King of the Jews: A Novel of the Holocaust

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Novel by Leslie Epstein, 1979

Leslie Epstein's King of the Jews (l979) focuses on the morally ambiguous politics of a Judenrat (Jewish council) in the Lodz ghetto and on its flamboyant leader, Isaiah Chaim Trumpelman, a figure clearly modeled on the real-life Mordecai Chaim Rumkowski, a man who ruled his Polish ghetto with a combination of regal theatrics (stamps and script bore his image, and he often rode through the disease-ridden streets on a magnificent white horse) and political savvy. Heading the Judenrat was a game fraught with peril because it meant that a great number of Jews would have to be sacrificed so that a much larger number might survive. But it also meant, of course, that one was cooperating with the Nazis. History has not been kind to those who accepted the Nazis' offer.

Epstein's novel attempts to turn the facts of the Lodz ghetto into a grim moral fable. To this end, words such as "Nazi" or even "German" never appear. Instead, the murderers are called "the occupying power," storm troopers become "Warriors," and the SS is transmogrified into "Death-Headers." Writing in the pages of the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Robert Alter, who generally admired the novel, wonders about the effect that "this manipulation of names contributes to the peculiar generalizing effect of the novel as a whole." Others were more explicit about their objections. In his influential study, A Double Dying: Reflections on Holocaust Literature (1980), Alvin Rosenfeld worries that readers will be "drawn uncomfortably close to a cartoon version of life and death in the ghettos." The problem is not that the complicated, morally ambiguous story of a man such as Rumkowski lacks the stuff from which serious fiction can be made. Rather, Rosenfeld argues that what Epstein lacks "is imagination enough to set his players within and solid and memorable context and have them appear as something more than stick-figure, or caricatures of the 'types' they are meant to represent." Writing in the Chicago Tribune, Irving Abrahamson made no bones about how offensive he thought the novel was: " King of the Jews is a one-dimensional piece, failing utterly to explore the complex historical, philosophical, theological implications of the greatest crime in history."

Other critic-reviewers, however, found much to praise in Epstein's novel, including its penchant for dark, slapstick humor. How else to tell a story in which the material itself seems to resist even the best efforts of the imagination, and how to approach a character such as Rumkowski from the perspective of a third-generation American Jew who grew up in southern California? Satire, part of a long Jewish tradition, turned out, in Epstein's case at least, to be the answer.

So it is that Trumpelman comes to relish his role as the Lodz ghetto's larger-than-life representative, and so it is that he also wrestles with the rationalizations and uncertainties that vex him when he finally realizes the grisly destination of the trains that leave the small territory he ostensibly "rules." Still, to save 100 Jews by sending 10 away may, just may, be the stuff of sainthood. Thus, he thinks of himself as a "savior," the king of the Jews.

King of the Jews is also filled with the mordantly playful. As Rosenfeld points out, "cows fall suddenly into graves, guns fire or misfire at the wrong moments, feet stumble and buttons pop, the mad go strolling the crooked streets, starving mothers become the butt of mistaken jokes about cannibalism, the apparent dead return to life in whimsical and improbable fashion, even the sun and moon perform their rotations in odd and attention-grabbing ways." Rosenfeld, however, is not amused, insisting that these instances of glib humor have no place in a novel that aspires to seriousness and certainly not in a novel about the tragic circumstances surrounding the Lodz ghetto.

Others, however, would argue that Epstein's thickly textured portrait never completely abandons its sense that the Holocaust requires a distanced, even understated perspective if its painful story is to be told. Thus, at one point early in the novel, the reader encounters the following sentence: "On a bright afternoon in September l939, a small dot, a speck, appeared high in the sky." To say more would diminish the power that Epstein's novel packs and the ways that it brings the reader slowly, even slyly, to its story of how I.C. Trumpelman deals with fantastic personal opportunities and the fearful consequences of shadow—and night—that eventually fell over every Jew in the Lodz ghetto.

Can a Jewish-American writer successfully imagine the horrors of what happened an ocean away? Some would say "No!" and say it in thunder. Others would be less rigid, especially when the novel in question is as skillfully rendered as that by Epstein. Much has happened since the pros and cons of King of the Jews were widely debated, and in large measure the voices of those who would automatically consign novels about the Holocaust to the ash heap have been silenced. For this Epstein's ambitious, daring novel rightly deserves a large share of the credit.

—Sanford Pinsker