“The Zookeeper’s Wife” – a safekeeping sanctuary for a range of species and preyed-upon

“The Zookeeper’s Wife” – a safekeeping sanctuary for a range of species and preyed-upon
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“By the Spring of 1942, a stream of Guests began arriving at the zoo once more, hiding in cages, sheds, and closets, where they tried to forge daily routines while living in a state of contained panic…. in the radio era, they’d grown used to gathering news by ear and adding mental images…. trying to hide scorched nerves.”

Documenting the unimaginable, and the heroic

Diane Ackerman’s exhaustive chronicle of a most unusual refuge and most exemplary humanity is indeed “a war story.” The cliché – the triumph of the human spirit – is most apt.

In the lead-up to World War Two and during the Nazi occupation of Poland, the buildings and grounds of the Warsaw Zoo served as a “Noah’s Ark” for Jews who were being hunted by the SS and for Poles who had the courage to engage in sabotage. Antonina Zabinski and her husband Jan (the zoologist, the zookeeper) were the “ballast.”

These days, one hopes there are such sanctuaries in and bordering Syria; that there are such in and around Pyongyang and Tehran, in Libya, in Sudan….

Jan Zabinski – the zookeeper

The Warsaw Zoo was run by this highly-trained zoologist, who became an important member of the Polish Underground.

Jan Zabinski aided the resistance in a number of combat and non-combat ways. He helped facilitate sabotage of Nazi supply and troop trains by hiding ammunition and explosives near the zoo’s elephant enclosure – which was just paces from buildings German troops had commandeered. For a German troop encampment, he contaminated some of the pork balls produced from the zoo’s short-lived wartime pig farm.

He installed heating pipes, running water, and a toilet in the villa’s subterranean labyrinths, where he and Antonina hid Guests. He devised emergency exits and built tunnels for escape routes.

With the cover of zoo operations and procurement, he became a risk-taking resistance officer; a clandestine and innovative procurer of counterfeit identity papers (forged with daring and finesse); a smuggler of food and medicine into the Warsaw Ghetto; and a wily conveyor of Jews out of that Ghetto.

Shot by Germans in an almost-destined-for-failure counter-attack, he somehow managed to survive a bullet in the neck; and then managed to survive German and Russian prisons.

Antonina Zabinski – beyond maternal instincts

A “vital paranoia reigned” in the Zabinski house “as the only sane response to perpetual danger.”

“Guests” relied on Antonina “for their sustenance and sanity.” Her custodial secrets required her to shop for food and medicine so as not to raise suspicion. Hanging clothes out to dry had to be calibrated judiciously.

Jan (“a devout scientist”) credited her “with metaphysical waves of nearly shamanistic empathy when it came to animals” and that empathy carried over to her taking in and caring for “Guests.”

With the occupation, Antonina developed a cunning born of wariness and distrust, and honed for preservation. She had “an uncanny ability to calm unruly animals,” and this acumen had carryover in dealing with predators in Nazi uniforms.

Diane Ackerman credits her with managing her countenance, along with the refuge: “a face can leak fear or the guilt of a forming lie.”

In post-war interviews, Jan (a most reliable, even if highly-biased source), praised Antonina’s “confidence that could disarm even the most hostile.” He credited her with calming “omni-competence,” a high-level telepathy, and a most-exemplary empathy. All that, plus a courageous morphing: when necessity called for it, Jan marveled that Antonina was able to adopt the cunning and fearlessness, and protectionist instincts, of admired animals.

Perpetual ever-present danger

In The Zookeeper’s Wife, Diane Ackerman explains that “… for the occupied, war reset their metabolism, especially the resting level of attention…. especially for farmers and animal-keepers, those attuned to nature and seasons, the war snagged time on barbed wire, forcing survivors to live by mere chronicity, instead of real time, the time of wheat, wolf, and otter.”

For human prey: “Each morning, they awoke in darkness, not knowing the day’s fate, maybe sorrowful, maybe ending in arrest.” And, maybe, in death – “the Germans, at random, sealed off all exits in a tram or church, and then proceeded to kill everyone inside, as revenge for some insult real or imagined.”

Through her prodigious research, Diane Ackerman was able to report that “the idea of safety had shrunk to particles – one snug moment, and then the next. Meanwhile, the brain piped fugues of worry and staged mind-theaters full of tragedies….”

Petting versus Pedigrees

Animals were Antonina’s foster children, her step children. The Zabinskis’ Warsaw Zoo took in and nurtured foundlings, and all manner of animals that had been cast aside, abandoned. These rescues seemed to complement their collection of prized specimens, for whom they created habitats. These distinct environs (microclimates) were especially created to distinctly suit animals from a range of terrains and ecologies. Theirs was an ecumenical ecology – animals and humans were to be preserved even as costs and risks rose.

Diane Ackerman’s book provides a stark and telling contrast: Her exhaustive research provides explicit documentary evidence of Nazi zookeepers’ obsessions with origins, with resurrecting ancient (even prehistoric) breeds – which they were intent on recreating by back-breeding, a purifying eugenics.

Ackerman set these obsessions of Nazi zookeepers alongside the diabolical inhumanity of their Nazi brethren, who (top to bottom) were intent on methodically and unhesitatingly extinguishing human beings, with verve and relentlessness.

While Nazi zookeepers were obsessed with stud books that detailed breeding and bloodlines, thousands of storm troopers, SS thugs, and diabolical “camp” officials were focused on annihilating humans on a scale that went beyond any horror that could have been imagined.

The mania was concocted using a depraved ethos of “racial hygienics” – “the cleansing and purifying of the genetic clutter.” Hitler’s top zoologists were focused on bringing back extinct breeds (storybook creatures), while thousands of Nazis were carrying out amoral procedures to eliminate the fabricated “taint and degeneration of the human species,” by extinguishing millions of human beings.

Nazi occupation – no habitat for humanity

Ackerman discovered that pre-invasion Warsaw had a population of one and a half million. “In early Spring of 1946, there was half a million at most.” An observer is quoted as not being able to identify living spaces for a tenth of that number. The survivors “lived” in “crypts, caverns, cellars, and subterranean shelters.”

Documenting the unimaginable – debunking deniers

Ackerman’s war story most certainly chronicles authentic examples of courage and humanity, which are all the more exemplary in comparison to the horrors she rightly documents:

Immediately following the end of the Warsaw Uprising and the surrender of resisters, the Nazis shipped POWs to slave-labor and death camps. “Overflowing hospitals were burned with patients still in them, and women and children were roped onto German tanks to prevent ambush from Polish snipers.”

Russian troops halted rather than rescue Warsaw. As a result of this tactical abstention, “thousands of Poles were massacred, thousands more sent to camps, and the city extinguished.”

Those who returned found the city reduced to “chunks of debris.” Ackerman reports that “archival photographs and films show charred window and door frames standing like sky portals… apartment houses and churches calving like glaciers… surreal streets lined with facades thin as tombstones.”

Pre-Internet “finding tools”

Scraps of paper pleading for information about loved ones were pinned to trees, electric poles, fences, still-standing facades, train-station walls, which served as a free-form “public lost-and-found bureau” with husbands and wives searching for one another, “with parents searching for their children” - with large crowds congregating, “from morning till night, at these ‘forwarding offices’.”

The desperation of families frantically searching for missing loved ones was repeated during and following the Killing Fields of Cambodia (1975 – 1979) and in the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, as the horrific tolls mounted and mounted. At refugee camps, photos were affixed to yards and yards of makeshift “lost and found” boards. The postings vividly certified the ravages, which had, so wishfully and naively, been relegated to a universal “never again.”

“It’s worse than I realized”

The movie has some quite meaningful moments, searing scenes – those enacting the Nazis’ brutally accosting, assaulting, and summarily executing Jews; persecuting and starving Jews in the ultra-inhumane conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto; and herding the survivors (even the very youngest) into boxcars for extermination in death camps.

These scenes should be put on a “loop” to be screened and re-screened so that politicians and media refrain from reflexive characterizations of disfavored persons as “Nazis” or as “Hitlers”. Otherwise, the amoral evils of the Holocaust become increasingly trivialized, and “Hitler” and “Nazi” become commonplace, and minor, epithets.

Rendition in Film

Those important, searing movie scenes can be separated from the director’s and screenwriter’s attempts to make Antonina a Marvel-comic action-adventure superwoman.

Early on in the film, Antonina races from her villa’s cocktail party to somehow bring to life a stillborn elephant, as mother and father elephants menace in desperate paternal/maternal agitation. The cocktail crowd gathers as an audience: first to witness in terror and suspense, and then to applaud Antonina’s life-giving feat. Neither Diane Ackerman, in her profound history, nor Antonina in her diary, relate anything other than a normal-for-the-species midwifing.

Then there’s the movie scene in which Antonina is sensually engaged by a Nazi zoologist (for the forced-insemination of bison as part of a eugenics re-breeding to resurrect the extinct and Aryan-venerated aurochs). From my recollection, this engagement is nowhere to be found in Ackerman’s quite detailed and explicit chronicle. Nor is Jan’s jealously discussed, if there was such.

The Zabinskis did manage to keep the zoo (and their clandestine rescue operations) going by convincing Nazi administrators to allow them to raise pigs, which would be slaughtered to feed Nazi troops.

In the film, Antonina promotes this arrangement to the head Nazi zoologist.

In the book, we learn that as a lieutenant in the Home Army (a clandestine branch of the Polish military), Jan “sought to disguise the zoo as something the Third Reich might wish to keep intact. The Germans had troops to feed and they loved pork, so he [Jan] approached the Nazi zoologist about starting a large pig farm using the ramshackle zoo buildings, knowing that raising pigs in a harsh climate would ensure well-kept buildings and grounds, and even a little income for some of the old staff.”

Ackerman goes on to note that “According to testimony he [Jan] gave to the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, by using the ruse of gathering scraps for feeding pigs, he hoped to ‘bring notes and food, and carry messages for friends in the Ghetto.”

Animals and “animals” – different confinements

The scenes of animals cohabiting and thriving in the freedoms devised at the Zabinskis’ Warsaw Zoo are well juxtaposed to the confinement, liquidation, and incineration of the Warsaw Ghetto.

The film provides a good sense of the “persuasive lying and creative deception” that allowed the zoo to bustle in plain sight.

The film does do great (and supremely well-warranted) credit to Antonina’s vigilance and compassion. Her emphatic playing of certain piano tunes, which served as warnings for Guests to hide; her hair-dying efforts altered appearances that might defy Nazi assumptions about physical stereotypes; her shepherding Guests into tunnels and out to safe conveyances – all these authentic life-saving actions are well conveyed.

A most memorable portrayal of self-sacrifice

The Zookeeper’s Wife rightly depicts the humanity and heart of an elderly pediatrician (an orphanage founder) who would not abandon the little ones he attended in a makeshift Ghetto hospital. And most movingly (on August 6, 1942, from the book; August 5, in the movie), this good doctor insists on staying with the little ones as they are herded to train yards, and then to box cars, by utterly heartless Nazis. We register the unthinkable as thousands are ushered to their appointment with “the final solution” in the death camp of Treblinka.

Dr. Janusz Korczak knew the children would feel trapped and be terrified, and so he declined offers of escape for himself. He knew his presence would be calming. He explained to those who offered to spirit him away, “You do not leave a sick child in the night, and you do not leave children in a time like this.”

The film’s depiction is sensitive and gut-wrenching. We see suitcases hurled into piles trackside (to be plundered by the troops after the train departs). We see the bewildered faces of the little ones. Dr. Korczak asks Jan to help him manage the loading, knowing that “the children’s fear will be unimaginable.” Unable to convince Korczak to go along with the spiriting away Jan had arranged for him, Jan gently lifts each little one into the boxcar. Demoralized, he can’t bear to look back at the horror that he is helpless to halt.

Humans can become wildly animalized, as animals can become humanized

Time has not tamed. The worst behaviors of man re-surface and re-surface. The “eliminations” perpetrated by Kim Jong-un, ISIS, and Bashar al-Assad make endangered species of millions.

In her diary, Antonina asked herself, “Why is it that animals can sometimes subdue their predatory ways in only a few months, while humans, despite centuries of refinement, can quickly grow more savage than any beast?”

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