Probably the most emotive book I have ever read, The Book of Aron is a novel that vividly brings to life the appalling conditions of the Warsaw ghetto during the Second World War, as narrated by Aron, a nine year old Jewish boy. The innocence of the childlike narrative makes the account easy to read on a literacy level but a difficult one emotionally.
Aron’s earlier life is recounted in the first chapter and is summed up by Aron himself as ‘years went by like one unhappy day’, confirming that life for the poor wasn’t easy in Poland even before the war years, especially poor Jews, but the hardships that were to follow are incomprehendable. Of course I was aware of the ghettos but I hadn’t realised just how awful the situation was; starvation, illness, bitter cold and lack of basic human rights, it is a harrowing account simply told. The interaction with the other characters is beleivable as survival is a brutal business with every man for himself. Violence and death become everyday occurances and property belongs to whoever is quick enough to take it. The human spirit is hard to break and there are funny moments in this book, it tends to be a black humour and I felt a certain guilt in smiling.
Eventually Aron finds himself without family, shelter or food and is taken into the orphanage run by Janusz Korczak (Pan Doctor) here fact and fiction blend as both Pan Doctor and Madame Stefa existed. The narrative could easily have shown them as heroic based on factual accounts but instead it shows them as very human characters with realistic interactions; they were as scared, malnourished and tired as the children in their care but didn’t abandon them. The slow decline of all the characters is really bought home by the language and descriptive ability of the author. As Korczak says ‘Death by famine lacks drama’. Initially the Jews expect things to improve and wait for rescue but it’s a hopeless situation and gradually they become resigned to their fate. As Aron remarks ‘The salt of the earth disolves and the shit remains’.
The ending was predictable as history has not been rewritten in this novel but the detail of the journey to this point is what makes this book a compelling read that stays in your mind for a longtime after. Not a light reading subject but well written and thought provoking, I thoroughly recommend it .