Sharon Wiener was initially drawn to the novel The Emperor of Lies because of the familiar theme: Poland’s Lodz Ghetto, a place her father had the misfortune of living during the Second World War. When she bought the book she knew it would be a difficult read, what she didn’t know was that her father would be a part of the book—literally. That’s because, as she explained to Canada’s National Post, the picture of a boy wearing the familiar gold Jewish star used as cover art is her father, Morton Weiner.
“I didn’t even look at the cover, initially. But when I got it home I did, and I knew instantly that the boy on the cover, walking towards me, was my father,” she told the National Post.
“There was a moment of shock, of seeing my parent as a child, and in terms of my father’s experiences in Lodz, I had grown up hearing about them and I had all these images in my mind.
“But to actually see him, walking on that street, right in the middle of what I knew was the ghetto — it is one thing to imagine — but another to actually see him, right there.
“It made all the stories he told me become so much more alive.”
Weiner contacted Joe O’Connor, a writer and columnist for the National Post who was able to track down the author of the book, Steve Sem-Sandberg.
“I didn’t have a single name for any of them,” the writer told O’Connor. “And to have one now, it is awesome. It is completely overwhelming, and I think it is also true to the spirit of the book — not that these are Jews, as a collective of victims — but that they were also, each and every one, individuals.
“That they are each living a singular life. And when now this boy is given a name, he is given a life — and given a single destiny — and it turns Nazi ideology on its head.”
Sem-Sandberg said that he, too, was initially drawn to the cover picture when he saw it among the Lodz city archives. It was taken by Walter Genewein, a Nazi and chief accountant in the Lodz ghetto who take hundreds of the color photographs. The photos were meant as propaganda, to show the “normal” life of Jews in the ghetto.
“Knowing the name of the boy in the photograph puts the lie to Walter Genewein and the way he saw things — that these people were just faceless Jews. And that’s the way I look at it.
“It is amazing to me.”
Morton Weiner’s life in Lodz was anything but ideal. Born in 1926, the youngest of nine siblings, only four survived the Holocaust. Five starved to death in Lodz. After the war he moved to Canada, where he finally settled in Montreal. Mr. Weiner died in 2004, having shared little of his personal experience during the war.
“We were a very close family growing up and Lodz always came up. My father, my two aunts — Hannah and Esther — and all their friends were survivors. Sometimes there would be a table of people talking, telling these stories about hiding, about what it was like to always look for a space to hide and even after the war having this trauma of constantly checking to see where they might hide if they had to,” Sharon Weiner told the National Post.
“My father pushed a lot of what happened to him away, just to keep going,” she added.
As for the picture, Sem-Sandberg says he plans on getting in touch with Ms. Weiner.
“I want to explain a little bit to Ms. Wiener about what I intended with the book and also why I chose the picture I did,” Mr. Sem-Sandberg says.
“It was a very careful decision and then, of course, I want her to tell me all about her father.”