In his previous highly acclaimed novel The Emperor of Lies, journalist, novelist, nonfiction writer, and translator Steve Sem-Sandberg delivered a chilling portrait of life in the Lodz Ghetto during the four years it housed a starving population of 200,000 Jews prior to its liquidation in August 1944. Through its epic scale and portrait of an entire society, the novel rendered intimate and disturbing glimpses of historical figures like Heinrich Himmler, Adam Czerniakow (head of the Warsaw Ghetto Judenrat, who eventually committed suicide) and most particularly Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, whose autocratic rule in the Lodz ghetto created controversies debated by historians and ethicists to this day.
Now Sem-Sandberg turns his fearless gaze on a lesser-known evil, the origins of genocide in the Nazi regime’s euthanasia program Aktion T4 in Austria. Some historians claim that roughly 200,000 were murdered for the sake of the racial purity and “health” of Aryan culture. As with The Emperor of Lies, Sem-Sandberg again makes unflinching and harrowing use of historical documents and testimony throughout The Chosen Ones. Graced by the author’s gift for expressing the darkly absurd, the lengthy novel restlessly interweaves a variety of perspectives on the horrific reality at its center, moving fluidly between the actions, thoughts, and voices of its gripping characters.
The story begins in 1941 in Am Spiegelgrund, a children’s clinic in Austria, which became part of the Nazi euthanasia program during Germany’s annexation. The often labyrinthine narrative unfolds through the alternating perspectives of Adrian Ziegler, a ten-year-old patient from a dysfunctional and impoverished family, and Anna Katschenka, a wildly deluded and obedient nurse employed at the clinic. Over the course of his stay there, Adrian witnesses numerous children disappear from their beds: in addition to lethal injections, some of his fellow patients are the subjects of obscene experiments in “encephalography” and “hereditary biology.” Aside from those considered irredeemably unruly like Adrian, the program also includes the disabled and ill.
Among dozens of other troubling characters brought to life in these pages, the most disturbing is surely Doctor Jekelius (1905−1952) an historical figure responsible for sending over 4,000 patients to the gas chambers. He was later captured by the Red Army and sentenced to 25 years of hard labor in a Soviet labor camp, where he eventually died of cancer. Shockingly, however, Jekelius is not the worst doctor we encounter in these pages.
Adept at portraying historical realities as he is at witnessing disturbing truths of the human soul, Sem-Sandberg’s unsparing prose exposes the heartbreaking horrors and torments of this system of betrayed children, murderous nurses and doctors, and the usual unheroic bystanders, yet this narrative is brimming with beautiful, even poetic language that ultimately crystallizes and intensifies the dour truth about the human condition. Sem-Sandberg’s magisterial and at times merciless novel is well served by translator Anna Paterson’s sparkling and colloquial rendering. One can only hope that this brave and important work will find readers everywhere and perhaps also ignite many soul-searching discussions in Austria where historical awareness is so long overdue.