Wynn Wheldon

‘It’s always wrong to starve’

Jim Shepard’s novel The Book of Aron tells (with the bitterest black humour) the little-known story of a real-life paediatrician who devoted his life to the orphans of the Warsaw ghetto

‘It’s always wrong to starve’
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The Book of Aron

Jim Shepard

Quercus, pp. 240, £

‘My mother and father named me Aron, but my father said they should have named me What Have You Done, and my uncle told everyone they should have called me What Were You Thinking.’ So begins, with bitter Jewish humour, this involving book set largely in the Warsaw ghetto.

There is a hint of unnerving pastiche in this, but it is a sentence that finds an echo in the compassionate words of Jim Shepard’s hero, Janusz Korczak, in the final sentence of the book.

Korczak was a real figure, a paediatrician who ran an orphanage in Warsaw, moved with it into the ghetto and, despite being offered several chances of escape, stayed with his charges when transported to the extermination camp at Treblinka.

Aron, the young first-person narrator, is the third son of poor Jews in a Polish village near the Lithuanian border. His father, a sardonic figure who provides moments of black humour, ‘was always off looking for money’. His mother, put-upon and loving, washes other people’s floors. It is noted that Aron ‘only looks out for himself’. It is a recurring truth, of which the boy is both aware and ashamed (‘Everyone,’ he says later on, ‘claimed I was selfish because I took too long on the toilet’). He is the polar opposite of the selfless Korczak.

When his father is offered better work in Warsaw, the family moves from rural shtetl to urban slum. Then things get worse. The horrors are described from the child’s point of view; there is no reflection, no judgment. This is what the world is like. The pared prose is affecting.

Once the Jews are walled in and the ghetto established, Aron becomes part of a gang of children, two of whom are girls. They steal, they smuggle, they fight other gangs. They provide small moments of affection. Life is a fight against lice, hunger, typhus, Ukrainian soldiers, German soldiers, Polish policemen. And Jewish policemen, one of whom recruits Aron. The moral dilemmas are acute, but resolved by necessity. Aron’s mother tells him it is always wrong to steal. Aron replies that it is always wrong to starve.

Aron’s descent is incremental. His father and brothers are taken away, his mother dies of typhoid; of the gang only the most ruthless survives. Eventually he is picked up by Korczak and entered into the orphanage.

This is more than halfway into the book, and Aron’s focus changes as he spends time with ‘Pan Doctor’, a character tragically full of self-recrimination, who is both strict and tender with the children, and whose conversations with Madame Stefa, his equally heroic colleague, are recorded by Aron, as the boy sits or lies close by. Korczak is by turns sardonic, honest and devoted. There is no happy ending.

Unlike many of the books and films featuring children in the Holocaust, The Book of Aron reeks of the real. At the very least it brings the name of Korczak to many who will not have known it.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £13.49 Tel: 08430 600033