The Man Who Would Be King

Thirty years ago, Leslie Epstein raised hackles with his fictional take on the Lodz ghetto
A Jewish policeman and a German soldier direct pedestrian traffic in the Lodz ghetto. The sign reads: Jewish residential area, entrance is forbidden. (Photo: Paul Mix, courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.)

More than six decades later, Theodor Adorno’s claim that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” still dominates arguments about the proper means of Holocaust commemoration. Take last year’s The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, Daniel Mendelsohn’s affecting memoir of his research into the lives and deaths of six family members who perished in the Holocaust. Overcome by his findings, Mendelsohn argues that fiction must await the death of the last survivor:

[The victims] were, once, themselves, specific, the subjects of their own lives and deaths, and not simply puppets to be manipulated for the purposes of a good story, for the memoirs and magical-realist novels and movies. There will be time enough for that, once I and everyone who ever knew anyone who ever knew them dies.

Literary critic and New Republic editor Ruth Franklin took Mendelsohn to task in the online magazine Slate: “What is more important,” she asked, “that we know what happened during the Holocaust (whether [Mendelsohn’s family members] were shot or gassed, for instance), or that we try, in whatever hopelessly limited way, to understand what occurred? …Such understanding cannot be achieved without an act of imaginative empathy on the part of the reader.”

Several weeks later, as if in response, Leslie Epstein published The Eighth Wonder of the World, a messy novel about a Fascist American architect and his assistant, an American Jew, in Rome to build an ill-fated monument to Mussolini’s megalomania. Eighth Wonder overreaches to such a degree — Mussolini is a buffoonish presence; the Rabbi of Rome and Pius XII trade cant about the unlucky fate of the Jews — as to make a mockery of Franklin’s counterargument. In transforming these forbidding figures from historical icons to ordinary mortals, Epstein unleashes such zaniness that the plight of Italian Jews—the novel’s ostensible subject—comes to seem like little more than a plot contrivance.

This was disappointing. After all, Epstein’s first novel, King of the Jews, published in 1979, may have done more than any other to demonstrate that imaginative literature was equal to the task of Holocaust commemoration. The novel reinvents Chaim Rumkowski, controversial Judenrat chairman of the Lodz ghetto, as I.C. Trumpelman, a prosperous doctor with dubious ethics, who connives his way into the chairmanship after the Germans invade. As Jews freeze, starve, or disappear, Trumpelman gets around on a white stallion or in a limousine and issues currency emblazoned with his own image.

But he also manages to extract concessions from the Nazis that improve ghetto conditions, as part of a plan to turn his Jews into workers of such indispensable productivity for the German war effort as to guarantee the survival of most until liberation. “Someday an important official from Berlin—…maybe even the Big Man himself—will come to inspect our streets,” he tells his charges. “When he sees workers…he will say, Live! Live!” As Trumpelman executes deportation orders—on the grounds that he is saving more Jews than the Nazis would have spared had they committed the round-ups themselves—he defends himself as a martyr who will shed Jewish blood to save Jewish blood:

I, Trumpelman, took you by the hand and led you to death. It’s Trumpelman who made you work until your hearts explode…. [But] we are in the same cage together!… In this same cage with us there is a hungry lion! He wants to devour us all!…. I am the lion tamer. I stuff his mouth with meat. It’s the flesh of my own brothers and sisters!…. Thus with ten Jews, I save a hundred. With a hundred, I save a thousand…. My hands are bloody…. If your hands are clean, it’s because mine are dirty!

Epstein’s portrait is so nuanced that it’s hard to tell whether Trumpelman is earnestly deluded or purposefully misleading his wards, and, if the latter, whether his goal is to ease their demise or merely to preserve his hold on power.

Those wards are equally complex: scheming, impious, heroic, and despairing all at once. Some—like the former liveryman who turns the ghetto’s best business (death) into a monopoly on funerals—profiteer. Others risk life to resist by running a clandestine maternity ward (new Jewish births are forbidden), or covertly record evidence of genocide in photographs.

Whether describing courage or graft, Epstein maintains a verist tone. In a typical scene, the Judenrat members bargain down a German quota for a hundred new deportees with tractors and timepieces. Given until sundown, they tortuously debate ways to select the remainder, though not without asides for self-pity and exoneration. They come across as full-bodied humans, as imperfectly true as the world that created them. Eventually, their nobler impulses win out and they resolve to commit mass suicide rather than turn over their own. But they go somewhat less than epically. As the group begins to nod off, Verble, the former ragpicker, asks Margolies, a former waiter, to once again tell the story of serving the legendary French actress Sarah Bernhardt:

Gladly. It was at the Scotch Hotel. Bialystok. 1900. The curls of my hair, all on one side. She motioned for me. Forward I glided. A pot of hot milk, a pot of hot coffee, the saucer and cup. Now the cup is before her. Now with both hands I grip the silver: skillfully I pour out an equal measure of coffee and milk. A three-star hotel. A cigarette in a holder.

But the hapless group is denied even the dignity of death; Trumpelman sweeps in and, like a charlatan savior, raises them all—the “cyanide” he had given them turns out to have been sleeping potion.

Somber tragedy this is not. If previous Holocaust literature—Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man (1947), Elie Wiesel’s Night (1956), Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird (1965)—tended to be solemn and chaste, Epstein’s first novel made room for farce and absurdism. And while few Holocaust works had directly interrogated the commonplace notion of Jews as fallen angels, Epstein had the audacity to propose that the Jews deserved to live not because they were saints, but because they were sinners, and therefore as human as the rest of the world.

Critical reaction to the book was divided. In The New York Times Book Review, Robert Alter defended it as audacious and exuberant. A few days later, Anatole Broyard savaged it in the daily Times: “What is one to make of 350 pages of tummeling? Of indistinguishable characters speaking indistinguishable lines?” Ruth Wisse seconded him in Commentary, deriding Epstein’s dialogue as a collection of “snappy one-liners” and his focus on Jewish complicity as a heretical suggestion that the Holocaust was an “internal Jewish matter.” With hindsight, the book seems to lie somewhere between Alter’s and Broyard’s critiques: Epstein’s approach was legitimate, but his artistry may have been too feeble—nuanced portrait of Trumpelman and fellow Jews notwithstanding—to lift the narrative above gutter farce, however much Epstein intended to elevate his material. (It’s the same handicap that hampers Eighth Wonder.)

Epstein’s background hardly suggests an appetite for such provocation. Born in 1938, he spent the war years in California. The son of legendary Hollywood screenwriter Philip G. Epstein, who co-wrote such blockbusters as Casablanca and Arsenic and Old Lace with his twin brother Julius, the younger Epstein grew up almost as a converso, his family so intent on assimilating that they staged Easter egg hunts.

As Epstein suggested in a 2003 NPR interview, his curiosity about his own Jewishness was a way of rejecting an uneasy home life: His father died early, leaving him with a mother who was “quite distant and all too close.” His initial intention, during a year of archival research at YIVO, the Yiddish institute in New York City, was to write as dutiful a novel as his outsider status required.

But the testimonies of ghetto life he encountered were so debilitating that he had to invent a new approach. “I think I must have sensed soon after I arrived at the library that if I were to get through such material at all, to say nothing of being able to think about it and shape it, I would have to draw a psychic shutter, thick as iron, between myself and these accounts,” he wrote in an autobiographical essay in The New York Times Book Review in 1982.

This detachment may have permitted Epstein to glimpse the less tragic—though no less true—aspects of ghetto life, such as its humor, and to consider Jews as something other than victims. Still aiming for sobriety as he began to write, he was unnerved to discover a disconcerting jauntiness in the narrative voice: “High seriousness I wanted—not high spirits. Yet no matter which way I turned it, the material kept coming out in a tone so lighthearted and glad-to-be-alive.”

The critical outrage—mixed, though it was, with praise—seemed to confirm for Epstein that he had been on the right course, and he vigorously defended the book. King of the Jews’ unvarnished inquiry, he argued in a paper presented at a 1987 conference on literature and the Holocaust, was far preferable to the “grand guignol” of novels like Kosinski’s The Painted Bird, which follows a Polish boy as he wanders through the decimated countryside during and after the war. That novel, Epstein suggested, is filled with such concentrated terror as to vault it into the realm of myth. In Epstein’s view, this departure from realism toward the surreal encouraged the illusion that the Nazis were equally atypical—an aberration of history rather than a perfectly rational epilogue to a millennium of Christian anti-Semitism that could easily repeat itself. “This…horror show,” Epstein said, referring to Kosinski, “meant to divert us from what the actual atrocity—most unbearable in its monotony, its regularity, its unobtrusiveness—was like.” Kosinski was venerated for the reverent piety of his book even though it was, in Epstein’s view, far less true to what occurred than his own.

He also argued that imagination was a critical ingredient of Holocaust commemoration because Jews essentially invented imagination when they conjured God from nothingness in the desert. “[The Jews] took the greatest imaginative leap of all, that of comprehending, out of nothingness, a burning bush, an empty whirlwind, the ‘I am that I am.'” For Epstein, the attack on Jews was an attack on imagination itself.

He could have added that his alleged vice—his lack of first-hand experience of the Holocaust or its survivors—may have been the book’s greatest virtue, an inspiration in the broadest terms. Epstein had paid his dues in the archives, transforming an incipient curiosity about his faith into a tremendously moving, deeply informed testimonial about the Holocaust. To survivors, fiction writers, and just about anyone else, his considerable achievement said: You are not your past. You have free will. So invent.

King of the Jews is no longer the shocker it used to be. From Alain Finkielkraut’s Le Juif Imaginaire (1983) to Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986) to Melvin Jules Bukiet’s After (1996) on the page, and Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful (2000) to Dani Levy’s My Fuhrer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler (2007) on the screen, non-idealized and comic treatments of the Holocaust have edged nearer to the mainstream. King itself may be headed for a revival, as evidenced by a theatrical adaptation of the book, which has just begun a three-week run at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre.

But the main reason Epstein’s novel continues to be relevant is because its foundational plea—that imagination is critical to Holocaust response—remains controversial, as the Mendelsohn debate shows. And it will until the critics and watchdogs understand that the finest translation preserves the spirit above all. After all, in many cases, the lives of the perished were made extraordinary only by the nature of their deaths; too many of the details are unavailable, requiring invention. Only a fool would set out to write a Holocaust novel before learning its facts, but only a miser could think that facts could tell the whole story.

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