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Aron, the narrator, is an engaging if peculiar and unhappy young boy whose family is driven by the German onslaught from the Polish countryside into Warsaw and slowly battered by deprivation, disease, and persecution. He and a handful of boys and girls risk their lives by scuttling around the ghetto to smuggle and trade contraband through the quarantine walls in hopes of keeping their fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters alive, hunted all the while by blackmailers and by Jewish, Polish, and German police, not to mention the Gestapo.
When his family is finally stripped away from him, Aron is rescued by Janusz Korczak, a doctor renowned throughout prewar Europe as an advocate of children's rights who, once the Nazis swept in, was put in charge of the Warsaw orphanage. Treblinka awaits them all, but does Aron manage to escape--as his mentor suspected he could--to spread word about the atrocities?
Jim Shepard has masterfully made this child's-eye view of the darkest history mesmerizing, sometimes comic despite all odds, truly heartbreaking, and even inspiring. Anyone who hears Aron's voice will remember it forever.
Through the eyes of children
Of the estimated six million Jews extinguished during the Holocaust, perhaps one-fourth were children. To make this figure somewhat conceivable, imagine if every one of them had, like Anne Frank, left behind a diary—or if that many novelists reconstructed in fiction the horrors these innocents had to face. Something like this imperative motivates National Book Award finalist Jim Shepard’s seventh novel, The Book of Aron, a loosely historical account of the children of the Warsaw ghetto.
The novel begins with the relocation of Aron and his family to Poland’s capital under the pretext of containing a typhus epidemic. Instead, the Germans impoverish the ghetto’s inhabitants via theft and starvation. Shepard deftly shows how the Jews’ accommodating, fatalistic ethos blinds them to the Germans’ monstrosity. An officer assigned to supervise the orphanage in which Aron ends up puts it thus: “The Jews adjust to every situation.” Several pages carry the news that the ghetto has yet again shrunk, like a noose.
Shepard ventures into the delicate subject of how some Jews were complicit in their co-religionists’ destruction. Hannah Arendt argued controversially that the Judenrate, or Jewish councils, helped the Nazis by tabulating Jewish constituents; the Judenrate are shown here stifling rumors about deportation to the gas chambers at Treblinka. Even Aron becomes an informer for the Gestapo. But Shepard underscores how famine makes nonsense of much ordinary morality.
The novel is too grave to admit much stylistic ornamentation. Much of it is dialogue, but not mere patter. There is humor of the blackest sort, jokes about Hitler or the Jewish Police. But the overriding tone is somber and tense and suffocating, like the climate before a storm. Shepard tackles his grim subject without a hint of sentimentality, though it is clear that the subject is not an easy one for him.
Every day’s newspaper shows that children continue to be the tragic pawn in the ideological games of adults, from massacres in Peshawar or Norway to the abduction of schoolgirls in Nigeria. To say “never again” might be wishful thinking, but Shepard’s taut, discomfiting novel at least illuminates what adult atrocities seem to children’s eyes.