Not Another Holocaust Novel
The Book of Aron
(Vintage Contemporaries, 2016)
Jim Shepard’s The Book of Aron is a Holocaust novel. To start talking about this book in any other way would be like to describe a beach as nothing more than a field of sand and not mention the ocean. Aron, the narrator, is eight years old when the story begins. Aron is growing up in extreme poverty, with little attention and care. It is not an idyllic childhood and Aron’s typical behavior is far from being honest or honorable. In the words of a family member, Aron “only looks out for himself.”
After the Nazis wall off the Jewish quarter of Warsaw and all the Jews are confined to the condemned zone, Shepard does not hold back on the horror. Through the eyes of a child, in short curt sentences, he details the starvation, vermin, disease, death, depravity and indifference. It’s what we’ve come to expect from a Holocaust novel. Aron falls in with a group of kids who smuggle food through a hole under the wall and steal from unwatched stores and homes. We are spared the very final details of his death. That does not make the last scene any less sickening—Aron, still a child, is being loaded onto a train that will take him to Treblinka.
Has this story been written before? There was Schindler’s List and Life is Beautiful, and even Inglorious Basterds. There was The Diary of Anne Frank, The Book Thief, and even Everything is Illuminated. We’ve built the museum, we’ve seen photos of faces without flesh behind the barbwire and piles of children’s shoes. We’ve experienced the appropriate amount of moral outrage. And for those with a deeper and more personal connections, the story has been etched onto their DNA.
Why did Shepard chose to write another one of those novels using a narrator who is so young? Was it on some writerly bet or for some literary extra credit? True, a child voice can offer an untainted perspective, a kind of a brutal and factual innocence. In one paragraph, an eight-year-old can describe a corpse of a young girl on a sidewalk and complain about the sun being in his eyes. Shepard can offset things indescribable against things ordinarily described. The absurdity of using the same words, the same language, for both creates the intended effect, stripping away the layers of what we already know and eliciting an emotional response. Still, it is a bold move. The author is walking a very tight rope, high up in the air, juggling pots, pans, and maybe even a few blenders. One wrong step, and the novel turns into a tearjerker. One wrong throw, and it becomes offensively mundane.
Shepard does not lose his balance. Perhaps, it is simply because he is a capable writer. Maybe, it is because Aron is not idealized. He behaves selfishly, with a typical short-sightedness and disregard for the consequences of a child. He betrays a friend who is then shot by the Nazis. When the other boy is shot, Shepard describes the skidding of his wooden shoes and Aron being knocked to the ground because the German is upset by the noise he makes. What is not on the page, is as effective as what is. Shepard has a sense of understated wit, that allows him to be weighty and precise, but not overbearing or moralistic. This is also what he does so well in his short stories. His stories are often based on real historical events and figures. The Book of Aron is no different—it features Janusz Korczak. In the novel, Korczak is a director of a Jewish orphanage who takes in Aron when the boy has nowhere else to go.
Korczak was a famous pediatrician, educator, social activist, and children’s books author. He did run an orphanage for Jewish children in Warsaw. At the time, it was a unique and unconventional institution. The orphanage was a republic for children, with its own parliament, a court, and a newspaper. He wrote a pedagogical book titled How to Love a Child and it included ten commandments for parents. “Love your child no matter what they are—not talented, unsuccessful or grown up. When spending time with him—rejoice, because the child—is a holiday that is still with you,” says the very last commandment.
As much as Korczak had done in his life, the act that defines him most is the way he died. After the orphanage was moved to the Warsaw ghetto, everyone, including Korczak himself, believed the children would be spared. Korczak was well known, a figure of notoriety. His status as the Pan Doctor should have allowed him to avoid the gas chambers. But in August 1942, according to the existing records, he was deported to Treblinka along with all his children and staff. Korczak could have saved himself. He had multiple offers to escape the ghetto, from the Poles and the Germans. He chose not to.
Korczak boarded the train, with his staff and children, and he did not have to. He knew where they were going. Everyone knew. Describing his decision with words, the same ones we use to complain about the sun being too bright or our coffee too hot, seems inadequate.
The novel ends with the march through the streets of Warsaw, to the trains that will inevitably head to Treblinka. It’s hot and the children are begging for water. They walk in rows of four, carrying their possessions, Korczak carrying one of the younger and sicker children. They carry a green flag with a Jewish star. Aron, through his smuggling connections, makes one final effort to save Korczak from being loaded onto the train. This is Aron’s final act, an act of exceptional altruism. The doctor refuses. “Can you imagine what it would be like for them if the next train comes back while I’m gone?” Korczak says.
Korczak dedicated his life to listening to the voices of children and writing about how children should be treated. It seems fitting to have his story told in a voice of a young boy. It is not feasible to tell it and not make it a Holocaust novel. And it makes sense to have the boy who is telling the story not to be a picture-perfect one, with clean hair and good manners, but a little self-serving thief. “Love your child no matter what they are,” Korczak wrote. In that case, Shepard’s decision to write a Holocaust novel narrated by a child is not some superfluous trick to show off his writerly skill. It is the only logical choice.
Korczak transforms into a fictional character seamlessly. If a novel can be about something, then The Book of Aron is about the existence of people who look like us, go to their adult jobs like us, eat too much sugar, and wear uncomfortable shoes. Then they face inexplicable horror and they make a choice to not save their life, against the instinct of self-preservation. Not because they are not afraid, but because the ones they love are afraid more.
When I was eight years old, my favorite book was King Matt the First, written by none other than Janusz Korczak. It is a story of a boy king, who becomes the ruler of his country after both of his parents die. He soon finds out that being a king is a lot less fun than being a kid. He now has to deal with ministers and the parliament. He is confined by pointless rules and relentless bureaucracy. He is bored and wants to play in the garden. But he does want to improve the lives of his citizens, especially children. He begins to implement new laws. For example, he signs a law that makes it required for every child to receive a certain monthly dosage of chocolate.
My favorite chapter was the one in which King Matt issues a decree that reverses the roles between children and adults. Children take on the adult jobs and, in turn, adults have to listen to children. Children are driving trains, running police stations, operating factories, and teaching schools. Adults have to attend schools. The adults soon begin to accept and enjoy their new situation. A few bankers do turn into playground bullies and a few grandmothers do fall asleep in the last row of a classroom. But for the most part, adults realize this is not a bad deal. But things are not running smoothly for the children, leaving them tired and not happy. Running a factory turns out to be complicated. Countless arguments ensue between grocery store clerks and their customers, as neither is sure how much change they should be giving and getting back. Realizing this is more trouble than it is worth, King Matt reverse the decree. And everyone goes back to their intended place.
In The Book of Aron nothing can be reversed. But the green flag, the one Korczak’s orphans carry on their final march, is the flag of King Matt.