“The Zookeeper’s Wife”: A study in heroism

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Last night, I mentioned in passing to a couple of friends that I would be blogging about Holocaust-related entertainment. They just stared as though there was something wrong with me. I clarified that I was referring to books and movies about WWII and the Holocaust; I was not suggesting that the Holocaust was entertaining. (And it was during intermission at a play about Sylvia Plath. It’s not as though these friends demand light entertainment!)

Why I was thinking about this subject in the first place? Well, I had just learned of a new book about the heroism of some ordinary people during World War II.

The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story, by Diane Ackerman, is the story of Jan Zabinski, the Christian zookeeper of the Warsaw Zoo and his wife Antonina, who helped save the lives of hundreds of Polish Jews during WWII by hiding them — often in plain sight — at the Zoo.

I’m no newcomer to WWII/Holocaust books and movies. My parents were young children during WWII (and my grandparents were relatively recent Eastern European Jewish immigrants.) So they took the lesson of never forgetting the Holocaust very seriously and ensured that my brother and I were exposed to the history. In 1978, they insisted that we watch the miniseries Holocaust.

Meryl Streep was lovely even in peril, wasn’t she?

And I read all the related young adult books: When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Friedrich, Alan and Naomi. And then, of course, there was non-fiction such as Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.

There are two elements of WWII stories that I find compelling: the ability of ordinary people to commit atrocities, and the ability of ordinary people to commit acts of heroism. The Zabinskis, when faced with the desecration of their beloved zoo (via removal of animals to the Berlin Zoo, the blitzkrieg and drunken senseless violence) decided that if they couldn’t save most of the animals, they could at least save people. Like Oskar Schindler — and many others — they had much to lose, taking the risks they did to help others. And I’m just kind of blown away by the stories of people who do the right thing at enormous personal risk.

Additionally, the book includes stories of other Poles who took similar risks to shelter Jews, as well as background on Lutz Heck, the Berlin Zoo director interested in resurrecting and promoting “pure-blooded” species. (Have you noticed that some World War II figures would seem too cartoonish if they were fictional?) All in all, it’s clear that the Warsaw Zoo housed more history than I ever realized, so I’m going to take a look at The Zookeeper’s Wife.

And despite its dramatic history, rest assured that the Warsaw Zoo is a much more laid-back place today.

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