Book/Plate is a literary/culinary series in partnership with Peck’s Homemade, which pairs new books with complementary cuisine for a unique dinner with the author. And they had an event for The Book of Aron! The menu featured a meal celebrating the foods of the Eastern European Jewish Diaspora and celebrates the survival of this cultural tradition. Check out a short video below:
Catch Jim at the Cuyahoga County Public Library tonight, at 7:00 pm. Information and registration can be found here.
Then Jim heads south next week! Take a look at the Book Tour section for a full schedule.
Here’s a really interesting interview with Bethanne Patrick of LitHub:
According to Vulture, Shepard is “the best writer you’ve never heard of,” the author of six novels prior to The Book of Aron, as well as four short-story collections. Since I agree with Vulture, I’d rather Jim Shepard make his work memorable than use his brain cells on recalling a workshop participant at a cocktail party.
Many others have already written extensively about Shepard’s previous work, and I direct you here and here, if you’d like more of a recap, or an introduction. Here I’d prefer to focus on The Book of Aron, both because its his new release, and because, like my colleague Ron Charles at The Washington Post, I believe it’s a masterpiece.
The Book of Aron is the story of a nine-year-old Polish Jew whose limited juvenile perspective allows Shepard to focus less on war and politics and more on humanity and compassion.
But that doesn’t mean the trademark Jim Shepard humor, dry and droll and spot-on, doesn’t appear. Aron can tell us on one page, “It was terrible to be the person I was,” and leave us in tears (all right, that was me, and it was only page three), then turn around and say something hilarious, and utterly right for his situation.
As Aron is relocated from countryside to city, from city to ghetto, ghetto to orphanage, and orphanage to concentration camp, his story intersects with the historical journey of a remarkable man, doctor Janusz Korczak (the pen name of Henry Goldzsmit, who truly was a pediatrician). “Pan Doktor” (Mister Doctor), as he was known, opened his first orphanage in Poland in 1912. When the orphanage was moved inside the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940, he moved with it, and refused to leave or abandon the children. All of them were transported to Treblinka on August 5, 1942.
Bethanne Patrick: You said the character of Aron arrived when, “My boy started complaining to me.” What was it about his voice or tone that grabbed you?
Jim Shepard: Most of my narrators—recently, mostly first-person—confront the problem of hubris, and most of them start out in a complaining or angry or obsessive mode. I grew up around a lot of kvetch-y Italian relatives. I’m comfortable with bitchy. My mother was one of the great bitchers of all time and I’d think: Jesus, you’re bitching about that? What about these people who have no legs? That dichotomy, realizing that kids in the orphanage can complain, but then someone might say to them: Hey, this place saved your life, asshole.
There’s a tension inside this child narrator of mine: He may hate whatever place he lands in, but hey, this place saved your life, asshole. That tension immediately swept away one of the worries I had about writing this book, which was “Oh, god, here’s Jim writing about the Holocaust again.” These characters are complaining about life before the Germans even arrive. It’s a nice bracing corrective to how Holocaust stories often operate.
BP: Why a child narrator?
JS: I decided a child would be better suited to enact my limitations, and to impart that sense of fatalism that was quite common to adults Jews of that era, but also part of any crabby child’s vision: No matter what adult is around, I’m probably going to have a shitty day. Aron overhears adults talking about historical matters, like “Berlin was just bombed,” but his juvenile response is always “I guess things are going to be shitty for all of us.”
I always believe in building up micro to macro. Aron starts by complaining about his status within the family. I think that’s common to most children, including my own. They’re always thinking of their place in the family; it’s the world that has the most power over you. Aron is viewed unfairly, for many reasons, and he’s quite isolated, even by alienated little boy standards. We always construct this tension for ourselves about not dramatizing one person’s suffering over another, but of course we do it all the time, and especially in literature! Think of Lear. Holden Caulfield. It’s how narrative works. We single out a figure who represents some kind of suffering. I love the irony that Aron, of all people, would end up somebody important to people’s minds. The idea that I could elevate somebody like that—that’s one of the things that makes writing worth it, to me.
BP: Why another book about the Holocaust? Did you consider the fact that very few survivors are still alive?
JS: I think I felt humility and heavy responsibility because of the subject. I would also feel that way if I were writing about soldiers at Chancellorsville. I think you have a good point about survivors. The window is closing for memoirs and nonfiction from their perspective.
But while their stories need to be told and I hope that as many of them are as can be, I wanted to figure this out for myself, which is of course why I write fiction. And I wanted to bring the reader along while I did it, which is another reason why I write fiction.
BP: You’re known for your sense of humor, and it can be found in this book, despite its heavy subject. How did you incorporate the two?
JS: Part of the way that you decide a subject is suitable for you is to find—discover?—these kinds of harmonies and resonances with your own sensibility. As I was doing my research, I found jokes that the older people tell, like the elderly survivor who visited Auschwitz recently and said to the guard at the ticket booth: “The last time I was in line here it was free.” My humor seemed to fit very well with with that response: As horrible as it all was, it was never not absurd.
BP: How do you tell a story that’s been told before, so often?
JS: That’s a really good question, because although it’s a problem that everyone in literature faces, literature of the Holocaust has become a kind of genre. Part of the way you come to that is to defamiliarize the story in some way. You reassure yourself that it’s possible, you say to yourself that you need to keep in mind the impatience you have while reading through a million documents is the same impatience the reader has. You don’t stop reading, but you start tuning out certain things and becoming alert to others. You reach the point where you find something new and unfamiliar that makes the rest of it fall away, and suddenly you know that you can tell your story, that you can contribute something. And making something new to the reader doesn’t mean you don’t have respect for the suffering. If anything, if you’re doing it right, it means you are able to break through the numbness that surrounds any human who watches the news today.
BP: One of the things you highlight for the reader in The Book of Aron is how much of life in Warsaw’s Jewish Ghetto was reduced to the transactional.
JS: It has to come from the research, and it did. If it were “that’s just my view of people,” it would ring false. Everybody chooses which details to include. And, of course, I also found stories of compassion. If I’d chosen to base my book on those, it might have swung over to “what a heartwarming place the ghetto was!” In most situations, there’s a balance of compassion and commerce. But not for Aron.
BP: What is it about Poland, with you?
JS: You know, there’s this wonderful tension inside Polish history, a country that is everybody’s parking lot! Imagine some of these councils: “You take part of Poland…” With Poland being a fiercely Catholic state on top of that, there was a lot of hostility towards the Jews, and that means there was a pretty virulent anti-Semitism in Poland going on even longer than it was in Germany. With Poles as perpetrators and Poles as victims? That’s wonderful for a writer’s purpose. If you go to your neighbors for help, are they going to turn you in—or not? It created interesting tensions and grotesque situations, and it made Jews feel doubly isolated. Here’s the thing: It wasn’t very hard to get out of the Warsaw Ghetto. But why would you? It wasn’t the Germans you had to worry about, it was your former boss, or teacher, or butcher. That makes for a much more interesting and complicated portrait. It’s also why German suggestions about “the Jewish problem” didn’t seem as terrible to the Poles as they might have to a different nationality.
BP: Yet you have a few symbols—I’m thinking of Aron’s mother insisting on her prettiest nightgown when she’s ill, because his father might come home—that suggest an impulse towards hope.
JS: When people say what a horribly bleak story, why would you want to do this, I say: I resist the idea that it’s unbelievably bleak. I find that extreme pressure can result in extreme compassion, and the kind of hope that keeps us alive.
BP: Speaking of keeping us alive: History is a survivor’s tale. Discuss.
JS: To be a survivor you have to have some kind of resourcefulness. Sometimes you have to be in league with perpetrators, depending on what kind of resources you have. Again and again in my reading and research I saw astonishing emotional resourcefulness surface, all sorts, some of which might seem quite startling to those of us who have not experienced that kind of pressure.
Saints and great men: When you’re not just creating hagiography, you try to get at the human side of these figures. One of the aspects of being truly messianic and driven on behalf of someone else is that you get the message over and over again that your desires are unimportant. And the saintly one will say to his deputy, if my desires are unimportant, so are yours.
BP: Your research, as you’ve mentioned, was extensive. Was there something that stunned you?
JS: I came well short of being a Holocaust scholar, and I’m happy that I’m not a Holocaust scholar, I think those are always very unhappy people on two different levels: Both the astonishing amount of horrific detail, and the worry that you’ll sanitize or sensationalize.
An example of the first level is that we tend to forget about the daily torments people endured, like constant fleas and lice. An example of the second is that you’re not sure what you have the right to inflict on anyone else. Can you go all the way to Treblinka? I could not. But I decided I could go, or thought I could go, to the ghetto.
So, the thing that stunned me: When I was in Poland, at Belzec, I saw a memorial to an SS officer who was so revolted and horrified at what he saw that he wrote a letter to a Swedish envoy saying, “Here’s what’s going on, you need to know about this.” His letter was essentially an account of what it was like to look through the window of a gas chamber in the moments when the women and children and babies inside realized they were not going to have showers, that they were going to be gassed to death. I didn’t feel I had the right to inflict that on the reader.
BP: You didn’t “feel” you had the right. Let’s talk about that. Our mutual friend and colleague Dani Shapiro refers to the “shimmer” when you know you’re on the right track. This is something different.
JS: Yes, it’s the “dark shimmer.” You have a contract with the reader, and depending on which book you have in your head, you have to consider at which point you might be tipping over into a kind of pornography. You’re going by feel, there’s no rule about this. At what point might the reader finally feel that this is too much of an assault? For example, The Painted Bird is a close to a kind of casual brutality and a casual aggression as I can think of.
And you know that terrible things happened. But that absolutely awful stuff inside the gas chamber had a level of intimacy inside the anguish that I was not comfortable with claiming would make my book even stronger. It’s the kind of decision that feels really intuitive. That said, if you are going to write about this subject at all, you have to be consistent, and you can’t shy away from things that are crucial to what you want to get across.
BP: Your last line—before the Historical Note—is Korczak telling Aron the final piece of his institution’s philosophy: “And the child has the right to make mistakes.”
JS: Korczak’s whole life is about understanding human weakness and making space for it. That kind of generosity of spirit is what we, or at least I, imagine as a kind of ethical greatness. Everybody has the right to make mistakes, everybody has the right to be forgiven. There’s something hubristic about imagining that you’re so awful that you can’t be forgiven. It’s a way of aggrandizing yourself: “I’ve been so iniquitous that I can’t be redeemed.”
It’s really important that Korczak say that to Aron, right at that moment. They need that strength before they confront what’s ahead.
This is interesting: animator Drew Roberts gives us the opening lines from Jim Shepard’s new novel, The Book of Aron.
Ron Charles reviews “The Book of Aron” and he likes it!
In the summer of 1942, German soldiers expelled almost 200 starving children from an orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto and packed them into rail cars bound for Treblinka. As with so many entries in the encyclopedia of Nazi atrocities, the depravity of that act and our inability to fathom such cruelty threaten to eclipse the individuality of the victims.
Historians push back against the obliteration of chaos, time and shame, but talented novelists have also offered their creative gifts in this sacred process of remembrance. And now, Jim Shepard, one of America’s finest writers, brings the Warsaw orphanage to life in “The Book of Aron.”
Drawing on his imagination and dozens of historical sources, the author has produced a remarkable novel destined to join the shelf of essential Holocaust literature. Although relentless in its portrayal of systematic evil, “The Book of Aron” is, nonetheless, a story of such startling candor about the complexity of heroism that it challenges each of us to greater courage.
The narrator is a poor Polish boy who introduces himself by announcing, “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.” With erratic beatings, constant disparagement and unending illnesses, this is hardly a nurturing environment, but Aron’s clear-eyed reporting and self-deprecating humor make him irresistible. “I was like something that had been raised in the wild,” he confesses. “It was terrible to have to be the person I was.”
The novel hangs on the delicate tension of that deadpan adolescent voice — never cute, never cloying. Aron’s wryness is always entirely unknowing. He relays his world to us just as he experiences it: He fails at school. His mom complains about everything. His little brother dies. How he feels about any of this is articulated only in the space between his sentences. “The next morning my father told me to get up,” he says, “because it was war and the Germans had invaded.” And with that news, his town slides into hell.
We read novels about the Holocaust with the burden of knowledge: the incalculable statistics, the sickening photos, the faint outlines of vanished shtetls. But Aron has only his own simple life by which to judge anything, so nothing surprises him. “Whether I was happy or unhappy,” he says, “I took things as I found them.” What he finds is an ever-escalating series of horrors, but he describes the Nazis’ humiliations and crimes with a child’s concentration on the specific. “That night two Germans showed up at our door looking for furniture,” he says. “They roamed around our apartment before deciding we had nothing they liked. They went next door to our neighbors with the radio and took two chairs and a soup tureen. The husband told us after they left that they’d pulled him around by the nose with pliers because he hadn’t said a courteous enough hello.”
From that captivating perspective, Shepard re-creates the shrinking Warsaw ghetto, running out of food and ravaged by typhus as the Nazis ship out everything of value. But for Aron, the war delivers freedom from the drudgery of school. He joins a small gang of kids who scour the ghetto for loot. “The destroyed buildings were a great playground,” he says, “and we always found something surprising in the rubble.” Aron’s innocent face is an asset as his parents tell him to stay close and be careful. “I told them I would and went on doing whatever I wanted whenever I wanted to,” he says. He’s a scamp, helping his buddies smuggle goods through a hole in the ghetto wall, but they know they’re playing against opponents who shove prisoners into open fires and shoot kids in the streets.
As terror escalates in this doomed city, the novel delineates Aron’s dangerously compromised position. While he and his friends smuggle anything of value into the ghetto, he falls under the influence of a corrupt Jewish police officer who demands information for his Gestapo bosses. The boy has no way to resist, no way to excuse the deaths that result and no capacity to understand what is happening to him. After witnessing a particularly shocking murder, he says, “On my way home my legs acted like I kept forgetting how to walk and I stopped in the center of the road. I threw my own cap away. A truck honked and someone finally dragged me to the curb.” Divorced from his own feelings, he is left only with his sensory reports. “I wiped my eyes so hard I blinded myself at first,” he says. “There was nothing for me to do and nowhere for me to go in the face of the pictures in my head.”
But where he goes next draws “The Book of Aron” into one of the most affecting acts of bravery you will ever encounter. In real life, the caretaker of the Warsaw orphans was a well-known writer, a progressive pediatrician named Janusz Korczak. When his orphanage was moved into the ghetto, he insisted on going with the children. And there, in those final weeks, Shepard imagines him taking a special interest in Aron. “You’ll be fine,” the good doctor tells him, brushing away the boy’s tears.
Let’s set aside puffery about the best novel of the month or even the year; Shepard has created something transcendent and timeless in this slim masterpiece — a portrait of an exhausted but determined man, locked in a futile battle he will not concede. “It’s Jewish honor I’m upholding,” Dr. Korczak says as he trudges around the impoverished ghetto with Aron, cajoling and demanding donations for his 200 charges. Back at the orphanage, he designs both chores and games, exhorting these sick and malnourished children to imagine they aren’t “living in the worst place in the world but instead were surrounded by grasshoppers and glowworms.”
But there’s a lot more here than pastel optimism. Shepard shows Korczak in all the private discouragement and desperate loneliness that could make him short-tempered with those who loved him. “I am unkind,” he admits late one night. “To work here you have to be unkind. You have to be smeared with crap, you have to stink, you have to be crafty.”
That logic leads Aron into an ethical dilemma that he’s too young and weakened to resolve, which fuels the novel’s suspenseful crisis. But there is no room for hope for the Warsaw orphans; that history is carved into the earth. Although Dr. Korczak was offered opportunities to escape, he refused to abandon his children and died with them in Treblinka. Still, Shepard dares to move his narrative down the asymptote of despair, and the moral heroism he describes on that path toward infinity, you will never forget.
He is amazing. This is why you need to come to his readings.
The Book of Aron tour is still underway! Check out the tour schedule here.
Winnipeg Free Press reviews The Book of Aron:
Aron Ròzycki, the narrator of American author Jim Shepherd’s extraordinary new novel, is an ordinary child. But Aron is not living in ordinary times.
Aron is living in German-occupied Warsaw, Poland in 1940 and because he is Jewish, he is living among 400,000 other people in that city’s overcrowded, disease-ridden ghetto.
When The Book of Aron opens, Aron is nine years old. When it ends, he is 13 — and on his way, it seems, to certain death in the gas chambers of Treblinka.
Between that beginning and end, Aron tells the story of his life in a voice that is so authentic, so bewildered and so sad that it can break a reader’s heart.
For many readers, this novel will evoke Leon Uris’s Mila 18, published more than 50 years ago and considered by many to be the quintessential novel about the Warsaw Ghetto.
The Book of Aron is a slighter novel and narrower in perspective, but it is as readable and unforgettable as that earlier work.
The ghetto conditions that Aron describes are horrific, and impossible to comprehend. Violence, cruelty, disease and desperation are everywhere.
Aron shares only the facts. He never softens the blow, never perseverates or extrapolates, never offers excuses, and never pretends to see hope where none exists.
When Aron is caught with a group of boys trying to smuggle goods into the ghetto, a German soldier inexplicably lets him go. The other boys, Aron reports, are not as lucky.
“The other kids were told to empty their pockets and stand against the wall. I ran away and after I rounded the corner I heard them shooting. Later the dead kids were still there on top of one another against the wall.”
As the situation in the ghetto worsens — as he loses one family member after another, as hunger stalks him and lice invades him — Aron increasingly must rely on his wits to survive. He joins a gang, becomes an informant and eventually lands in the ghetto orphanage run by Dr. Janusz Korczak.
In real life Korczak was a true hero of the Holocaust. Jewish by birth and a renowned pediatrician in prewar Poland, he cared for hundreds of children in the ghetto. When they were finally rounded up by the Gestapo he walked with them, hand in hand so that they would not be afraid, into the trains and into the showers of the extermination camp.
Under Shepherd’s pen and through Aron’s voice, Korczak comes vividly to life. Exhausted and unwell, Korczak spends his days looking for handouts for his orphans and nights ministering to their fears, their chills and their inconsolable longing for parents and siblings and home.
Korzcak takes a liking to Aron, perhaps seeing in the boy heroism that no one before has noticed. He confides in and relies on the boy, and speaks to him about humanity in the most inhumane of times.
In so vividly imaging Aron and remembering Korzcak, Shepherd has written a Holocaust novel that promises to become as iconic as Mila 18.
Sharon Chisvin is a Winnipeg writer.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 6, 2015 D24