The Book of Aron: A Novel
By Jim Shepard
In The Book of Aron, Jim Shepard, an American author of Irish-Italian Catholic background, attempts to imagine the life of Jewish children during the three years of the Warsaw Ghetto. Imagination is needed as there are few witnesses. German Nazi policy was to kill the children first.
The story is told in the first person, in Aron’s voice. At first, it is reminiscent of other novels with child narrators, like Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Sholom Aleichem’s Motl the Cantor’s Son. The sentences are short and uncomplicated, the words simple. There are comic passages. But this is the Warsaw Ghetto and the light soon fades.
Aron begins life as one of the children in a poor shtetl family. He is small, socially awkward, and not good in school. “The years went by like one unhappy day.” In 1936, the family moves to Warsaw because there is a factory job there for Aron’s father. Aron is nine in 1939 when the Germans come and the reign of degradation begins.
For a while, this is an opportunity for Aron. The Germans confine the Jews in a walled and hungry ghetto, and keep reducing its size. Aron becomes part of a group of child smugglers, who know where the holes are, and how to navigate among the yellow police, the blue police, and the green police – the Jews, the Poles, and the Germans.
He can, for the first time, do something for his family. Then he is recruited and used by a yellow police officer. The results are tragic. Aron does not judge his own or anyone’s behaviour. He narrates it.
For Jews, the Shoah is a loss we feel every day. For non-Jews, it is an event whose main characteristic is strangeness, and they try to understand it. Shepard gives an impressive list of Jewish Holocaust writing that he has read and people he has consulted. He has explored Warsaw. The study of Jews does not lead to understanding the Holocaust. For that, a study of Germans is needed.
The Book of Aron is effective in exploring the way people may have lived in the conditions of hunger and fear that the German Nazis created. A mark of its effectiveness is that it bears comparison with Chava Rosenfarb’s three-volume Yiddish novel, The Tree of Life, set in the Lodz Ghetto. Rosenfarb did not need to do research for her work. She lived in Lodz and was 17 when that ghetto was instituted. Her novel –also available in English translation – is based on her own experience and written on the model of Tolstoy, with many characters and interlocking subplots.
Aron’s family disintegrates. His friends catch on to his connection with the police and cut him off. At rock bottom, he is admitted into Dr. Janusz Korczak’s orphanage. Korczak is portrayed as a weary and despondent man, determined to do his best for the children, spending his days begging for supplies.
Shepard is interested in the ambiguity of human conduct under extreme conditions. Korczak was known to be a heroic figure who refused chances to escape and stayed with his children until the end. That heroism is part of the story Shepard tells. Sadly, in the circumstances, it is ambiguous. The Warsaw Ghetto was liquidated in 1942. In the book, Korczak organizes the children in a column and leads the parade to the railway siding where they will be loaded for Treblinka. If he had not done so, some would have suffered more in the disorder. Some would have been killed sooner. But the Germans would have had more trouble. And who can know? Maybe some of the children would have escaped.
The evacuation is supervised by an SS officer named Witossek.
Witossek apologized for the necessity of what had to happen and said he hoped Korczak understood the necessity was one thing and the people who had to carry it out were another. He said he wanted the good doctor to know that what was going to happen was going to happen and that how everyone chose to face it would be the point.
“I agree with you,” Korczak said.
That is as close as the book comes to an explanation of the Holocaust.