Books: The Book of Aron

Through the first-person narrative of a child, "The Book of Aron" provides a powerful and poignant reminder of the stark moral choices the Jews of Warsaw were forced to make.

A part of the scene on the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw. (photo credit: KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS)
A part of the scene on the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw.
As Jim Shepard’s seventh novel begins, Aron Rózycki makes a new friend.
As The Book of Aron details, Lutek – a small boy who wears a rabbit-skin cap with earlaps, and likes to climb utility poles to look down on people – takes charge of Aron’s education.
He shows him how to steal from vegetable carts and the cellar, next to a coal chute where he hides from his enemies.
Lutek has been arrested twice, for breaking down the door of a boy who had stolen his cap and for bashing in the head of another kid with a jeweler’s hammer. And he insists that someone else’s problems should not prevent him (or Aron) from having a good time.
A few months later, Nazi Germany invades Poland. During the ensuing occupation of Warsaw, the skills the 10-yearold boys have honed are put to the test. And Lutek’s view of humanity – “the salt of the earth dissolves and the shit remains” – seems all too true.
In The Book of Aron, Shepard, who teaches creative writing at Williams College, uses a first-person narrative to imagine the day-to-day realities of the Warsaw Ghetto from the point of view of a Jewish child. His well-researched historical novel also features Janusz Korczak (Henryk Goldszmit), the pediatrician, children’s books author, radio host and director of the Warsaw orphanage, who refused offers of sanctuary and accompanied his charges to Treblinka.
Written in spare prose, with compassion, touches of dark humor and a profound understanding of human complexity, the work provides a powerful and poignant reminder of the stark moral choices the Jews of Warsaw were forced to make.
“The Germans do what the German do,” Lejkin, a member of the “yellow” (Jewish) police, tells Aron. “What you want to remember is how to keep them from doing it to you.”
Everyone in Warsaw is tainted, Korczak tells Madame Stefa, his assistant.
“You have to be smeared with crap, you have to stink, you have to be crafty.”
Shepard reminds us as well that no matter what they did, no matter how willful, resourceful, selfish or spiteful they were, the Jews of Warsaw could not control their fate. A friend of Aron and Lutek is caught smuggling, Shepard writes. As Boris is about to be shot, “a cloud of gnats flew into his eyes and nose and also bothered the Germans, who argued with one another while he stood there against the wall and then, for whatever reason, just left him there.”
Caring, courageous and convinced that resistance by Jews without weapons is futile, Shepard’s Dr. Korczak is the conscience of The Book of Aron. Tormented by a premonition that he will be sleeping when he is needed the most, he yearns for a world in which adults treat children with affection for who they are and respect for what they can become.
And he asks his orphans to wash their hands, drink boiled water, open windows to get fresh air (but not until the weather is warmer) – and leave the world better than they found it.
Korczak begs for food at the Jewish Community Office, at the homes of rich people and collaborators and outside cafes. Acknowledging to Aron that “given one circumstance or another, we were all tied up like dogs on a chain,” Korczak apologizes for saying something so unhelpful and – without appearing to be ironic – emphasizes that amid great sadness, “what we needed to do was to tell ourselves that we weren’t living in the worst place in the world, but instead were surrounded by grasshoppers and glowworms.”
While he watches two boys playing on the street with some rope, taking turns whipping each other and laughing, “Pan Doktor” confesses that he dreams “of a room in Jerusalem with a table and something to write on. Transparent walls so I wouldn’t miss a single sunrise or sunset. And I’m just the silent Jew from who knows where.”
Holding on to a lamp post to steady himself, Korczak makes an “after you” gesture to Aron with a bow, and clears his throat as he walks down the block.
Korczak understood, better than most, that “no one knew what worked, and what didn’t and what seemed secure one day was a soap bubble the next.”
He gives Aron the choice of joining the Underground; he tells his kids in August 1942 that the police have assured him the orphanage was so famous the Germans would not touch it. And when they are herded on the train he knows is headed for Treblinka, he declares they’re going on a trip to the forest.
What was going to happen was going to happen, Korczak has concluded, “and how everyone chose to face it would be the point.”
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.