Before we can even get into the story of The Book of Aron, the bleaker-than-Bleak-House narrative of boys smuggling turnips and information through the heavily guarded walls of the Jewish ghetto, the decline of an orphanage therein, and the looming specter of Treblinka—before we can dig into the language, it seems important to ask this question: Why did a non-Jew living in the 21st century write a book about the Holocaust?
The question doesn't make Jim Shepard blush. Shepard is a professor of creative writing at Williams College and the author of 11 books, one of which was a National Book Award finalist. He's clearly got the chops—or at least the resources—to tackle such a large historical event, but why him and why now?
"It is a little hubristic," he said. "But ultimately, it's all about extending the empathetic imagination. We have to get outside of our little boundaries."
Specifically, he got the notion to start work on The Book of Aron from a single line in Janusz Korczak's Ghetto Diary. Korczak was a Jewish pediatrician and orphanage director who refused opportunities to escape the Warsaw ghetto so he could continue to look after his young charges.
More specifically, Shepard was struck by a sentence that one of the orphans used. The line went something like: "The Germans invaded. Great."
"When I read that, I thought, 'I know that kid,'" Shepard told me. There was something about that cynical voice, the way the tone belied the orphan's desperation even as it served to shield him from that desperation.
And so Shepard started researching.
The six-page bibliography included at the end of the book doesn't lie. Over his long career as a teacher and writer, he'd already read a lot of the canonical Holocaust literature, but he did an additional five years of research specific to Poland and to the ghettos. He spent time in Warsaw, a city, he reminded me, that was 87 percent destroyed during WWII, second only to Hiroshima.
A common lament after reading a book like Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl goes something like this: "Her death is such a tragedy. Sure, six million other Jews died. But Anne was so smart!" And, of course, had she lived, Anne Frank would have become one of the world's great writers. But that line of thinking introduces an uneasy hierarchy. Was Frank's death more tragic than anyone else's? More regrettable than someone who wasn't as bright or insightful? What about the kind of person no one paid attention to? The kind of person who was forgotten?
The Book of Aron is told from the perspective of just such a person. The 13-year-old Aron speaks in flat understatement—"My tenth birthday came and went without raisin cake." He describes his mother's death in the same cadence with which he bemoans the absence of bread, and he shares news of the German invasion as blankly as if discussing the weather. His affectlessness allows sentences like "I was told I couldn't stay but no one noticed I hadn't left" to land so hard on your heart that you have to stop reading and go for a walk to shake off the immense loneliness.
Aron's world is full of lice-infested people who are dying of typhus and spending most of their energy trying to figure out what they have to do to secure a rutabaga or some spit soup for the evening. "It was very hard to put one foot in front of the other," Shepard said. Literally. They had no shoes. If they did, they were often made of old wood that slipped out from under them on the stone streets. You know those days when you have a bad cold and suddenly that barrel bombing in Syria is the least of your worries? Multiply that feeling by rampant disease and endless winter and then talk about "seeing it coming."
On top of having to endure the physical conditions of the ghetto, the characters in The Book of Aron also must endure the capriciousness of Nazi logic, which Shepard embeds into the structure of the story. Aron doesn't think fetching a bootjack for an officer or stealing a bag of turnips is going to get anybody killed, but it does. And because Shepard organizes the narrative into a series of small, rational decisions that Aron makes, you nod along in agreement with his choices until suddenly you realize that you're sympathizing with an informer for the Gestapo. "There wasn't a moment where everyone was lined up and forced to choose between good and evil," Shepard said. "The Nazis wouldn't have been effective like that."
At the Central Library in June, Shepard read the first 15 pages of the book and participated in a Q&A that somehow wasn't a tortured affair full of grandstanding followed by long silence. The people in attendance meaningfully connected some of the book's themes with some of the rationalizations many Americans use to justify US domestic and foreign policy.
In the chilly auditorium, Shepard reminded us that the Nazis developed gas chambers in part because the rate of hand-to-hand killing was causing mass PTSD events among the Nazi soldiers. Someone mentioned drones, and then there was some quiet talk about US complicity in the death of innocent people in Yemen and Pakistan. There's obviously a difference between the mass extermination of Jews and other groups via gas chamber and the role of drones in the fight against terrorism, but the logical overlap is instructive.
The horrible innovation of gas chambers and the deployment of drones are actuarial decisions. Humans find it hard to stomach the physical and psychological cost of killing other humans, and so, rather than forego the killing, we invent ways to distance ourselves from the act. We reduce war death to a number, a stat like the GDP, a euphemism like "casualties." We make death a thing that happens elsewhere. The Book of Aron is a powerful reminder that elsewhere is right here.