“A moving addition to Holocaust canon”

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

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