August 17, 2019

A child’s life in the Warsaw Ghetto

Polish-Jewish doctor and educator Janusz Korczak was famous throughout Europe as director of the Warsaw Ghetto orphanage and an advocate for children’s rights. Despite offers of sanctuary, he chose to accompany his orphans to the gas chambers of Treblinka. This long-heralded hero is brought to life in Jim Shepard’s new novel, “The Book of Aron” (Alfred A. Knopf). Shepard, a National Book Award finalist, presents Korczak as an all-too-human figure who wrestled with his own demons and fought to retain his morality.

The protagonist is the precocious Aron, a sickly boy, a poor student and a troublemaker. “I was like something that had been raised in the wild,” the boy says in the book. His uncle gave him the nickname Sh’maya “because I did so many things that made him put his finger to his nose as a warning and say, ‘God has heard.’ ”

Aron lives with his parents and two brothers in a country home near the Lithuanian border, until his father gets a job at a factory and moves the family to Warsaw. Aron spends the summer working at the factory, too. He also discovers Korczak’s radio show, “The Old Doctor.” “I liked it because, even though he complained about how alone he was, he always wanted to know more about other people, especially kids,” Aron says in the book.

When the Germans invaded and the Jews of Warsaw were forced into the ghetto, things quickly deteriorated. Typhus, tuberculosis, bedbugs and lice plagued the residents, rations of food and basic essentials became scarce, and the police crackdowns became more common. Aron bands together with two girls, Zofia and Adina, and two boys, Boris and Lutek, and they devise a system of smuggling bags of turnips and potatoes into the ghetto through a hole dug into a wall, while skirting Jewish, Polish and German police.

Shepard’s highly detailed account of life in the Warsaw Ghetto comes from extensive readings of first-person accounts of Polish and Jewish childhood before and during World War II. In a six-page acknowledgements section, he lists more than 40 diaries, articles and other historical texts. “So I was able to channel some of those voices as well,” Shepard said in a phone interview.

Aron and his friends speak candidly with one another, teasing and cajoling with a begrudging affection that accompanies the fight for survival. Shepard said his ability to vividly capture the language of children comes from his own childhood.

“As a child, I was enough of an outsider that I was in the mode of observing the main group, but not such an outsider that I was banished from observing the main group,” Shepard said. Aron is similar, part of a loose gang, but hardly the ringleader.

Shepard also captures the dark humor of Yiddish life. When Aron’s father read aloud newspaper proclamations of new streets that are to be cleansed of Jews, he announced, “And under the heading of Things Get Worse. … ” When Aron’s parents fought about whether to spend money on bread or soap, his mother said that “once we got the typhus we wouldn’t need money for soap,” and his father replied that “once we got the typhus he’d never have to hear her complain again.”

Satire is the only weapon left for the ghetto’s inhabitants. In another example of his parents’ morbid humor, “a German truck went by with a loudspeaker and its only message in Polish was that it was now forbidden to speak of ‘the Jewish ghetto,’ and the proper term was now ‘the Jewish quarter.’ ‘How do you like it here in the Jewish quarter?’ my father asked my mother. ‘I find it confining,’ she told him.”

The children are the most aware of what’s going on in the Warsaw Ghetto. By eavesdropping on police conversations and learning about impending Nazi actions, they become a lifeline for the desperate ghetto dwellers. But Aron is also forced by a Jewish police officer, Lejkin, into the position of an informant for the Jewish Order Service, with devastating consequences.

Aron eventually finds himself living in Korczak’s orphanage. “Pan Doctor,” as the children called Korczak, takes the boy along as he knocks on doors to scrape up some money for food for the children. Aron helps Korczak produce theatrical plays for the community, to keep the famished children engaged and the financial support trickling in. Korczak becomes a father to Aron as well as a friend.

In the decades after the Holocaust, it was daunting to dramatize what had happened because of the challenge of accurately depicting the enormity of the tragedy, or the problem of using beautiful language to depict something so ugly. “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” Theodor Adorno famously wrote (though he later came to renounce that position).

Shepard credits the release of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film “Schindler’s List” with opening up the dialogue about the Holocaust. Now, he said, the challenge is finding something unique to say about the war. Shepard has done this by recounting the war through the eyes of a child who lived in morally challenging times, when the struggle for survival trumped questions of right and wrong.

“One of the lovely things about Anne Frank is that you just admire her so much,” Shepard said. “And what that does is it puts you in an odd moral position, of sort of going, ‘The Holocaust was terrible because it killed these extraordinary children like Anne Frank.’ And you know, that’s obviously true, but I also find myself wanting to say, ‘You know, the little snot-nosed kid who nobody likes, it was pretty terrible because it killed him too, you know?’ ”

Shepard’s children lie, cheat, steal and betray in order to stay alive. When Zofia tells her friends, “There’s not one good Jew among us,” Boris replies, “The good Jews buy what we bring in.” It’s a cynical sentiment, but cynicism can be a tool for survival as well.