Of the estimated six million Jews extinguished during the Holocaust, perhaps one-fourth were children. To make this figure somewhat conceivable, imagine if every one of them had, like Anne Frank, left behind a diary—or if that many novelists reconstructed in fiction the horrors these innocents had to face. Something like this imperative motivates National Book Award finalist Jim Shepard’s seventh novel, The Book of Aron, a loosely historical account of the children of the Warsaw ghetto.
The novel begins with the relocation of Aron and his family to Poland’s capital under the pretext of containing a typhus epidemic. Instead, the Germans impoverish the ghetto’s inhabitants via theft and starvation. Shepard deftly shows how the Jews’ accommodating, fatalistic ethos blinds them to the Germans’ monstrosity. An officer assigned to supervise the orphanage in which Aron ends up puts it thus: “The Jews adjust to every situation.” Several pages carry the news that the ghetto has yet again shrunk, like a noose.
Shepard ventures into the delicate subject of how some Jews were complicit in their co-religionists’ destruction. Hannah Arendt argued controversially that the Judenrate, or Jewish councils, helped the Nazis by tabulating Jewish constituents; the Judenrate are shown here stifling rumors about deportation to the gas chambers at Treblinka. Even Aron becomes an informer for the Gestapo. But Shepard underscores how famine makes nonsense of much ordinary morality.
The novel is too grave to admit much stylistic ornamentation. Much of it is dialogue, but not mere patter. There is humor of the blackest sort, jokes about Hitler or the Jewish Police. But the overriding tone is somber and tense and suffocating, like the climate before a storm. Shepard tackles his grim subject without a hint of sentimentality, though it is clear that the subject is not an easy one for him.
Every day’s newspaper shows that children continue to be the tragic pawn in the ideological games of adults, from massacres in Peshawar or Norway to the abduction of schoolgirls in Nigeria. To say “never again” might be wishful thinking, but Shepard’s taut, discomfiting novel at least illuminates what adult atrocities seem to children’s eyes.