By Rob Spillman
Jim Shepard’s new novel, The Book of Aron, is told from the point of view of a Jewish boy in the Warsaw Ghetto during the summer of 1942, which was a particularly horrific chapter of the war. After invading Poland in November, 1940, the Germans moved Warsaw’s four hundred thousand Jewish citizens into the ghetto which they then walled off. Trapped in an area not much bigger than a square mile, the Jewish population starved and died of Typhus. But not fast enough. During the summer of 1942, the Jews were systematically rounded up and taken by train to the Treblinka death camp, where an estimated two hundred and fifty thousand Warsaw citizens were killed over the course of two months.
Do we need another Holocaust novel? One could just as easily ask, “Do we need another love story?” After Romeo and Juliet, why bother? And why the contemporary, non-Jewish writer Jim Shepard? What can he possibly add to this oft-mined subject? The answer is that Jim Shepard is a flat-out brilliant and deeply empathetic writer who can write about anything. But he doesn’t choose to write about just anything. In his previous seven novels and four story collections, Shepard has championed the loser, the poor schmo run over by forces beyond his or her control, be they manmade or natural. His characters have been buried by volcanic eruptions, tidal waves, the French Revolution, and family dysfunction. They face their doom willingly or unwillingly, with knowing or without, but almost always with gallows humor. Even his titles have a sardonic bite. His last collection, which won the Story Prize, was titled You Think That’s Bad. The previous collection, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, was titled Like You’d Understand.
Shepard’s chutzpah is choosing to write not only about a very well-documented point in history, but choosing to do so from the limited point of view of a distracted, starving, barely educated thirteen year-old.
Aron is very much a Shepard character: “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.” That is the first line. Aron, on the cusp of thirteen, is under-sized, spacey, weasely, does horribly in school, and can’t provide for the family like his two older brothers do. That is until the Germans overrun Warsaw and Aron hooks up with an older teen named Boris who is a master smuggler. As the Germans wall in the Jewish population, Aron’s survival instinct kicks in and he puts his sneakiness to great use, procuring much needed food for his entire family. Aron and Boris are soon joined by several other teens who form one of the many gangs of kids smuggling goods over and through the wall. Aron’s devious skills, as well as his questionable moral center, are noticed by Lejkin, a fast-rising officer in the Jewish Police. Lejkin is sneaky himself, willing to sell out fellow Jews to secure his own survival. Lejkin convinces Aron to give him information for the Gestapo, to become an informer so that he can continue smuggling, and thus give his family a chance to survive the Typhus-plagued ghetto.
Hovering on the periphery of Aron’s story is Janusz Korczak, the pediatrician turned children’s rights champion who was known throughout Europe for his groundbreaking work with children. Korczak somehow maintained an orphanage in the ghetto, feeding two hundred constantly hungry children while also getting them to perform plays to keep their spirits up.
You also diligently listen to every scrap of information and gossip about the war, much of it contradictory. Readers will know what is historically true, but Aron does not.
Shepard’s chutzpah is choosing to write not only about a very well-documented point in history and the world famous, saintly figure of Korczak, who left behind voluminous writing and has been written about by eye-witnesses ad-nauseum, but choosing to do so from the limited point of view of a distracted, starving, barely educated thirteen year-old with a warped sense of humor and a sole focus on survival. Aron is no Anne Frank. His worldview is what is in front of him, he cries easily, and he doesn’t think about the beauty of humanity. When the rumors of Treblinka finally reach the ghetto, a boy tells Aron how he escaped through barbed wire loosened by other boys who were killed before they could get through. Aron, in a rare moment of introspection, thinks, “That’s what I would do. I’d climb over heads if I had to.”
What Aron’s limited vantage point does allow for is immediacy. You feel the dread, the desperation, and you laugh along with the black humor, the aphoristic wit of the adults he comes in contact with. You cringe as he makes questionable moral choices, but can’t help wonder if you wouldn’t do the same when faced with the death of your family. You also diligently listen to every scrap of information and gossip about the war, much of it contradictory. Readers will know what is historically true, but Aron does not. He has to trust his instincts to survive. Eventually his will to live takes him inside Korczak’s orphanage. Boris, made of sterner stuff, will join the Jewish Fighting Organization to resist the Nazis as the ghetto’s residents are systematically rounded up and carted off to Treblinka, where they are then marched directly from the train cars to the gas chambers.
At the end of The Book of Aron, Shepard lists dozens of nonfiction titles related to the Warsaw Ghetto, including many eyewitness accounts, inviting further reading. He also thanks many people in Poland for help on the ground during his research in Warsaw. But make no mistake, this is a fully inhabited work of fiction. Shepard puts the reader inside a known enclosure and yet makes us feel anew the bewilderment and horror of that time and place.
For every Anne Frank there were thousands of Arons. Not heroes, not deep thinkers, not the kids who were the most likely to be world-changers, but ordinary children caught up by horrific forces. Their stories are just as worthy of being told. By not elevating Aron to Spielberg-esque glory, Shepard has given us something much more effecting and resonant—an empathetic portrait of a complicated child lost to history. The Book of Aron is a worthy, necessary addition to the literature of the Holocaust.