Surviving, witnessing, and remembering the Holocaust--in a fablelike first novel that begins with the glowing simplicity of a Singer folktale but later becomes somewhat contrived and heavy-handed. Chaim Turkow, born in Nowy Dwor, Poland, in 1922, is the sixth child of devout innkeeper Moishe--a man with five daughters who has always longed for a Talmud-studying son. But, though sweet, blond Chaim is indeed an intellectual infant-prodigy, he's struck temporarily dumb and senseless as a result of a childhood fall. And thereafter the lad is skillful only at drawing, sketching, and photography--under the tutelage of painter/printer/engraver Jacob Mitulsky, the town's most wordly-wise Jew (whose secular pessimism unsettles papa Moishe). But when the Germans come to Nowy Dwor in 1939, Chaim's passion for images on paper becomes a life-and-death matter--as does his Aryan appearance. Urged on by Mitulsky and other townsfolk, the boy flees Nowy Dwor, posing as a mute Polish lad and carrying next to his skin photographs and sketches of the first Nazi atrocities. (""Don't forget anything!"" Mitulsky commands him.) Chaim finds work as a farmhand for gross, greedy Witold Grunewald, a fanatic pro-Nazi who turns into a neutral profiteer when the Germans start losing. Traveling with his master (on looting expeditions), Chaim gets a glimpse of the Warsaw Ghetto's horrors--and is nearly driven to suicidal madness. But then, as Russian troops arrive, he meets up with Jewish dwarf Leyzer Ehrlich--a magician who has survived the death-camps, using his tricks to disarm the Nazis and to give their victims tiny moments of distracting pleasure. And it is Leyzer who gives Chaim the will to go on--to remember, record, and bare witness, staying on in Poland despite resurgent anti-Semitism, Soviet oppression, and the lure of Palestine (""Who would be left to explain the faces'?""). The remembrance theme here is more than a little belabored. The more fabulistic touches--Grunewald's near-cartoonish villainy, the magical dwarf, some coyly self-conscious narration--threaten to turn the proceedings into a precious picaresque. So, despite the compelling opening chapters and later moments of stark power, this debut--which seems to stretch short-story materials out to novel length--lacks the unmannered, aching plainness of the best Holocaust fiction.