Jacob the Liar

infobox Book |
name = Jacob the Liar
title_orig = Jakob der Lügner
translator =


image_caption =
author = Jurek Becker
cover_artist =
country = Germany
language = German
series =
genre = Tragedy
publisher =
release_date = 1969
english_release_date =
media_type = Print (Hardback & Paperback)
pages =
isbn =
preceded_by =
followed_by =

"Jacob the Liar" is a novel written by the German author Jurek Becker published in 1969. The German original title is "Jakob der Lügner". He was awarded the Heinrich-Mann-Prize (1971) and the Charles-Veillon-Prize (1971) after the publication of his bestseller. This novel was also made into two movies, one in 1975 and one in 1999. The first movie by Frank Beyer was nominated for "Best foreign language film" at the Academy Awards. The second film was a Hollywood production starring Robin Williams.

This novel is centred around the events of a Jewish ghetto in Poland, and stands out by its style and narration.

Plot summary

The novel follows the life of the Jewish protagonist Jacob Heym in the ghetto of Łódź, Poland. Jacob has an adopted daughter named Lina, whose parents were deported and who is hidden from the Germans.

While walking around the ghetto, he is suddenly stopped by a bored-seeming German officer on a patrol. The officer pretends that the Jewish curfew of 8 pm has already passed, and sends hapless Jacob to the barracks. Jacob obeys him submissively and is followed to the main quarter by the sentinel's flashlight. He arrives at the hall where he suddenly hears radio news reporting about the approach of the Red Army. Miraculously, Jacob is released since the sentinel was playing a practical joke on him. The first Jew to leave that quarter alive, Jacob cannot believe his luck. Both this and the radio broadcast fill him with hope.

The next day he is working with his partner Mischa, who wants to risk his life by stealing potatoes. At the last moment, Jacob impedes his attempt and gives him the good news, filling him with hope also.

This is the first main conflict and the true beginning of the novel. Jacob lies for the first time by pretending that he possesses a radio since he figures that nobody would believe him if he tells them he saw the precinct from inside. The question raised in the reader's mind is "Does he act responsibly by lying, even if he has only good intentions?" Jacob has enlivened Mischa who immediately goes to Rosa Frankfurter's parents to convey the word. Although he promised Jacob not to mention his name when spreading the news, Mischa breaks his word. Rosa's skeptical father Felix is enraged by the dangerous news Mischa is spreading without proof, and slaps him in the face. Mischa eventually spreads the lie out: Jacob possesses a radio.

Jacob is now forced to become creative in order to maintain the lie. Now that the neighbours believe he has a radio, he has to invent new items of news each day in order to help maintain the peace and hope, and prevent despair from returning to the ghetto.Striving to propagate some real news, he decides to steal a newspaper from an "Aryan water closet", which Jews are strictly prohibited from entering. While he is in it, a nervous guard comes close to the toilet but Jacob’s friend Kowalsky distracts the watchman’s attention by knocking over boxes and saves Jacob’s life.

The next day Herschel Schtamm, a usually fearful and timid man, hears the voices of deportees coming out of a wagon. Intent on giving them hope by telling them the news, he gathers his courage and approaches the wagon but is seen and shot by a watchman.

Jacob feels responsible for Schtamm’s death. He comes home to find Lina looking for the radio while he was gone. He tells her to stay out of his room but realizes that hearing the radio will give her much needed hope. Jacob imitates a radio-show and emulates the voice of Winston Churchill, telling her the metaphorical story of a princess who became ill because nobody could provide her a cloud. She was cured when a gardener came and brought her a cloud out of cotton wool, because she thought a cloud consisted out of wool. It implicates the question of authentic need versus perceived need, and of course the question about the imagined world created by the lies of Jacob inside the ghetto. Just as the princess became healthy after she received the “faked” cloud, the hope of the Jews is inspired by artificial truth.

Over time, the lie becomes cumbersome and inconvenient, and the attention tedious. He pretends that the radio is becoming defective but is still swamped by people who are either begging for news, inculpating him, or pretending friendship to get access to the news.

Jacob cannot stand this pressure and confesses everything to Kowalsky who reassures him that he understands everything and would have acted exactly in the same way.

The novel has two endings. The narrator thinks that there should be his own independent ending but he also wants to corroborate the fact that he is trying to reach the reader and thus proposes a second ending.

He had been bombarded by the vehicle of camaraderie.

Plot of the 1999 movie

The plot is slightly different in a few places from the book. Firstly, Lina is not present as Jacob's daughter from the beginning; instead, he meets her on his way home from the Gestapo station in the movie's beginning. Also, the news of the radio is first told to Kowalski, to prevent him from hanging himself in the barber's shop.

The two endings

The fictitious ending (the dignified ending)

Jacob tries to escape under the huge fence and gets shot. The next day, the Russians arrive to liberate them all. Jacob is a true tragic hero who has given his life for others.

The true ending (the non-dignified ending)

Kowalsky hangs himself shortly after that confession. Everybody gets deported. This is a rather disillusioning and even more tragic ending, which does not seem worthy of the story since it is quite predictable.

The 1999 movie ending

Kowalsky hangs himself after the confession. Jacob surrenders himself to the Germans as the Germans demand the person with the radio give himself up or risk hostages being killed. During interrogation, Jacob told the army officer he met at the beginning of the film that he had only listened to the radio inside the headquarters. The army officer panicked and he requested that Jacob announce publicly that this was all a lie. Jacob is presented to the public but declines to say this, and is shot. As all the Jews are about to be deported, the Russians arrive in time to save them as Jacob promised. However, there are implications in the film that the arrival of the Russians could be purely imaginative to soften the reality of the deportation for the viewer- the final lie.

The 1975 movie ending

Kowalsky hangs himself shortly after that confession. Everybody gets deported. This is a rather disillusioning and even more tragic ending, which does not seem worthy of the story since it is quite predictable. This is the same as the "true ending" found in the book.

Read on

*Louis Begley: "Wartime Lies" (1991)

ee also

*The 1975 Film
*The 1999 Film


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