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‘The Book of Aron,’ by Jim Shepard.

Post Date: August 5, 2015 by josiemounsey


Amidst the plethora of Holocaust literature, it would be easy to dismiss Shepard’s novel as just another tale woven around one of the darkest periods in history.  But, ‘The Book of Aron’ is different.  In unassuming and unquestioning language, the tale of survival in the Warsaw ghetto is told in the sometimes understated voice of a fictional child, Aron Rozycki.  By seeing the ghetto through such young eyes, the reader is left with a clearer sense of the loss, deprivation, and betrayal, experienced by millions of Jews, than any amount of statistics and grim pictures can portray.


Aron introduces himself as an eight-year-old accident-prone loner.  “My mother and father named me Aron, but my father said they should have named me What Have You Done, and my uncle told everyone they should have called me What Were You Thinking.”  During the course of the story, as the plight of Jews in Poland goes from bad to worse, Aron’s true nature is revealed.  He becomes his family’s lifeline, stealing, smuggling, and trading contraband, to provide meagre sustenance to his family.  If I have any criticism of Shepard’s narrative, it is that the way Aron and his young fellow conspirators are portrayed scuttling around the ghetto, bears a little too much resemblance to the Artful Dodger.  This diminishes the terrible risks they took and the consequences if caught – discovery would have meant death for them and their families, not just being dragged up before The Beak in the morning!


In common with many of Shepard’s stories, ‘The Book of Aron’ features a real-life figure:  the well-known pediatrician, broadcaster, and advocate for children’s rights, Janusz Korczak, who was ordered by the Nazis to move his orphanage into the ghetto.  As the novel unfolds, there are glimpses of Dr. Korczak on the streets as he cajoles and begs for food and money to support the 200 emotionally scarred and terrified children in his care.


Aron’s hardscrabble existence goes from bad to worse.  His younger brother dies, his father is brutally beaten and his two older brothers are conscripted to so-called labour camps.  Aron is forced to become an informer for a corrupt Jewish police officer, and unwittingly leads a young friend and co-conspirator to his death.  The use of simple syntax gives readers a real sense of Aron’s grief:  “On my way home my legs acted like I kept forgetting how to walk.”.


When his mother falls down, he and one of his co-conspirators carry her to the hospital, where she is diagnosed with Typhus.  “She stayed sick and the weather stayed windy and sleeting.  The Hanukkah decorations fell over in the drafts from the door.  She had more trouble breathing.”  After his mother dies, Aron walks home ” … like I was part of my own funeral procession.”.  Powerful scenes told in simple language.


Thrown out of his home, Aron lives on the streets – “I drank snowmelt in a can” – until, suffering with frostbite, he is rescued by Korczak.  Life within the orphanage unfolds, and we begin to see the children as individuals and the anguish they suffer.  “The young child who sits on his bed staring at his rotten boots.  He held his dead brother’s prayer book in his hands.”  On the streets, more children implore Korczak to take them in, ” … making their proposals like little skeletal aldermen.”.  Accompanying Korczak on his rounds and in late-night conversations, Aron becomes a more loving human being.


The novel is peppered with self-deprecating Yiddish wit – their only defence against the morass their lives were becoming.  Amidst the starving and sick kids, and the sounds of people running for their lives on the streets, Korczak decides to put on a play.  In the audience, an old woman, wearing a Chinaman’s hat, tells Korczak he is a genius and can work miracles in a rat hole.  He replies:  ” … that must have been why the others had all been given the palaces.”.


Early one morning in August 1942, the children and staff are herded out of the orphanage.  Despite being given the chance to save his own life, Korczak leads his children, telling them how proud he is of them.  “Mietek was still in his rotten boots with his dead brother’s prayer book.”  As they march toward their fate, the rumbling of trains on the tracks to Treblinka is as loud in the reader’s ears as it must have been in the children’s.  Nothing is known of the ultimate fate of Korczak, his children, and staff.


The grim reality of life in the ghetto is there, but the simplistic language Shepard uses to tell his characters’ stories manages to transcend the evil man inflicts on his fellow man.  Surprisingly, the reader is left with a sense of the resilience of the human spirit and the goodness of people like Dr. Korczak.

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