2017 Ribalow Winner The Book of Aron
Aron, an 8-year-old Jewish child who recently moved with his family from a small town in Poland to Warsaw, is finding his life to be the most difficult thing in the world. It’s not just the obvious problems—poverty, lack of privacy, being terrorized by older boys. It is also about Aron feeling insignificant and constantly disappointing himself.
In The Book of Aron, Jim Shepard’s poignant tale, Aron’s father, mother, brothers and uncle describe him as a selfish, mischievous klutz who can’t learn his alef-beys. They are hard-pressed to recognize any redeeming qualities in him. Ironically, it is only after the Germans bomb the city and build a ghetto around the Jews that Aron’s small size and invisibility transform him into a valuable family player who can salvage or steal the water, wood or food they need to survive. Written from a child’s simple, direct point of view, the story not only paints a child’s precious world but also the destruction of the larger community. The Book of Aron has won several awards, the most recent being the 2016 Harold U. Ribalow Prize, Hadassah Magazine’s annual literary award.
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. I broke medicine bottles by crashing them together and let the neighbors’ animals loose from pens. My mother said my father shouldn’t beat such a small boy, but my father said that one misfortune was never enough for me, and my uncle told her that my kind of craziness was like stealing from the rest of the family.
When I complained about it my mother reminded me I had only myself to blame, and that in our family the cure for a toothache was to slap the other side of your face. My older brother was always saying we all went without cradles for our backsides or pillows for our heads. Why didn’t he complain some more, my mother suggested. Maybe she could light the stove with his complaints.
My uncle was my mother’s brother and he was the one who started calling me Sh’maya because I did so many things that made him put his finger to his nose as a warning and say, “God has heard.” We shared a house with another family in Panevzys near the Lithuanian border. We lived in the front room with a four-paned window and a big stove with a tin sheet on top. Our father was always off looking for money. For a while he sold animal hides. Our mother wished he would do something else, but he always said the pope and the peasant each had their own work. She washed other people’s floors and when she left for the day our neighbors did whatever they wanted to us. They stole our food and threw our things into the street. Then she came home exhausted and had to fight with them about how they’d treated us, while I hid behind the rubbish pile in the courtyard.
Sh’maya only looks out for himself, my uncle always said, but I never wanted to be like that. I lectured myself on walks. I made lists of ways I could improve. Years went by like one unhappy day.
My mother tried to teach me the alphabet, unsuccessfully. She used a big paper chart attached to a board and pointed to a bird or a little man or a purse and then to the letter that went with them. A whole day was spent trying to get me to draw the semicircle and straight line of the letter alef. But I was like something that had been raised in the wild. I didn’t know the names of objects. Teachers talked to me and I stared back. Alef, beys, giml, daled, hey, vov, zayin. My last kheyder results before we moved reported my conduct was unsatisfactory, my religion unsatisfactory, my arithmetic unsatisfactory, and even my wood- and metal-shop work unsatisfactory. My father called it the most miserable report he’d ever seen, and invited us all to figure out how I had pulled it off. My mother said that I might’ve been getting better in some areas and he told her that if God gave me a second or a third life I’d still understand nothing. He said a person with strong character could correct his path and start again but a coward or weakling could not. I always wondered if others had such difficulty in learning. I always worried what would become of me if I couldn’t do anything at all. It was terrible to have to be the person I was.
Yet when my younger brother was born, i told my mother I wanted him thrown into the chicken coop. I was glum that whole year, when I was four, because of an infected vaccination on my arm. My mother said I played alone even when other kids were about. Two years went by without my learning a thing. I didn’t know how to swim or ride a bicycle. I had no grandparents, no aunts, and no godparents. When I asked why, my father said it was because society’s parasites ate well while the worthy received only dirty water, and my mother said it was because of sickness. I attended kheyder until my father came back from one of his trips and told my mother that it was 1936 and time for me to get a modern education. So instead of kheyder I went to public school, which was cleaner all around. My father was impressed that my new teacher dressed in the European style and that after he taught me to read I started teaching myself. Since I was bored and knew no one I took to books.
And in public school I met my first friend, whose name was Yudl. I liked him. Like me, he had no future. He was always running somewhere with his nose dripping. We made rafts to put in the river and practiced long-distance spitting. He called me Sh’maya too and I called him Pisher. When he wasn’t well-behaved he was clever enough to keep the teacher from catching on.
That summer a card arrived for my father from his cousin in Warsaw, telling him there was work in his factory. The factory made fabric out of cotton thread. My father hitched a ride to the city in a truck full of geese and then sent for us. He moved us to 21 Zamenhofa Street, Apartment no. 6—my mother had us each memorize the address so we could find it when we got lost—and my younger brother, who had a bad lung, spent his days at the back window looking out at the garbage bins.
Because it was summer I was expected to work at the factory, so far away that we had to ride the trolley. I was shut up in a little room with no windows and four older boys and set to finishing the fabrics. The bolts had to be scraped until they acquired a grain like you found on winter stockings. Each of them took hours and someone as small as me had to lean his chest onto the blade to scrape with enough force. On hot days sweat ran off me like rain off a roof. The other boys said things like, “What a fine young man from the country we now have in our midst; he’s clearly going to be a big wheel in town,” and I thought, am I only here so they can make fun of me? And I refused to go back.
My father said he would give me such a beating that it would hurt to raise my eyebrows, but while I sat there like a mouse under the broom my mother stopped him and said there was plenty I could do at home and school was beginning in a few weeks anyway. My father said I’d only been given a partial hiding and she told him that would do for now, and that night once they started snoring I crept to their beds and kissed her goodnight and pulled the blanket from his feet so that he’d maybe catch a chill.
Because I couldn’t sleep I helped her with the day’s first chores, and she told everyone she was lucky to have a son who didn’t mind rising so early. I worked hard and kept her company. I emptied her wash buckets and fetched hot compresses for my brother’s chest. She asked if this wasn’t much better than breaking bottles and getting into trouble, and I told her it was.
When she told my father at least now their children were better behaved he told her that not one of us looked either well-fed or good-tempered. He joked at dinner that she cooked like a washerwoman. “Go to a restaurant,” she said in response. She later told me that when she was young she never complained, so her mother would always know who her best child was and keep her near. So I became myself only once the lights went out, and in the mornings went back to pretending things were okay.
At our new school we sat not at one filthy table but on real school benches. I wanted more books but had no money for them and when I tried to borrow them from my classmates they said no. I dealt with bullies by not fighting until the bell for class was about to be rung. When my mother complained to my teacher that a classmate had called me a dirty Jew, my teacher said, “Well he is, isn’t he?” and from then on she made me take weekly baths. I stayed at that school until another teacher twisted a girl’s ear until he tore it, and then my mother moved me back to a kheyder where they also taught Polish, two trolley stops away. But I still shrank from following instruction like a dog from a stick. My new teacher asked my mother what anyone could do with a kid who was so full of answers. He’s like a fox, this one, he said; he’s eight going on eighty. And when she reported the meeting to my father he gave me another hiding. That night she came to my bedside and sat and asked me to explain myself and at first I couldn’t answer, and then I finally told her that I had figured out that most people didn’t understand me and that those who did wouldn’t help.
The week before Passover we set giant pots of water to boil on the stove and we pushed all the bed linens and garments we’d collected from her customers into two barrels with metal rims and she lathered everything with a yellow block of soap before we rinsed it all and ran it through the wringer and dragged all that wet laundry in baskets up to the attic, where she’d strung ropes in every direction under the rafters. Since we opened the windows for the cross-breezes, she couldn’t rest that night and whispered to me about the gangs that specialized in crossing rooftops to steal laundry, so I slept up there so that she could relax.
“See? You don’t only care about yourself,” she whispered when she came to wake me the next morning. She put her lips to my forehead and her hand to my cheek. When she touched me like that, it was as if the person everyone hated had flown away. And while he was gone, I didn’t let her know that I was already awake.
[My brother] loved the radio and it was because of him that I first heard Janusz Korczak’s show. Thursday afternoons I had to sit with him and we could hear it through the wall, since our neighbor’s wife was hard of hearing. The show was called The Old Doctor and I liked it because even though he complained about how alone he was, he always wanted to know more about other people, especially kids. I also liked that I never knew what to expect. Sometimes he interviewed poor orphans in a summer camp. Other times he talked about what he loved about airplanes. Or told a fairy tale. He made his own barnyard noises. When I asked my mother why the show was called The Old Doctor she said there’d been complaints about allowing a Jewish educator to shape the minds of Polish children.
I met Lutek one evening when i sat near some kids i didn’t know and they told me to leave but I didn’t. He had a rabbit-skin cap with earflaps and when one of the kids asked where he got it he said that he’d found it between the kid’s mother’s legs, so they started pushing him around. They knocked him into me, so I shoved the kid who’d done it and he landed on his back and head on the paving stones. The other kids chased us and Lutek led me into a cellarway hidden by a coal chute and they all ran by. I asked how he’d found it and he said he’d been hiding since before I was born.
My mother was happy I’d made a friend but soon upset that I was never around to watch my younger brother once Lutek took charge of my education. He showed me how to steal from the vegetable carts, and how one of us by making a commotion could hide what the other was doing, even when the peddlers were watching out for one another. With a French pamphlet he took from a bookstall he proved I didn’t know anything about girls, and discovered I knew so little that I didn’t even know what he was talking about. After he had cursed some filthy Russians he also said I didn’t know anything about politics, which was also true.
He taught me that no one else’s problems should get in the way of our having a good time. I told him about all the trouble I’d gotten into with Yudl, including the broken school windows, but he was unimpressed. His family had moved three times since coming to Warsaw and in one neighborhood he’d been hauled in by the police for breaking down the door of a boy who’d stolen his cap, and in another for having put a hole in a kid’s head with a jeweler’s hammer. He said the kid was okay after a while, though he’d had to wear a head-bandage and everyone had called him the Sheik.
• • • • •
The next morning my father told me to get up because it was war and the Germans had invaded. I didn’t believe him, so he pointed at the
neighbors’ apartment and said, “Come to the radio, you’ll hear it.”
People had spent the day before taping up windows and running through the streets buying up food. In the morning our teacher told us that as of the next day our school, which had had an anti-aircraft battery moved onto its roof, was under military control, that we should leave our registration books to be signed, and that he would see us after the war. We wanted to go to the roof to view the anti-aircraft guns but a soldier wouldn’t let us on the staircase.
When I got home, my father and older brothers were taping our windows and one of my brothers showed me a blue glass filter that would fit over our flashlight.
There were air raid sirens at night but for a few weeks nothing happened. Lutek would tell me the next day how much he liked the sirens because everyone had to get out of bed whatever time it was and the kids in his building would meet in the basement and play. He said all of the kids in his building liked the air raids except one whose mother was crazy and caused a lot of trouble by running out into the street and uncovering the windows while the sirens were still going.
For a few days in the afternoons we went to our neighbors’ apartment to hear the news. It was all bad.
The bombardment of the city lasted all day and night without stopping and went on into the next day and night. We stayed in the cellar and the wailing and crying and praying drowned out the explosions if they were far away. My mother sat against the wall with her arms around me and whenever I stood to stretch my legs she asked where I was going. My father and brothers sat against the opposite wall. After three days things quieted and someone came down the stairs and shouted that Warsaw had surrendered. My mother told us not to leave but my brothers and I climbed out into the street.
Dust and soot hung in the air. There were giant craters in the intersection. The big tree on the corner had flown all apart. Our back courtyard was covered with broken glass. Down Gesia Street something was still burning.
My mother led us back up to our apartment, which only had some broken windows. She sent us out to look for planks to board them up, so I walked over to Lutek’s neighborhood. He threw his arm around me and grinned and said, “Well, we survived the war.” I told him what we were looking for and he led me to an alley fence that was blown apart. Together we brought home so many planks that my father told my mother to leave me alone whenever I wanted to go out during the day. We especially needed water since nothing came out of our faucets, and Lutek showed me how to steal from his building’s cistern.
We gathered anything we might need. Sometimes we were chased off but not often. The destroyed buildings were a great playground and we always found something surprising in the rubble. One building’s entire front had been sheared away and we could see into every apartment up to the roof, and near the top a family was still living there. They looked like a store display. One leg of an iron bedstead hung out into space. In the attic, sparrows flew in and out of the holes made by the artillery shells.
On the way home with my water i was stopped by a bald-headed man in a filthy green surgical apron who was carrying a little boy. The man had eyeglasses covered in dust and a yellowish goatee. “Where’s the shoe store that was here?” he asked.
“There,” I told him, and pointed.
He looked at the smashed walls that had fallen in on one another. “I just found him in the street,” he said. The boy looked asleep. “He can’t walk on all this glass without shoes. I have to carry him until I find something for his feet.”
I recognized his voice and said, “You’re the Old Doctor from the radio.”
“Would you have shoes at your house that might fit him?” he said. But then someone else called, “Pan Doctor! Pan Doctor!” and he turned and carried the boy off in that direction.
When the Germans marched in, the crowds were so quiet I could hear a fly that was bothering a woman a few feet away. Lutek said there was more noise at the parade on his street and that some people waved little flags with swastikas on them. At the market square the next day no vegetable stalls were set up and instead more Germans unloaded crates from trucks. One talked to me in Polish. “Bring us something to drink,” he told me, and then he and his friends straddled the crates and waited.
Later that week they set up a soup kitchen and handed out free bread. The soldiers seemed to never be sure where they wanted everyone to line up. They enjoyed herding people from place to place. A little girl with big ears waited three hours in line with us and when she got her soup she handed it to Lutek and said she wasn’t hungry. After she left he told me she was a neighbor and that her parents and sister had been buried in their building during the bombardment. He said that when you saw the building you knew they wouldn’t be dug out until Christmas.
That night two Germans showed up at our door looking for furniture. 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.
The next day the Polish police had taken over the soup kitchen and the soldiers were gone. Then the day after that the Polish police were gone and so was the soup kitchen.
Adapted from The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard, © 2015 by Jim Shepard. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.