The famous expression “Never Again!” was coined by Rabbi Meier Kehane, a Brooklyn-born rabbi who emigrated to Israel , and may be said to have caused no end of trouble for various Israeli governments, but the expression itself will live well beyond the man who coined it. Although specifically meant for Jews, the quote means that Jews will fight to the death to maintain the country founded because of The Holocaust, Israel, and will never again be perceived as passive in the face of attempts to destroy them. But if one applies the aphorism to broader groups of people, we have witnessed genocides in Cambodia; Bosnia/Serbia; Rwanda; The Sudan; The Democratic Republic of Congo; Syria; such are the backgrounds behind the Israeli fear of the current Iranian/American (and other countries’) possible deal with Iran , to attempt to slow down the Iranian inception of nuclear bombs.
The more I learn in fiction and in nonfiction about The Holocaust, which Israelis call Shoah, the more amazed and dumbfounded I am at what human beings are clearly capable of doing to other human beings, and in order not just to bear witness to the past but to face the future with caution and an informed sense of what’s possible, I read more and more books about The Holocaust, the one where an entire group of people were meant to be exterminated from an entire continent, Europe (I write that only because of an agreed upon sense that there’s only been one true Holocaust in the recorded history of humankind).
The beautifully titled The Book of Aron—the title implies that the narrative is of Biblical proportion—is American writer Jim Shepard’s contribution to the literature of The Holocaust, and specifically deals with a piece of the history of The Warsaw Ghetto, created by The Gestapo in order to starve the Polish Jews within it to death, and/or to take any survivors (the strongest or the cleverest) on to the awaiting concentration camps (‘labor camps’). Aron, of the title, is a pre-adolescent , rather troubled , boy , when we meet him and his parents and siblings; they live in a very small apartment within what will become the Ghetto (an outbreak of typhus, caused by the declining hygenic problems within the ghetto, will become one of the excuses the Nazis use to cordon off the Jews into this area, though of course they have caused the typhus to spread)…..it’s not long before another family is squeezed into this same apartment, and the two families do their best to get along in an already cramped space: what fiction can do, and does here, is fill in the interstices of conversations, meals, sleeping arrangements and the like that cannot have been recorded at the time (thus the ongoing value of Anne Frank’s diary). Aron is , however, a bit of a street hustler, and those skills will help keep his family fed and alive (up to a point) and keep him going to almost the end of the ghetto, where all remaining Jews will be boxcar-ed to Treblinka and /or to Auschwitz. So Shephard’s also written the story of a troubled adolescent, whose fate in normal times would be unknown. Aron and some of his friends/fellow smugglers, all his age, have quite a racket going on, smuggling food, in particular, into the ghetto; they have to deal with and please/bribe Polish police, German police, and the hateful Jewish police, who know them the best, and the story of how Aron and friends do these things is the core of this novel. But Aron will be compromised into ‘helping’ the Jewish police, and several friends are betrayed and vanish into death one way or another. Eventually Aron is found and kept in a Warsaw orphanage, run by the (real) doctor Janusz Korcak, who somehow manages to feed and house dozens and dozens of Jewish orphans. The story of his heroism and his near parenting of these probably hundreds of children overlaps with Aron’s. Korcak sees/understands that Aron is a survivor, and the bond between these two is fascinating. All, in the end, are carted off to Treblinka, one of many Nazi death camps, but it’s left unclear whether Aron has escaped—we presume that the novel is his story, ex post facto.
Of course, there are especial horrors when we’re dealing with children, and it may be that Shephard has oversanitized much of what happened in The Warsaw Ghetto, but his emphasis in the novel is on the daily lives and survival of families and of children, and the interrelationships between children and police is horrifyingly fascinating. Many attempt to ‘liberate’ Korcak himself—squirreling him away to some freedom would have reduced his fame, and thus the world’s awareness of the orphanage within the ghetto, but he refuses to be separated from these children, and goes to the camp and his death with them.
Shepard manages to write this novel in a tone that’s gentle, almost as if he’s writing a children’s book (though of course, not quite), and it’s his maintenance of this tone that helps make this novel so brilliant and so moving. Most of what occurs on a daily basis becomes heroic, but words like that aren’t used in the struggles to keep going, stay alive. Worries are smaller things, on a daily basis (clogged toilets, sleepless children, noises, blackout shades and the like). Without missing a single important detail, Shepard begins to elevate the gentle tone of the novel into , shall we say, a faster tempo, and more of one in a minor key, as the book reaches its denouement, and the orphanage is attacked by the hired thugs of the period—Ukrainian guards—who’ve been used to killing Jews in their own country.
Thousands and thousands of acts of heroism occurred during WWII in many an occupied country (when Hannah Arendt was reporting on the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, she spent extra time doing research into which European countries treated their Jewish populations relatively better and/or worse than others: it’s quite an eye-opener). With the overt increase in anti-Semitism rampant through Europe again (“It’s like a virus”, said a Holocaust survivor recently”, “dormant for awhile, and then it comes back”), The Book of Aron is another reminder of what happened not very long ago—there are still survivors alive from those times—but also a cautionary tale of what could easily happen again, “Never Again!” notwithstanding. This is a beautiful book, and it includes how love still lives a little bit under horrible circumstances, and the book affirms that some redemption remains after the horror has died down—for awhile.