Novelist Jim Shephard tells the true story of Janusz Korczak, a Jewish-Polish doctor and educator who is heroic both for his revolutionary ideas of treating children with respect and dignity as well as for the work he did running an orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto, but he filters it through the eyes of one of the children he helped. When Shephard found Aron’s voice, a voice which has the cadence of a Yiddish curse, he found a way to tell a hero’s story while insisting the hero was quite fallible and quite human.
What happens when a people so disenfranchised and resigned are then forced to move to terrible apartments, to wash the streets with their underwear, to fight over bread and squatters’ rights? As, predictably, things get worse for the Jews of the ghetto and for his family, Aron straddles resignation and rebellion. As the Nazis literally wall them in, Aron watches his mother try to protect the family by playing the game, and realizes it doesn’t matter: “She went with our neighbors to report there was no typhus in our building, but that only meant she spent days waiting to talk to an official who wouldn’t listen and couldn’t do anything.” With his parents caught up in their own petty arguments about money for soap or bread, Aron and his friends organize a smuggling ring, which provides survival, purpose, and rebellion in one shot. “‘Stealing is always wrong,’” Aron’s mother tells him as they search the ghetto streets for meat, to which he answers, “‘Starving is always wrong,’”
While there is youthful excitement around the Robin Hood-like endeavor, vermin represent the resignation to their horrible fate. At first, his mother is fanatical about the bed bugs and body lice. “Every morning she searched my clothes for lice and doused my head over the sink with kerosene. She rubbed my neck and behind my ears with a kerosene-soaked rag and scrubbed at my scalp like my hair was the problem.” When it gets so bad that he can see his lice-infested sweater moving his reaction is almost playful: “In the morning, I ran my fingernails through my scalp and dropped what I pulled out onto the hot lid of the stove so I could see them sizzle.” The bugs begin by plaguing only Aron, but eventually become the markers of the now truly dirty Jews, a self-fulfilling anti-Semetic prophesy. At first, his once-rich friend Zofia is disgusted by the infestation, but in the end, Aron can see the bugs moving in the part of her hair.
As the characters grow skinnier and sicker, as all of the Aron’s family members disappear or are killed, Korczak weaves in and out of the story, like a radio signal fading in and out and then taking over the central action. First, he is just a voice on a radio show, then a man helping a little boy after a bombing, then the director of a children’s theater show, and finally the man who saves Aron, now an orphan, from freezing to death.
There are no straight character lines in Aron and no one is excused for their bad behavior. Jewish police officers conspire with German and Polish for a cut but they also save characters. Aron’s parents are harsh and foolish, but they love him. Even Korczak is an alcoholic who was ultimately unable to save his charges. But unlike Aron’s mother, who slips quietly into death by typhus as she always feared, Korczak never resigns himself. His fight for the dignity of the children in his care is an act of rebellion equal to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In one of the last scenes, as the ghetto is being liquefied, Aron’s gang comes back for him, now transformed from thugs to revolutionaries. He has promised to help them if they save Korczak , but Korczak ’s response is anger: “‘And all of the children in this orphanage…I’m going to leave them now when they have so little time left?’ … ‘Tell them the truth,’ the boy said. ‘Tell them we can’t save them.’ ‘Tell them they’re all just on their own?’ Korczak asked, and his anger surprised even them. ‘They are all on their own,’ the boy said, ‘They’re not all on their own,’ Korczak said. None of us could look at anyone else.”
Such a piling on of horrors risks a Nightmare on Elm Street-like cheapness, so we must ask what this story adds to the already overcrowded shelf of Holocaust literature. There is a whole world that the Holocaust took away, families wiped out, towns that are no longer found on any map, a culture that can barely be conjured in the dying language of Yiddish. And yet, Shepard reminds us, some of that culture was not worth saving, and some of what lived on, like Korczak’s reforms to support children, made the world better.