Friday, May 22, 2015

Jim Shepard’s ‘The Book of Aron’ rightly “joins the masterworks of Holocaust literature”

If the last line of Jim Shepard’s The Book of Aron doesn’t reduce you to tears, you need to do some soul-searching.

Aron, a young Jewish boy living in Warsaw with his parents and siblings, is the narrator of this brutal yet nuanced novel:

The novel hangs on the delicate tension of that deadpan adolescent voice – never cute, never cloying. Aron’s wryness is always entirely unknowing. He relays his world to us just as he experiences it: He fails at school. His mom complains about everything. His little brother dies. How he feels about any of this is articulated only in the space between his sentences. “The next morning my father told me to get up,” he says, “because it was war and the Germans had invaded.” And with that news, his town slides into hell. (Ron Charles, The Washington Post, 4/28/15)

The Nazis soon occupy Warsaw and Jews are forced into designated areas of the city, crammed into already overcrowded apartments. A wall
is built to keep them in what the Nazis say, with ironic delicacy, is not the “Jewish Ghetto” but, rather, the “Jewish Quarter.” Regulation upon regulation is handed down. Curfews imposed. Food becomes scarce and then scarcer. Typhus and other diseases are rampant. The Nazis are aided by the Jewish police who patrol the area and sometimes inform on residents to gain favor with the Gestapo. Violence is everywhere.

Aron joins four boys and girls his own age in a kind of smuggling ring. They search through rubble and abandoned buildings for things they can barter for food. They discover ways to get outside the wall in order to bring food in. They steal what they can. Aron’s mother says, “Stealing is always wrong.” He responds, “Starving is always wrong.”

His father and older brothers are taken away to work camps. Aron is forced by a corrupt Jewish police officer into providing information that results in terrible consequences. His mother dies of typhus and he is homeless, alone, trying to survive on the streets although “[I] hated myself even more for not being dead somewhere.”

He is found and taken in by a revered (and historically real) doctor, Janusz Korczak, the director of an orphanage with two hundred young Jewish children, many of them sick, all of them hungry, lice-infested, and traumatized. Korczak has been forced to move the children into the ghetto and spends his days begging for money to buy food and medicine for his orphans. He is twice offered the opportunity to leave the ghetto but refuses to abandon the children – he will go only if they all are permitted to leave with him.

When Adam Czerniakow, the head of the Judenrat (and another historical figure) commits suicide rather than carry out Nazi orders, Korczak knows that time is running out. “We’re living tombstones,” he says.

Janusz Korczak and the children memorial at Yad Vashem

And, indeed, the Nazis order the children out of the orphanage and on to trains bound for Treblinka. (In an afterword, Shepard says that the fate of Korczak and the children is not known with certainty but it is “most likely they were deported to Treblinka on the afternoon of August 5, 1942. Dr. Imfried Eberl, the commander of the camp, reported to his superiors that at the time, Treblinka was in such a state of overtaxed chaos that mountains of corpses confronted the new arrivals, and therefore maintaining any kind of deception on the way to the gas chambers was nearly impossible.”)

One of the strengths of the novel, as pointed out by Michael Shaub, NPR Books, (5/5/15) is that:

Shepard avoids easy answers, feel-good endings and artificial epiphanies, and he recognizes that stories often don’t end where we’d like them to. “Everyone starts out with big plans,” Aron says at one point. “Then they figure out that’s not how things are going to be.”

There are moral ambiguities everywhere. Aron, although he is a coerced child, has made choices that resulted in the deaths of others. People steal, lie, inform, even kill to survive. A Jewish policeman who has aided the Gestapo, weeps as the children are being loaded on to the train.

Dr. Korczak, discouraged, weary and lonely to the depths of his being, asks, “Those of us who were here, if we ever met up after this…How could we look each other in the eye without asking, ‘How is it that you happened to survive? How do we know if we love enough?’” he asks. “How do we learn to love more?”

As Robert Wiersema wrote in the National Post (5/19/15):

The Book of Aron will join the masterworks of Holocaust literature, but as with the best of those books…the larger truth, the fundamental humanity, emerges from the narrow specificity of the individual to embrace the universal.

Jim Shepard is the author of six novels and four story collections. His third collection, Like You’d Understand, Anyway, was a finalist for the National Book Award and won The Story Prize. Four of his stories have been chosen for the Best American Short Stories, and one for a Pushcart Prize. He teaches at Williams College and in the Warren Wilson MFA program.

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