The Book of Aron: when survival is all that matters.
I was writing the last chapter of my book currently titled “Survive or Thrive” when my book club decided to read The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard. The story is based on the real life of Janusz Korczak, a famous pediatrician who becomes head of the orphanage in the Warsaw ghetto during World War Two. However, it is told in the words of Aron, a boy who ages from about 10-13 during the story. Aron is saved from death by Dr. Korczak and lives in the orphanage.
Survival is all that matters in the face of starvation, faceless violence, hopelessness, and despair. Black humor reigns, as when a ghetto resident says that he’s heard the Americans are sending over 100,000 hammers to smash any dream that the Jews will be saved. Conditions continually worsen… and worsen… and worsen.
Aron is no hero. He is just a terrified boy who cries a lot and follows other, stronger figures in the hope of living another day. He has to make a series of difficult decisions, including whether or not to collaborate with the enemy (the Jewish police in particular, people who enforce order in the ghetto at the expense of their souls). Korczak is a hero in that he spurns offers to escape the ghetto because he won’t abandon his orphans but he grumbles continually, talks non-sensibly, drinks a lot of vodka, and represents both hero and martyr.
The Book of Aron would be painful reading for almost anybody. It calls into question any blithe vision that humans are becoming more humane. Only Korczak might think with what my friend Rich Pfeiffer calls an “evolved” brain. And, as we know all too well, similar “primitive” thinking is occurring all over the world today in places like Syria and South Sudan. I’m Jewish so this book hit particularly hard but Christians are being attacked and slaughtered today in Malaysia and Africa while Muslims suffer throughout the Middle East.
So what about my book in which I earnestly urge people to “grow toward your inner light” in order to thrive? I have no plans to rewrite the book to urge you to survive. But I surely am grateful to live in a country where thriving is possible at least for a significant portion of the population. Thriving is indeed a great luxury. Survival is necessary. Thriving is not necessary.
I plan to return to the earlier chapters of my book in which I describe three major survival networks: Freeze, Flight and Fight. I want to see if I gave enough credit to people who have to utilize these systems to survive. If not, they’ll need rewriting.
Good entry, Ron. Poignant.
I too struggle to find a sense of meaning in the nature of our "civilization." I have often said that as individuals, human beings are capable of immense greatness, but as a species, we are psychotic.
At the same time, I have had enough mystical experiences, of both good and evil, to trust that there is meaning - although it may be meaning that gives no special credence to human kind. In that sense, like Julian of Norwich, I can live into "and all shall be well."
At a deep level, I love this world, and like you, I am privileged to be able to thrive.
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