Narrator Aron is a wild young Jewish boy in the Warsaw ghettos.
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Just nine years old his world is a small apartment crowded with an unhappy father, older brothers, an adoring, disappointed mother, and a younger, sickly brother.
Life is difficult, but when war breaks out and the German army storms the city, it takes on hellish new dimensions. Under the tutelage of a wonderfully foul, streetwise friend, Lutek, Aron learns the crafts of theft and smuggling.
Eventually, they team up with a couple of girls, Zofia — with whom Aron is a little in love — and Adina.
The situation quickly deteriorates; each day brings new torments. First, Aron’s adoring younger brother dies of pneumonia. Then, with the ghetto shrinking, another family moves in with them, including Boris, a boy of such knowing meanness that he quickly usurps leadership of their smuggling gang.
And when Aron’s father and older brothers are snatched off the street for a labour battalion, the boy’s streetwise skills become invaluable. Even so, his mother worries.
“Stealing is always wrong,” she said.
“Starving is always wrong,” I told her.
The ghetto is guarded by layers of police, the Polish watching the Jews, the Ukrainians watching the Poles, and the Germans overseeing everything. Smuggling becomes a shooting offence, nobody has enough to eat, and typhus is sweeping the slums, something to which his mother will soon fall victim. Clothes are laden with lice.
Lejkin is Jewish, a small, angry man who does his police work so well against his own people that he is soon promoted to the assistant head of the city’s Gestapo.
In exchange for a promise of information concerning camp members, and a blind eye turned to certain activities, he coerces Aron to turn informant, with devastating consequences. And when Boris learns of this, he throws the now-orphaned boy out of his own home.
But there is sanctuary. An orphanage, run by the famous — if decrepit — Dr Janusz Korczak.
In a place where everyone’s objective is to endure, at any cost, there is little room for heroism. Yet, ably assisted by Madame Stefa, the doctor collects waifs and strays, and begs and shames the wealthy into giving food.
Korczak will willingly burden himself to ease the suffering of any young broken heart. Aron is such a child.
Alone, and given to relentless tears, he has, for the first time, become aware of the consequences of his actions. But as the war worsens, and the brutalities increase, whispers grow of packed trains and, at the end of the line, Treblinka.
The Book of Aron is a moving read. The Holocaust, one of human history’s great horrors, has become all too familiar a story.
But in the novel’s acknowledgements, which cite nearly three pages of supporting material, Jim Shepard, in setting out his main objective, quotes Marguerite Yourcenar: “to approach inner reality, if possible, through careful examination of what the documents themselves afford.”
But Shephard is one of America’s very finest writers, the author of seven acclaimed novels. By focusing on the trauma of one young boy, he personalises the descent into hell.
Balancing Aron’s innate hunger for survival with a slow-growing maturity and awareness of the immediate world, and drawing heavily on real-life characters and situations, he has not only created something shocking, haunting and truly special, but captures the essence of humanity and its opposite, compassion as well as cruelty. An unforgettable book.
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