Published by Knopf
Publication date: May 12th 2015
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Literary
Set in a Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland The Book of Aron is, like any Holocaust novel, difficult reading. But what makes it so, is not graphic depictions of violence against Jews it is the interminable grind of life lived in circumstances that have nowhere to go but down. At first, it is simply that the community is being segregated as a health precaution against typhus. Then walls go up and non-Jews move out. Then Jews from other areas are moved in and living quarters become tighter. Suddenly, the trams stop running through the area and the only way out is through a heavily guarded exit. More people arrive and your home is no longer your own but is shared with one, then two, and ultimately as many as three or more families. Only, they don’t stay families long—the men are sent away to work camps, supposedly to better food and shelter and they will come back. But they never do. This is life from nine-year old Aron’s point of view.
Author Jim Shepard fills The Book of Aron with the grit, filth, cold, and deprivation of life in the Warsaw ghetto. Yet he does so in a way that eases the reader into it much the way it must have felt to a child. There was always poverty so making do with less was a normal part of life but it is not long before normal devolves into doing anything to survive. For the young Aron this means joining a group of smugglers his age who help their families eat by bartering goods they bring into the ghetto for food. When, as the youngest and smallest, he comes to the attention of the Jewish yellow police to be an informant he cannot say no despite his best efforts. Using Aron, Shepard explores the ingenuity for survival against what it does to the soul.
It is in these darkening days that Aron meets Janusz Korczak, a real pediatrician and educator in Poland at the time that Shepard weaves into the novel. He was known throughout Poland for his progressive views on child rearing.
He told the adults to remember to approach children with affection for what they already were and with respect for what they could become. He told the children to remember that we couldn’t leave the world the way we found it.
When the ghetto is closed off he chooses to stay and run an orphanage for the ever-increasing number of children whose parents have died or disappeared. Aron is one of these children and for the first time in his life, through Korczak, he is treated as a person of value. The old man and the young boy, one educated and privileged, one not, find common ground not just in trying to survive but also in saving others, even if it comes at a cost to themselves. With the simple, straight-forward prose of a child The Book of Aron will cause the heart to ache not just for the child who was lost but for who he could have been.