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Boy, Interrupted

By (September 1, 2015) No Comment

The Book of Aron

By Jim Shepard
Knopf, 2015

bookofaronWhen the Germans occupy Warsaw in September 1939, Aron Rozycki, the narrator of Jim Shepard’s heartbreaking new novel The Book of Aron, is living with his parents and brothers in a working class Jewish neighbourhood. A year later he and his family are forced into the Ghetto, a 1.3 square mile area sealed off from the rest of the city. At first, Aron, an indifferent student before the war and a source of dismay to his family, thrives in this new world. He teams up with a boy named Boris to smuggle goods into the Ghetto.

But Aron is soon in over his head, especially once he is conscripted into becoming an informant for the Jewish Police and unwittingly betrays two of his fellow smugglers. Before long Aron is completely on his own: his father and brothers are deported; his mother dies of typhus; Boris spurns him as a traitor.

The boy is forced onto the streets and into a dangerous, even savage life:

I was a thief that janitors and porters chased away from their doorways with sweeps of their brooms. I drank snowmelt collected in a can. I lay for days under some blankets. When I went out for food starving people slipped out of dark corners and followed me and when one beggar got hold of something the rest of the pack knocked him down and ripped what he had from his hands and then others stole it from them. Once whatever it was was eaten, everyone went back to begging.

This passage is typical of Aron’s voice. Short, declarative sentences mix with longer ones made up of discrete units linked by simple conjunctions, usually “and.” These apparent transitions often paper over leaps in continuity or logic. Take that long, penultimate sentence. What is the connection between what happens to Aron himself and what happens more generally? We are led by syntax to believe that the beggar who gets hold of something has taken it from Aron, but the rest of the sentence suggests a more regular occurrence that might not have happened to Aron at all, in fact, that he might even have participated in. We are at once sympathetic to and wary of Aron.

The bulk of this short novel concerns what happens next in the thirteen-year-old’s life. The Ghetto teems with hungry, sick, desperate children, so Aron is fortunate to meet Janusz Korczak, a character based on the real-life Jewish Polish medical doctor, educational reformer, and early advocate for children’s rights who directed an orphanage in the Ghetto. In the novel, Korczak brings Aron to the orphanage and takes him under his wing, but their relationship is tested both by Aron’s misguided efforts to secure Korczak’s freedom and by the Nazis’ decision in mid-1942 to begin liquidating the Ghetto. Not even Korczak, so well known throughout Europe that the Nazis have to this point largely left him to his own devices, can save the orphans now. The book ends — as all honest books about the Holocaust must — with destruction. Aron and the rest of the children are deported along with Korczak to Treblinka.

TreblinkaNo wonder, then, that one of the first things Aron tells readers is “It was terrible to have to be the person I was.” But surprisingly he’s not alluding to his life in the Ghetto or the death of his parents or even his eventual deportation. Aron’s later life and the things he suffers are certainly terrible, but Aron’s statement refers, more strangely and more implacably, to being himself five years earlier, before his family’s move to Warsaw, when he lived in an impoverished shtetl near the Lithuanian border. The unusual phrasing “to have to be the person I was” (rather than the simpler “It was terrible to be me”) suggests passivity or entrapment, a kind of curse or fate. At the same time, it also points beyond Aron himself, as if he were saying: “it was terrible to have to be the kind of person I was.” Perhaps many people suffer this fate; perhaps what is terrible is to be part of a particular group. Aron lays claim to several group identities — he is poor, he is a Jew in anti-Semitic prewar Poland — but The Book of Aron argues that the hardest of all is to be a child, which in his world is to be at the mercy of everyone else. Indeed, Korczak is the only one who views him with sympathy and understanding.

We see this most clearly at the end of the book. Shepard vividly describes the desperation of the orphanage’s last days, especially the march to the staging area where the children and their helpers wait in terror for the next train. In those final, terrible moments, Korczak comforts Aron by whispering to him his Declaration of Children’s Rights:

He bent farther down until he was close enough for me to smell him. He put his hands behind my head and lowered his forehead to mine. I was blubbering and got his face wet but he only drew closer. “ ‘The child has the right to develop. The child had the right to be. The child has the right to grieve. The child has the right to learn. And the child has the right to make mistakes.’ “

Jim ShepardChildren are always trying to decode a world that exceeds their understanding. Children in the Holocaust experienced this imperative in particularly powerful and perverse form. Where normal children wonder about life — where do babies come from? — these children wondered about death — what is happening to my world? Shepard suggests that a child’s point of view both incites and stymies readers’ ability to comprehend an overwhelming, traumatic event like the Holocaust. Children offer a powerful metaphor for the bewilderment and fear that adults too — both then and now — experience in the face of something like the Ghetto.

Why Korczak is so drawn to Aron in particular is one of the novel’s mysteries, remarked upon even by other characters (“‘This one again?’” says one of the older children, when he sees Korczak getting ready to take Aron on one of his regular rounds to solicit funds from the Ghetto’s wealthy). Perhaps Korczak identifies with Aron’s haplessness — “Like you, I was always slow doing everything,” he tells the boy — perhaps he sees in Aron some fundamental goodness or kindness. Aron does become more generous under Korczak’s care, able for the first time to look out for others. Perhaps he simply likes that Aron is also an insomniac. Whatever the reason, Korczak chooses Aron as his confidante. For example, he tells the boy about a turning point in his own life that turned him into a kind of orphan: his father was institutionalized for madness when Korczak was only a few years older than Aron. That was the moment he realized “adulthood was a privileged position against which he’d had to struggle. He’d heard a lot about the proletariat as a teenager, but the world’s oldest proletariat was the child. The child was hounded even by those who loved him.”

The anachronistic use of “teenager” is Shepard’s, but the sentiment is Korczak’s. Korczak devoted his life to children. In 1910 he abandoned a promising medical career to concentrate on child psychology and education. He founded a progressive orphanage in Warsaw run partly by the children themselves. In the 1930s, under the name “The Old Doctor,” he presented a series of beloved radio programs for children. As anti-Semitism worsened — Korczak had been born Henryk Goldszmit, and although he was never particularly religious, he identified strongly as a Jew — he dithered about whether to immigrate to Palestine, unwilling to leave his work with the children.

The outbreak of war made the decision for him. Together with his second-in-command, Stefania Wilczynska, known to everyone as Madame Stefa, Korczak kept the orphanage running even when it was moved into the Ghetto. Due to his prominence, he had several chances to leave the Ghetto but always refused because the children could not come with him. Korczak died in August 1942, murdered at Treblinka along with his charges.

bookofaronjshephardAlmost all of the facts I’ve listed above appear in the novel, but Shepard wears his learning lightly. He doesn’t use flashbacks or contrived dialogue in which characters lecture each other about Korczak’s past. There is an excellent biography of Korczak, Betty Jean Lifton’s The King of Children (1988). Shepard his clearly mined her book for telling details, but his book does not simply fictionalize Korczak’s life. Crucially, fiction allows Shepard to imagine what it felt like to be one of the children Korczak helped. Shepard must have been tempted to let Korczak tell his own story. But doing so would have meant betraying Korczak’s belief that children were meaningful in their own right. Appropriately, then, he puts a child at the center of the book. Korczak, who in a less interesting novel would be the hero of the story, rightly here becomes a secondary character.

Shepard portrays the Ghetto as a kind of Empire of Children. The Ghetto swarms with children whose parents have disappeared or died or become distracted by challenges of surviving in a world that is more dangerous every day. From the beginning of the war, when children play happily in the ruins of the Luftwaffe’s bombing, through the early months of the Ghetto’s existence, when their size, agility, and apparent insignificance make them the dominant players in its economy of smuggling, bribery, and extortion, children lead the way in adapting to a topsy-turvy world that bewilders and dispirits their elders. Aron’s parents don’t condone his actions, but the family couldn’t survive as long as it does without the food he brings home.

Yet sometimes the food doesn’t matter — Ghetto life takes away his parents’ appetite:

[S]ome days I’d bring my mother coal and some days flour and some days something else. One night I brought home almonds, but it didn’t matter because some women in fur coats had been ordered to wash the pavement with their underwear and then to put the underwear back on again, wet, and my mother and everyone else had been forced to watch, and she was still upset.

The generally dispassionate tone of the passage suggests that adults responded to the casual brutality and degradation of life in the Ghetto differently than children. One conclusion we could draw from the children’s apparent aptitude for Ghetto life is that they are simply less socialized, more open to adapting to even the most venal circumstances than adults. Yet there remains something true about the claim Korczak has the orphans write to prospective donors: “[When] the adult community wouldn’t provide a stable or rational environment the children… create[d] for themselves a world that was functional and tender.” Aron is so taken with these words that he copies them twice. Indeed, the older orphans comfort new arrivals, and although there is competition and even violence between rival gangs of smugglers, within these groups the children care for each in ways their parents no longer can.

kStill you’d have to ignore a lot to call even the world of the orphanage functional or tender. And however much Aron might like the sentiment, it’s Korczak’s, not his own. After all, he spends the last part of the novel hiding from Boris, terrified that he will punish him for having — under duress — turned two of their closest friends over to the police. It is possible, then, that Korczak is an idealistic dreamer, even deluded.

For the most part, however, Shepard’s Korczak is beguilingly modest, funny, persistent, passionate in his advocacy for children. He never abandons his belief that the world must be different than it is, but he never ignores reality. As a result he is often quite funny, as when he tells his assistant:

You know, when I was a child I told my teachers that I knew how to remake the world. Throw away all the money was always step one. My plan always broke down at step two.

Or when he makes some remarks to the audience attending a play put on by the orphans:

He thanked everyone for coming, and congratulated them all on being twice orphaned themselves, since they were stateless and Jewish. He told the adults to remember to approach children with affection for what they already were and with respect for what they could become. He told the children to remember that we couldn’t leave the world the way we found it. And to remember to wash our hands. And to drink boiled water. And to open the windows to get fresh air. He looked out the window closest to him and finished by saying that we should wait until it was warmer, though.

The speech descends from the high-minded reminder of the Jewish duty to pursue tikkun olam — the repairing or perfecting of the world that Jews believe will bring about the coming of the messiah — to much more modest admonitions about clean hands and fresh air that are themselves qualified by practical considerations about weather and war. Korczak seems endearingly self-deprecating, unable even to give advice without questioning its practicality. But he is also bleakly ironic, making a dark joke that all Jews are orphans and chillingly intimating the children’s fate in the double meaning of his reminder to the children. They “couldn’t leave the world they way [they] found it” might mean they are not supposed to — they are commanded to work for a better world — but it might also mean they will not — they entered the world in more or less loving and secure homes but they will leave it in an extermination camp.

Everything depends on how we understand the word “couldn’t.” But whose word is it? Korczak might be at the center of this passage, but Aron is the one telling it. And the scene is more effective — funnier but also more distressing — because of the indirect narration. Aron’s hectic telling — all those “ands” — infuses Korczak’s words with a childlike breathlessness. Yet Aron is a powerful narrator precisely because he is so fallible. He is unable to understand everything going on around him. Children might adapt to some parts of Ghetto life, but they remain at the mercy of larger events they cannot understand, much less control. They still need adult protection. Aron is an unreliable narrator because he is a child, and adult readers need to supplement his story with their adult knowledge.

As Aron, for example, overhears a conversation between Korczak and his assistant Madame Stefa, we understand, as Aron does not, that she loves Korczak unrequitedly; we hear her pain at the way he refuses to respond to her emotional needs. At the unhappy end of the conversation, Aron tells us, “[Madame Stefa] made a noise like he’d slapped her KorMemand [Korczak] fell back onto his bed once he heard her going down the stairs.” Aron doesn’t judge what he hears, even though we kow what he has just heard is the sound of unjust (psychological) violence on the part of his idol. He simply doesn’t have the experience to know how to interpret what’s happening here, but his language gives us the raw material with which to do so.

Eventually Aron’s inexperience has serious consequences. Boris, now part of the nascent Jewish resistance movement — which would result in the doomed Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April 1943, when 750 poorly armed fighters managed to hold off the Germans for several weeks — asks him for information about the floor plan of the offices of the Jewish Police. Aron, who knows the layout from his time as an informant, agrees to tell him if he arranges to get Korczak and Stefa out of the Ghetto.

Like everything else in the novel, this moment is presented obliquely rather than dramatically. But it’s one of the few that is tragic rather than just terrible. Aron thinks he is doing a good thing, but Korczak doesn’t see it that way. Boris and another boy from the resistance come to make the offer one last time:

Korczak turned around. “And all the children in this orphanage?” he said to me. “I’m going to leave them now, when they have so little time left?”

I put my hands on my face. “I just wanted to save you,” I said.

The other boy said, “Boris chose the spot along the wall from your smuggling days. He picked a good one.”

“When they argue with one another the children have a saying,” Korczak finally told us. “They say, ‘I’ll give you away in a bag.’”

“Tell them the truth,” the boy said. “Tell them we can’t save them.”

“Tell them they’re all just on their own?” Korczak asked, and his anger surprised even them.

“They are all on their own,” the boy said.

“They’re not all on their own,” Korczak said. None of us could look at anyone else.

That last line seems to prove Korczak wrong. At the end of this passage, at least, everyone is isolated. That includes readers, who struggle to understand what’s going on. How is Korczak’s anecdote about the children’s arguments relevant to the situation? What does their saying — “I’ll give you away in a bag” — even mean? Are they so eager to get rid of the other person that they’ll gift-wrap them? Are they giving them away for free or offering them up as informants? Is Korczak angry because he feels undermined? (Usually he is the most powerful figure in the orphanage.) Or because he is so disappointed at Aron’s inability or unwillingness to see that abandoning the children to their fate is the last thing he would ever want to do?

Either way, Korczak’s anger shocks readers and Aron alike. After all, in terms of the Ghetto world that he must learn to navigate if he is to survive, Aron’s offer is quite understandable, even noble. That world is one in which human relations are reduced to transactions. Shepard shows us over and over that in the ghetto every kind of suffering is someone else’s gain, at least until the suffering is so dramatic, so all-encompassing that there is no one left to gain from it. The ration cards of the JanuszKormurdered or deported are bartered away, the furniture of people evicted from their apartments as the ghetto’s boundaries are drawn ever tighter is stolen off the street and held for ransom, the delousing certificates that should help keep illness at bay are simply sold to the highest bidder. “There’s not a good Jew among us,” says one of the smugglers. “The good Jews buy what we bring in,” her partner replies grimly.

Korczak, by contrast, really is a good Jew, a mensch, not least because he has the self-awareness to note “what a strange and unsavory person” he’s become in the distorting prison of the Ghetto. Yet at the same time we might question Korczak’s behaviour. He unfairly expects Aron to share his own almost pathological selflessness. To really be giving to another person requires accepting that they might not be similarly giving, although it is a sign of how fraught and even perverse this situation is that Korczak cannot understand Aron’s offer to Stefa and himself as altruistic. This moment brings me back to Korczak’s Declaration of Children’s Rights:

‘The child has the right to develop. The child had the right to be. The child has the right to grieve. The child has the right to learn. And the child has the right to make mistakes.’

In light of the argument between Korczak and Aron, we can understand these statements as something more than an affirmation of the human spirit. They are as acerbic as they are generous. Even as they absolve they remind the person who has been absolved of his infraction. To admit Aron’s right to make mistakes is to suggest that he has made them. And at least in regard to Korczak it is unclear that he has done anything of the sort.

Although the implications of the final scene between Korczak and Aron might be unsettling, it is impossible to read them without being moved — and relieved at the absolution they at least seem to promise. How affirming of human dignity to experience these resonant words in this terrible place! Yet The Book of Aron wouldn’t be honest if it ended this way. Shepard adds a final paragraph written in detached third person describing the historical fate of Korczak and his orphans. He and almost all the children were gassed at Treblinka. The life-affirming quality of Korczak’s final words is off-set by Shepard’s much grimmer ones:

Dr. Imfried Eberl, the commander of the camps, 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.

Aside from the chilling ventriloquism of the bureaucratic legalese used by the Nazis to cloak their deeds, this final sentence is most striking for the way it forces us to reflect on what’s come before. Surprisingly, Shepard makes no effort to suggest that Aron will survive the war. And yet the first person narration implies that he will. To be the one who survives to record Korczak’s heroism for posterity — that would have been a way for Shepard to account for Aron’s importance. Instead we are forced to draw the conclusion that there is no position from which Aron could plausibly be telling his story. The past tense means he isn’t telling us things as they happen to him. Even the moment of self-reflection I cited earlier — “It was terrible to have to be the person I was” — only implies retrospection. Actual retrospection would require him to say something like “to have been the person I was.” By choosing not give a naturalistic explanation for the production or circumstances of his story, Shepard makes Aron’s situation seem all the more futile.

AronShephardHis implied death and truncated narrative voice is just the most dramatic way in which Aron is interrupted over the course of the novel. Korczak always insists that children are not merely incipient adults and therefore unfinished or second-rate beings. They are meaningful individuals with the right to be loved for who they are, even as they must be nurtured to become the people they were meant to be. What is terrible in Aron’s life is not just that it was terrible to have to be the person he was, but also that he was unable to become at all.

But Aron’s life is interrupted in another way as well. He is prevented from becoming the hero of his own story. The reason for that is that Korczak refuses to accept Aron’s efforts to help him escape the Ghetto. I think we have to understand that refusal as both a personal failing on Korcza’s part and a symptom of the larger, world historical situation: the Nazi plan to exterminate European Jewry did not permit and in fact even made a mockery of the very idea of heroism.

Aron’s is a story of boyhood interrupted by war and horror. But it is also interrupted by his encounter with a great man, even though that man cares for him as no one has before. In the end, the best reason to reads this remarkable novel is that it is fundamentally conflicted, unable to present either of its main characters unequivocally, unable to decide how much The Book of Aron is really the book of Korczak.

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Dorian Stuber teaches at Hendrix College and blogs about books at eigermonchjungfrau.