The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

I read The Zookeeper’s Wife back in 2008 and wrote about it on Semicolon. Since the book is set to become a movie at the end of March, here are my thoughts on the book at the time I read it.

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Jan Zabinski was the Polish director of the Warsaw Zoo in 1939 when the Nazis invaded and subjugated Poland. His wife, Antonina, was his helpmate in runing the zoo and the mother of a young son. During the German occupation, she gave birth to a daughter as well.

This nonfiction book tells the story of how Jan and Antonina worked with the Polish Underground to hide Jews, stockpile arms and ammunition, eventually participate in the doomed Uprising of August 1944 when the Russians halted outside Warsaw and allowed the Germans to destroy the Polish Underground that had come out of hiding to support the Allies in re-taking Poland and driving the Nazis out. A lot of the story tells about the animals in the zoo and what happened to them and how Antonina survived pregnancy-related illnesses, inadequate rations, and providing secret hospitality for fifty to seventy people at any given time throughout the course of the war and the German occupation.

Something about the way the story was told made me admire these people, but not like them very much. I’m not sure what I didn’t like, but I felt uncomfortable in their company. Jan seemed very controlling, and Antonina like a wife making excuses for an authoritarian husband. Maybe that’s not the way it was at all since Ms. Ackerman derives her story from written accounts, Antonina’s diary mostly, and from interviews with people who knew the Zabinskis during the war. Both Jan and Antonina Zabinski died before this book was conceived. Their son, Rys, did contribute his memories of a childhood filled with animals and with war.

I don’t know. I’m ambivalent. If you like nonfiction about animals and and about World War II, you should try it out.

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Irena’s Children by Tilar J. Mazzeo

Irena’s Children: The Extraordinary Story of the Woman Who Saved 2500 Children from the Warsaw Ghetto by Tilar J. Mazzeo.

This book tells the story of Polish social worker Irena Sendler, a courageous woman who risked her life to save Jewish children in Warsaw during World War War II. As I read I was reminded of my (fictional) introduction to the story of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw during World War II and of how the people living there were systematically and horrifically starved, persecuted, deported to death camps, Treblinka in particular, and finally exterminated. The ghetto itself was eventually burned and then razed. I read about all of this horror many years ago, first in Leon Uris’s book, Exodus, and then in his books that focuses on the Warsaw ghetto, Mila 18.

Many of the true stories in Irena’s Children mirror the stories that Uris told in his fictional accounts of the Holocaust. Irene Sendler and those who worked with her did smuggle Jewish babies out of the ghetto and place them in Christian (Catholic) orphanages and homes. They did take older children and adults through the sewers to get them out of the ghetto. Some Jews did escape just in the nick of time before the Nazis destroyed the entire ghetto, and others died in a failed, desperate uprising led mostly by teenagers and young adults who refused to be taken alive.

And Irena Sendler was a heroine, although she often vehemently denied any right to the title. She was a socialist and a humanitarian. She was not Jewish herself, but she had a Jewish lover, and therefore, a personal interest in the survival of Poland’s Jews. She risked her life again and again, however, for strangers, for children who could not thank her or protect her. She was eventually arrested and taken to a Gestapo prison, questioned, tortured, and scheduled for execution. She escaped with the help of the Polish Underground, and she went on to help more Jews and to survive the war and the Communist aftermath of the war.

I would have liked to have read more about Ms. Sendler’s life after the war, but that part of the story and of Irena Sendler’s life was given short shrift in a book that focuses mostly on her wartime activities. Ms. Sendler became a devout Catholic in her later years, and she was persecuted by the Communist government of Poland even as she was lauded by Jewish friends and friends of Israel around the world. The book has no index, and it could have used one since many of Irena Sendler’s associates had similar names and stories. The Polish names and places were hard for an English-speaking reader to keep straight, but Mazzeo does include a list of characters at the end of the book.

Hidden Gold by Ella Burakowski

I find Holocaust memoirs to be somewhat variable in quality and readability. Maybe the memoirist’s memories are not that detailed or reliable. Sometimes the person who has undertaken the task of writing the stories down is just not a great writer. Sometimes the reader may be the problem: I’m not immune to the chilling effect of a jadedness produced by too many horrific World War II stories, too many atrocities, too much suffering and starvation for a person to read and assimilate.

Hidden Gold is an excellent example of a Holocaust memoir that is sharp, well-written, detailed, and narrative. I was absorbed by the story of young David Gold and his family and their survival in hiding in Poland, written by Mr. Gold’s niece and based on Mr. Gold’s memories of 1942-1944 when he was twelve to fourteen years old. “David Gold’s memories of his formative years during World War II are as vivid and compelling under his niece’s pen as if they happened yesterday.” (from the blurb on the back cover of the book)

The Gold family–David, his two older sisters, and his mother–survived in hiding on a Polish farm because they were rich, because they were smart and initially healthy, and because they were lucky, or perhaps preserved by a miracle form God. Even though the memoir is woven from David Gold’s memories, David’s older sister Shoshanna, who later became the mother of the author, emerges as the heroine of the tale. Shoshanna is the one who negotiates with outsiders on behalf of the entire family because she has blue eyes and speaks Polish without a Yiddish accent. Shoshanna is the one who encourages the family not to commit suicide when it seems that choice is the only one left to them. Unfortunately, Shoshanna Gold Barakowski died at a relatively young age in 1972, while the author was still in her teens, and the other sister, Esther, also died (of cancer) in 1984, long before Ms. Burakowski began to write this book.

I did wonder how much the author embellished or assumed as she told of the thoughts and motivations of her family members, most of whom were not available to vet the text or give their own take on events. Still, most memoirs are a mix of fact and fill in the blank, and I give the author credit for filling in, if she did, in a way that reads as authentic, coherent, and literary. I read and believed, and I was reminded that hatred and prejudice and bravery and human endurance are all a part of our shared human history as well as evident in the present day “holocausts” that continue to be perpetrated on the innocent and the unprotected.

[T]he memoir as unfiltered actuality is a myth. Fickle and unreliable memories must be reconstructed and made coherent; a story’s assembly, style, and characterization will inevitably compromise any strict retelling. Emphatically, this does not mean the work is less autobiographically or historically valid—–only that it is never pure autobiography or history, and has to be understood and embraced thus. Truth isn’t synonymous with historicity, and infidelity to the latter isn’t necessarily betrayal of the former. ~”The Holocaust’s Uneasy Relationship with Literature” by Menachem Kaiser, The Atlantic, December 2010

YA Nonfiction: Two Holocaust Memoirs

The Boy on the Wooden Box: How the impossible became possible . . . on Schindler’s list by Leon Leyson with Marilyn J. Harran and Elisabeth Leyson.

Helga’s Diary: A Young Girl’s Account of Life in a Concentration Camp by Helga Weiss, translated by Neil Bermel.

Both of these accounts, written by Jewish Holocaust survivors about their teen years in Nazi-occupied territory, were quite absorbing and harrowing, each in its own way. Mr. Leyson’s book has a two-fold purpose as evidenced by the dedication: “To my brothers, Tsalig and Herschel, and to all the sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, parents and grandparents who perished in the Holocaust. And to Oskar Schindler, whose noble actions did indeed save a ‘world entire.'” There has been some controversy over whether the hero of the movie Schindler’s List was really a an unequivocal hero since he was something of a contradiction, a womanizing Nazi businessman who nevertheless saved the lives of perhaps more than one thousand Jewish workers who were slated for extermination by the Germans. Leon Leyson has no doubts about the heroism of Oskar Schlindler since Leon was one of those workers who was on Schlindler’s famous “list”. The memoir begins with Leib Lejzon, now known as Leon Leyson, living in the rural village of Narewka in northeastern Poland. Leon says that when he was a boy “[l]ife seemed an endless, carefree journey.” First, Leon’s father moved to the city of Krakow to work, and then in 1938 when Leon was eight years old, his father sent for the family to join him in Krakow. In 1939 the Leysons’ idyllic and upwardly mobile life came to an abrupt halt when the Germans invaded Poland.

The Boy on the Wooden Box is an excellent story for young adult readers about the Holocaust and about the survivors, particularly the work of Oskar Schlindler in saving many of the Jews who worked for him. Leon Leyson’s mantra for survival could be useful to anyone who is going through suffering and hard times, even if they never have to survive something as horrendous as the Holocaust:

“a new phrase surfaced: ‘If this is the worst that happens.’ My father and mother also adopted this saying as a tool of survival, perhaps as a way of keeping darker thoughts at bay. . . . Whenever a German was near, we whispered to ourselves, ‘If this is the worst . . .'”

Helga’s Diary is the story of the Czech/Jewish Helga Weiss’s childhood spent in the concentration camp of Terezin, and then later at Auschwitz. The Terezin portion of the diary was written at the time of the events and edited later for clarity by the author. Helga’s uncle hid the diary for her at Terezin when Helga and her mother were sent on a transport to Auschwitz. Then, after the war, Helga retrieved the diary and added the details of events that happened to her and her mother at Auschwitz and on their final journey through Poland and Czechoslovakia on a “death train” as the war was drawing to a close.

Helga’s childlike confusion over what was happening to her family and to the rest of the Jews in Czechoslovakia, and then her growing understanding and horror, lend her story an immediacy that pulls the reader into the story in a way that Mr. Leyson’s story is unable to do, written as it was long after the events took place. At the same time there are questions left unanswered in Helga’s account, as there must be in any child’s view of the war. An interview with Helga Weiss in the back of the book brings her story up to date and answered a few of those questions. Other uncertainties in the story simply must be left open since we are reading the story from young Helga’s point of view.

Finally I leave you with Helga Weiss’s words on why her book (and by extension Leon Leyson’s book, too) is important and should be read:

Why should we read another account of the Holocaust?

Mostly because it is truthful. I’ve put my own sentiments into it as well, but those sentiments themselves are emotional, moving, and most of all, truthful. And maybe because it’s narrated in that half-childish way, it’s accessible and expressive, and I think it will help people to understand those times.

The Boy on the Wooden Box has been nominated for the Cybils Award in the category of Young Adult Nonfiction. Helga’s Diary, although eligible in the same category, has not yet been nominated. The thoughts in this review are my own and do not reflect the thoughts or evaluations of the Cybils panel or of any other Cybils judge.