Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Jacob the Liar by Jurek Becker, translated by Leila Vennewitz

First, forget everything you may remember about the movie Jacob the Liar with Robin Williams. That movie is totally NOT representative of this excellent novel.

Read the book instead.

Jacob the Liar takes place in the Łódź Ghetto in 1944. Returning home from work one night, Jacob Heym is caught in the spotlight of a guard who tells Jacob he is out past the 8 o’clock curfew and to report to the military office for a “well deserved” punishment. As he walks the corridor of the military building, not knowing where to go, he overhears a radio. Radios are forbidden Jews in the ghetto, but Jacob can’t resist stopping to listen to the newscast. And what he hears gives him hope – the Red Army is 300 miles away at a town called Bezanika and pushing closer.

Jacobs is in luck that night and he is simply told to go home, the guard was having him on and it is not yet 8 o’clock. But what to do with the good news he has overheard? While loading crates with his partner Mischa the next day, Jacob tells him the news. Mischa is skeptical, so Jacob embellishes his news with a lie – he tells him he heard it on a forbidden secret radio he owns and implores Mischa not to tell anyone else.

And of course Mischa does exactly that. He tells his girlfriend Rosa Frankfurter and her family. It turns out that her father actually does have a hidden radio, which he promptly destroys out of fear. But Jacob’s lie soon spreads throughout the ghetto and it is not long before his best friend, Kowalski, comes to him to ask if the news is true. Jacob tells his yes, but now that people believe that he has a radio, he is forced to continue to make up more and more lies about the Russian advance. His lies, of course, give hope to the otherwise despairing Jews in the ghetto and soon even the suicide rate begins to fall.

Jacob has also been hiding an 8 year old girl named Lina. Lina’s parents had been deported to Auschwitz two years earlier when her father accidentally went to work one day wearing a jacket that didn’t have a yellow star on it. Lina was found by Jacob, who took her home and cared for her. She is bedridden with whooping cough and is being taken care of by the doctor, Kirschbaum. Dr. Kirschbaum never believes that Jacob has a radio, but he does keep it to himself.

Soon Jacob’s lies begin to have dark consequences. Among them is the death of Herschel Schramm. One day a boxcar full of people from the ghetto is just about to leave for a concentration camp. Herschel, thinking to give the people inside hope, goes over to tell them about the closeness of the Russian Army when he is shot to death by a Nazi sentry.

As it becomes more difficult to make up lies, Jacob devises a plan to steal some newspaper from the Nazi latrine in the hope of finding out some more real news. Despite the risks, he manages to get into the latrine, but than is interrupted by a Nazi. Believing Jacob is in the forbidden latrine for its intended purpose and noticing the Nazi, his friend Kowalski creates a disturbance which distracts the Nazi. Jacob is able to escape safely but only with a few bits of useless newspaper.

It is beginning to become clear to Jacob that the lying can’t be kept up much longer. But he is torn because of the renewed hope it has given the people. Finally he decides to confide in Kowalski, who reassures him over and over that it is ok, he understands what Jacob has done. Yet not long afterward, Kowalski hangs himself.

Was Jacob wrong to tell the initial lie or is it better to give even false hope to help people try to survive something as horrific as the Holocaust? 

Jacob’s purpose is clear to himself: “hope must not be allowed to fade away, otherwise they (the Jews in the Ghetto) won’t survive.” (pg 60) But the narrator skirts around the question of the morality of Jacob’s actions all through the novel and it is never clear how s/he truly feels about what Jacob has done. It is left to the reader to decide for themselves whether or not Jacob acted morally or dishonestly.
The narrator is clearly a survivor of the Holocaust who knows much of what happened but who is never identified.  And yet the narrator describes the events of the story in an almost detached manner, as though s/he is simply an observer but with a certain amount of omniscience unually found in third person not first person narrators.  S/he tells the reader in conversational tones about life in the ghetto in all its everydayness, with humor, pathos, understanding, irony. There are never any really graphic descriptions of Nazi atrocities in Jacob the Liar; yet the narrator manages to successfully make the feelings hopelessness and vulnerability together with the physical cruelty in all its randomness that the Jews are subjected to by the Nazis very apparent to the reader.

Jurek Becker based Jacob the Liar on a true story that he and his father had heard about another Jew who was in the Łódź Ghetto who had lied about having a radio. Becker himself was born in Poland in 1937 and spent his childhood living first in the Łódź Ghetto, and later in Ravensbrück, and Sachsenhausen Concentration Camps.

This is one of the less well known, but in my opinion, one of the better books in the whole Holocaust oeuvre that I have read. I originally read it years ago in German (called Jakob der Lügner) and so I know that the English translation is true to the initial novel.

For true film buffs, there is a 1974 East German version of Jacob the Liar with subtitles that is much better than the later Robin William’s version and can often be found in libraries, or rented from places like Netflix. I like Robin Williams but I think he made Jacob look like a buffoon, and that isn’t correct. An actor of the caliber of Eli Wallace would have been a better choice.

Jacob the Liar is a book that would appeal to more mature teen readers.
This book was bought for my personal library.

This novel was read as part of the Holocaust Remembrance Week event hosted by The Introverted Reader


  1. This made me think of the movie Jacob the Liar, but i don't believe it's the same. I really love reading about the holocaust so I'll have to add this to my list!


  2. You wrote" First, forget everything you may remember about the movie Jacob the Liar with Robin Williams." But then described the book but That's exactly what happened in the movie