This novel is written from the eye of a child, but this book is not for children. In a straightforward voice, almost simplistically, a Jewish child, 8 year old Aron Różycki, tells his story. When his father obtained work in Warsaw, Poland, the family moved there. He was only eight years old, a sensitive child, a bit of a disappointment to his father due to his meager achievements at school, and he was a little recalcitrant, but otherwise, he and his life went along fairly calmly. Hitler was not yet in full flower, but that would soon change.
When, a short time later, Hitler invaded Poland, Warsaw came under siege. Suddenly, so did the Jews. Laws were enacted to limit their access to all things, employment, schools, shops, transportation, and more. Jews were herded into ghettos with terrible living conditions. Everywhere there was filth, lice, disease, and hunger. Aron and his friends were forced to become smugglers in order to feed their families, forced to become the breadwinners. Jewish children had to grow up fast and do things they never would have done before, because suddenly, they were everyone’s enemies. Some became as cruel and devious as their taskmasters. They became smugglers in order to survive, and smuggling was a crime that carried the penalty of death, but they had no other place to turn to for help but themselves.
Survival is a base instinct, and some Jews, and of course other Poles, put their own welfare before all others. People wanted to live and the techniques of the Nazis were brutal, instilling terror wherever the Nazis gained a foothold. When Jews were engaged to become part of the yellow police force to oversee the Jews, it was, at first, thought to be a good thing; surely, wouldn’t their own treat them with more kindness and respect? However, bad apples manage to rise up in all environments, and one yellow policeman called Lejkin, taunted Aron. He also brought a member of the SS around to meet him, and with veiled and overt threats, they coerced him into helping them. He was just a frightened boy. Sadly, while some yellow police did what they had to do, simply to guarantee their own survival, they could also be as cruel as their counterparts. There were yellow police made up of Jews, blue police made up of Poles and the Green or German police who were all part of the Nazi establishment. Their color names represented the colors of their uniforms and armbands.
Aron, like other children, was naïve. He did not realize that both he and his friend Lutek were in grave danger from all quarters. Lejkin, working with the SS, used Aron to unwittingly arrange his own arrest and the murder of a fellow smuggler and very close friend, Lutek. He was devastated and demoralized, horrified by what had happened, but he was helpless to do anything about it. When he was released without Lutek, who never returned, another child smuggler, Boris, with whom he shared a living space but did not get along, realized what had happened. He threw Aron out into the street.
Aron found his way to the Jewish orphanage where the children who were alone and ill were taken in and protected. It was run by Janusz Korczak, who carried the pen name of Henryk Goldszmit. He was a Pole, a Jew and a pediatrician who together with his assistant, Madame Stefa, had taken care of orphaned children for decades, way before Hitler’s rise to power. Both Korczak and Stefa did actually exist, and when the war began, they continued to operate an orphanage for Jewish children. When, in 1942, the Germans conducted one of their infamous roundups for resettlement, the orphanage was emptied. Aron tried to make a deal with the devil through Boris and his own nefarious and unwanted connections with Lejkin, for the release of Dr. Korczak and Madame Stefa, but the doctor refused to abandon “his” children.
At first blush, this brief tale seemed like such a simple story, related by a young boy, but as the story developed it was quite apparent that the message was profound. The reader is drawn into the scene in Europe, witnessing the coldness and brutality the Germans spawned everywhere they went. The tale explicitly illustrates the effects of the war on young children who were barely old enough to take care of themselves, but who were forced to take care of their elders who grew more and more helpless to take care of them. They were forced to face their unknown fears, their losses and their shame without comprehending why this was happening to them. The atmosphere of horror, terror and dread was palpable, and yet, sometimes for the children, it seemed like a game of truth or dare. They didn’t believe that they would get caught, and when they were, the sudden awareness and end result was shocking.
In summary, when Hitler first gained popularity and made his threats against the Jews, Aron’s father, like many Jews at that time, refused to leave when given the opportunity. They thought the world would come to its senses and the war would soon end with life returning to normal. Instead, the situation worsened, and soon Jews lost their freedom and civil rights. Jews had no recourse; they were treated like animals and herded off to Concentration Camps where they were worked to death or murdered. The need to survive was simply a desperate one.
I don’t hold a grudge against Germans or Germany or even collaborators; no one wanted to suffer or die and everyone was terrified. Still, some welcomed the Nazis, and they must answer to their own consciences and a higher being, if one truly does exist. However, I can’t ever stop wondering how they, and all those who voted for Hitler and supported the Nazis, could ever claim that they didn’t know what they were supporting or what was happening around them. They may have turned their own blind eye, but they could not have been blind to the sights and sounds of brutality and death around them.
At the end, I thought that the final statement that Dr. Korczak whispered into Aron’s ear, about the Declaration of Children’s Rights, was the moral of the story. All children have the right to make mistakes, and perhaps, there is also the implication that everyone has that right. The doctor seemed to embody the idea of forgiveness, and perhaps he was forgiving Aron, as well as the sins of others. Perhaps that is a good idea.
Let me say one more thing, there were those that were righteous; there were Jewish and Gentile heroes alike. They were unwilling to allow such injustice and barbarism to continue without putting up some kind of a fight, but they were often imprisoned, beaten and tortured too, ultimately dying themselves in the end. It was an unjust reward for their struggles, and sadly, that part of the story, along with Dr. Korczak’s efforts, was true. Unfortunately, the obvious and real horror of the actual Holocaust will appear before the readers’ eyes, if their eyes are open. Some will choose to close them, rather than continue to face and deal with its revolting nature, but if they continue to turn a blind eye, the horror may be revisited upon the world. Some people may be dissatisfied with the ending of this story; it left them hanging. What happens next? Students of history all know what happened next. The book ends somewhere in 1942, but the war did not. These people may be turning their own blind eyes to reality.