of trying to put light touches on everything, you shouldn’t be in the business at all.”

In other words, readers are on their own. This is what gives Sem-Sandberg’s novels their powerful intimacy. The Emperor of Lies and The Chosen Ones will have you questioning at precisely what point a person would say “No”. The question seems more urgent in the current political climate of rising nationalism and populism. Has he noticed a change?

“I’m not really into commenting on political events, but actually there was a change.” He’s referring to Austria’s 2016 presidential election, a close race between anti-immigration candidate Norbert Hofer and former Greens leader Alexander Van der Bellen. “The populist candidate lost by something like 30,000 votes, which is nothing. I cannot figure that half of this country actually was against me being here as a foreigner, or any foreigner. I’ve always looked at Austria as being a very open society that has left the past well behind. But sometimes the past comes back and haunts you in different ways than you imagined. In the end,” he says, with a wintry laugh, “the good guy won so I can stay on for a bit longer.”

Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski reports to SS leader Heinrich Himmler, in the car, Łódź, 1942. Photo/Getty Images

Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski reports to SS leader Heinrich Himmler, in the car, Łódź, 1942. Photo/Getty Images

Not everyone agrees that Sem-Sandberg’s sort of subjects are fit for fiction. “I suppose it’s too much to ask for a moratorium on the publication of Holocaust novels,” begins Simon Schama in an excoriating review of The Emperor of Lies. “Is there not enough cruelty, desperation and terror in the truth to forbear from the luxury of fiction?”

People talk about “Holocaust porn”. “I think there is a good reason for being fed up,” says Sem-Sandberg, “but what I react to is the sentimentalising and the trivialising of the Holocaust, making it the basic Hollywood staple for The Pianist or somebody who brushes the dust off from his coat-tails and walks out of the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto.

“Do you need another one of those? No, you don’t. What you do need is understanding. If you can understand what motivates people to do things, I think every step in that direction is a good one.”

Some have questioned – “a partly relevant accusation” – why a non-Jewish Swedish writer born in 1958 would write such stories. “The whole point of writing The Emperor of Lies was that this unique material of the chronicle made it possible for somebody outside to try to imagine how it would have been to be inside.”

His portrait of Rumkowski – a sexual predator of young children, a man corrupted by power – has been polarising. Primo Levi has written about Rumkowski, placing him in Levi’s “grey zone” of moral ambiguity. How do you judge a man forced into a world where all human rights have already been lost? “I don’t think you should judge, actually. I think those people who have a problem with my book are those people who want to make a judgment.”

He has confronted anger on book tours. “I remember in Munich, I talked about Rumkowski in that way I talk with you now and there would be always a man sitting in the last row and he would stand up and say, ‘Oh, you’re lying about Rumkowski. He was a good man. Look at me – I’m the perfect proof of that. I’m living and he saved my life.’”


Jews were crammed into the overcrowded ghettos before being sent to death camps. Photo/Getty Images

Jews were crammed into the overcrowded ghettos before being sent to death camps. Photo/Getty Images

He talked to a few survivors. Life and art occasionally collided. “One of them said, ‘I’m in your book. I’m this guy,’ which was really terrific. But all of them have this feeling about Rumkowski. From Primo Levi on, he was turned into the bad guy, when he was actually just doing the basic work of trying to secure as many people’s survival as possible.”

He understands that perspective. “They were the ones who survived. Then again, you didn’t have one of those close to 200,000 people who died. They were not in the audience.”

Yet it’s almost impossible not to judge. The novel makes devastating use of historical documents, dropping them in alongside the fiction. The Emperor of Lies quotes from one of the most terrible speeches in the history of human communication, Rumkowski’s “Give me your children” speech in September 1942. Ordered to organise the handover of the old and the children for deportation, he said: “Brothers and sisters, give them to me. Give me your children … Children above 10 are saved. Let that at least be some consolation in your great pain.”

The leader of the Warsaw Ghetto, Adam Czerniaków, faced with a similar order, killed himself. “Yeah, I think Rumkowski’s whole character, his self-loathing, all sides, is in that speech. He was chairman of the Jewish Council [in the ghetto] and he took this as his own personal responsibility, but he also saw the opportunity of getting through this more lightly for his family and close friends. Power corrupts. It corrupts everybody. Why wouldn’t it corrupt him?”

In an age with little taste for complexity, Sem-Sandberg’s novels offer no easy option. “Everybody is looking for the simplistic way out of the difficult moral dilemmas that we are faced with in everyday life. If you talk about immigration waves in Europe, if you are going to make a choice for the populist candidate here in Austria or wherever, you’re always faced with a hard choice, right? And there is no easy way out. So writing literature that chooses not the easy way out is also maybe the right thing to do.”

In The Chosen Ones, Adrian, like the real-life survivor he’s based on, refuses as an adult to attend the ceremony to bury the remains of the Spiegelgrund children. “He feels that at some point he has to break free from everything that has moulded and disfigured him.” For some things there’s no closure. “Exactly.”

Sem-Sandberg remains unapologetic for what he puts the reader through. “This was the reality. It was messy. It was gruesome. It didn’t have any – very few – happy endings. This is the way it looks. This is the way it was.”

But there’s ample gain to be had for a reader who chooses to “stand in the fiery wind” of Sem-Sandberg’s prose. Fiction can go where history, tethered to facts, can’t. In real life and on the page, with Sem-Sandberg, there’s a simmering, implacable anger. “Of course there’s anger. There’s anger from page one and it starts with the Adrian character arriving at the Spiegelgrund clinic. When you see that his entire childhood is stolen from him.”

There’s gain for the writer, too, who, more than 70 years after the events described in The Chosen Ones, was driven close to tears by those 800 trusting little faces. “What you have as a writer’s tool is empathy. It’s the only tool.” It can have you circling monsters. It can also put you on the side of the angels.

“As a writer, you can try to see it from the point of view of the child,” he says. “As a writer, you can get very close to the child who is smiling.”

Steve Sem-Sandberg will be appearing at the Auckland Writers Festival, May 16-21,

This article was first published in the May 13, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

Get the Listener delivered to your inbox

Subscribe now

@nzlistener @nzlistenermag @nzlistener


The Labour Party's spin doctors are doing a cracking job
89858 2018-04-23 00:00:00Z Politics

The Labour Party's spin doctors are doing a cracki…

by Bill Ralston

Perhaps Labour's PR outfit should next turn their talents to Washington, where Donald Trump is turning the White House into a cesspit.

Read more
Are confidentiality agreements letting sexual harassers off the hook?
89729 2018-04-23 00:00:00Z Social issues

Are confidentiality agreements letting sexual hara…

by Donna Chisholm

Some experts are calling for confidentiality agreements in sexual harassment cases to be scrapped as the #MeToo movement gathers pace.

Read more
How to know if you are being sexually harassed at work
89757 2018-04-23 00:00:00Z Social issues

How to know if you are being sexually harassed at …

by The Listener

The Employment Relations Act is very clear about what constitutes sexual harassment in New Zealand.

Read more
Some corner of an English field
89918 2018-04-22 00:00:00Z History

Some corner of an English field

by Pamela Wade

Pamela Wade visits a village in rural England and finds the war-time deaths of her uncle and his two Kiwi-airmen mates have not been forgotten.

Read more
The brain researcher who was diagnosed with a brain tumour
89704 2018-04-22 00:00:00Z Profiles

The brain researcher who was diagnosed with a brai…

by Clare de Lore

Few people could be better suited than Louise Nicholson to deal with a brain tumour diagnosis.

Read more
Discovering the majesty and fragility of New Zealand kauri
88483 2018-04-22 00:00:00Z Environment

Discovering the majesty and fragility of New Zeala…

by Josie Stanford

A twilight tour in Waipoua Forest highlights the majesty, and the fragility, of our mighty kauri.

Read more
Sweet Country – movie review
89842 2018-04-22 00:00:00Z Movies

Sweet Country – movie review

by Peter Calder

An Australian western with Sam Neill is a searing masterpiece.

Read more
The role that diet plays in causing gout is smaller than people think
89404 2018-04-22 00:00:00Z Health

The role that diet plays in causing gout is smalle…

by Nicky Pellegrino

It's often said that diet is the most important cause of gout, but for most people changing it won't lower uric acid levels enough to stop the pain.

Read more