So, as previously mentioned, today’s project is to read The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story by Diane Ackerman. If you’re going to do that and haven’t yet, or haven’t finished yet, stop reading here and come back when you’re done. I haven’t decided entirely what I’m saying as it just comes when I write it, but I can assure you it’ll be spoilery. I’m gonna also take this opportunity to remind our younger readers that this book could be perceived as an adult topic because of the accounts of war and execution, and should be read at your own discretion and potentially with parental guidance. If you decided you’re too young for the book, assume you’re too young for the content of this post.
Firstly, let me apologize to the animal lovers in the crowd. I’m with you. I am so sensitive to animals that I just won’t read books or watch movies with animals in them ever, as they seem to exist entirely for sadness, and I used to have a friend who watched/read everything before me to warn me if it was animal-safe so I’d know whether to just avoid it. I’ve never forgiven the girl who tricked me into seeing Marley & Me. Bleh.
However, I decided that I needed to stop missing out on great or important stories and learn to process animal pain and sure picked a hell of a book to start with. Some very naive part of me had high hopes before reading that the reason they’d be able to save so many people is because there’s no reason to bomb a zoo. If it hadn’t been a true story I’m quite sure I would’ve walked away. As it was I read it straight through because I knew I wouldn’t pick it back up if I stopped. I was right. About halfway through the sheer quantity of animal death was enough that I literally threw up. But I picked it back up and kept going. I’m morbidly thankful that she also told us (in much less detail of course) that the allies bombed the German zoo(s?) as well, both because I think it’s important that when horrible things are done by either side, whatever the reasoning, we don’t hide them because the victor was more right in doing them, but also because I would’ve wondered and might’ve ended up googling and finding out more detail than I wanted to know. I started out reading the book thinking I’d probably see the movie, but I won’t be able to make myself do that unless a good 99% of the animal death is edited out. I already know it isn’t. I’ve seen pictures of her with the pig. I will not be able to handle the pig. Among many other things, but oh god, the pig.
If you’re less an animal lover and more bothered about the people. Well. I don’t know what to say. I can’t apologize for World War II. And I don’t think I can apologize for wanting people to be educated about it. I feel like I know probably as much as the average person on the street (in America at any rate) about most history topics and about World War II, but I knew (know?) very little about the history of Poland’s involvement. All I really knew was they were the first country that Germany invaded. I didn’t know why, I didn’t really know what all that entailed, and I’m not sure my brain translated that into being the last country Germany left. With the state of our current political situation and all of the accusations of who is or isn’t a Nazi it seems important to have an understanding of what the hell the Nazis were doing before they were actively gassing and burning the Jewish community.
Now I know they were giving not just verbal and written propaganda, but actually physically staging faked attacks against themselves to justify their war. They were clamoring to return to the perceived former glory days of their childhoods. They were competing to be the most disgusting man on the totem pole to get in good with Hitler. And hidden in the notes after the book, they were taking mass quantities of drugs, and giving them to their soldiers, which excuses nothing but makes things more understandable in my brain. Every time I’ve thought to myself, like I’m sure all people do, what it would be like to be alive in that war, particularly in Germany, what can drive a whole country of people to do such horrible things and would I have been the good person who stood by my convictions in the face of death or not, the only answer I’ve ever had for myself about how to get a whole country to go along with this and at least its military and police force actively carrying it out has been fear. Fear that if they weren’t doing it to others that their superiors would be doing it to them. And while that’s probably very true to an extent, it makes a whole lot more sense when adding in the fact that both the man in charge who decided all of this was not only necessary but a good idea, and all the people under him who were carrying it out, were taking drugs. Not even drugs that I can identify today’s equivalent, and maybe originally well intentioned drugs if Hitler had Parkinson’s as was theorized, but obviously they did not do what they were supposed to have done to treat it and I can only assume that they drastically altered brain activity and chemistry. I doubt very much that German soldiers knew what they were taking, and it’s scary to think how easy it is to order your military be medicated. Now in the modern world they don’t even need to be given all these “vitamins” to take, an injection would probably do just as well.
I think the author would’ve been better served working that into the book and not just leaving it as a footnote that most people won’t ever read. She made a couple of attempts at reaching for that Anne Frank moment of “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are still truly good at heart…” and they fell pretty flat, but I think if she had worked some more of the actual motivating factors and mind altering into the content of the book she could’ve gotten there.
There are lots of little details about things I didn’t know. I would not have ever guessed that people walking the street were being checked to see if they were circumcised or not, or that people had methods to reverse circumcision in that era. I didn’t know nose jobs were an option back then. I’d never really heard of the Jewish people hiding in plain sight before instead of Anne Frank style so it didn’t occur to me that people were actively changing their appearance to look more Aryan or eating pork and wearing Christian icons and practicing Christian religious customs to ride out the war. I knew the Nazis were into all kinds of crazy occult and science shit (and god help me, apart from the experiments on people, my brain lights up like a damn Christmas Tree about all of the rest of it) but I didn’t understand that the Nazi’s were trying to preserve a “master race” rather than create one, and I didn’t have any idea that there had been successful (debatably) back-breeding of extinct animals.
I’m not even sure I had a concept of the ghettos being what they were. I think I had some idea of Jews going from free people, to people wearing stars and having curfews and carrying papers or in hiding, to concentration camps, to gas chambers. I don’t think I had a notion that there was this whole separate uprooting of the Jewish people from their homes into sections that were poor, overcrowded, and walled in but still part of the city. I definitely didn’t realize just how much of the Orthodox population was entirely wiped off the face of the earth.
I’m also going to apologize for starting with a “Oh, they’re making a movie out of this, it must be well written” book that somehow made its way onto my to-read list years ago, when it was actually pretty poorly written and badly edited. It was well worth the read for the content, and when the author could pick what she was doing she did it well, but she seemed to have a lot of trouble with that and wrote big choppy segments of what felt like entirely separate books all interrupting each other. She had the narrative story that felt like a fictional hypothetical book, but interspersed it with first hand accounts that didn’t fall into any kind of chronological order and were just sort of dumped, with whole chapters cutting away to historical context or lessons on Nazi-Science. And then there were the moments where she seemed to want to turn it into fantasy about telepathy and that just didn’t go anywhere. They were all stories that deserved telling, but she didn’t weave them together well or match styles to give it any kind of cohesive flow. I feel like I do more editing on my average blog post to try to make my thoughts make some kind of ordered sense than she did on the whole book. Maybe she was just exhausted from all the stories of death and horror and wanted to be done with it. I’m honestly surprised how many other books she’s written and that one was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
There were characters I loved deeply. Most were animals and that went very badly for them. But I also found myself immediately attached to, was it Maurycy? The spelling of foreign names is hard for me to remember, but I had a great big soft spot for him and was so devastated that he didn’t stop Piotr from drinking. The story of the orphanage keeper who stayed with his orphans all the way through the end was tremendously touching and probably worthy of its own book and movie. I can usually compartmentalize and be much less affected by human death than animal death… but that story got me in a big way. A different way, because it was a story of honor and love, but still very deep.
I think I usually think of human being as the frailest of all animals. The ones that don’t follow the natural inclination to love. That cat wanted her kittens. But you give her a family of foxes in their place and she’s going to take care of those foxes and nurse them and raise them and be mother to them in every way. You throw all of these various species of animals together in one house and they learn to behave and get along like family. With humans…. you throw a handful of races into the world and we can’t even figure out how to get along as neighbors. You give us the slightest reason to hurt and we spend our lives devoted to it and the injustice of it and the why and the how to exact revenge. That’s where this book and others like it become important. Not all people are like that. And maybe it takes our biggest suffering and atrocities to take us back to that animal nature to love and nurture and protect and coexist. To be like the animals and not think of ourselves as heroes and not do things for honor and glory but because it’s instinct that if you see someone who needs help you help them. You love and nurture like the cat with the foxes, because they’re there and they need you. And maybe these kinds of books help us to settle our minds and spirits into being more inclined to being like the Antoninas and the Jans of history and living those lives before we have to have the great tragedies thrust us into them.
I lost a certain measurable amount of respect for them when Antonina turned up pregnant. It’s hard for me to imagine being in such a horrendous situation and knowing that the smallest misstep of anyone involved means the death of your family and existing child and neighbors and everyone you know and love and bringing another life to lose into that. But maybe we’re closer to the animals than I give us credit for and one way or another life insists on continuing.
One thing that I can say with certainty, is that I spent that WHOLE damn book waiting for badger to turn up alright, and I’m so very very thankful that he did.
A word about music: We include songs for a reason. Music helps us deal with the world, helps to soothe the soul, and gives us something else we can focus on when everything is too much. Listen to the songs we post. Even if you already know them. Listen to them like you don’t. Pay attention to the lyrics. Pay attention to what the instruments are telling you. They all have a message, they all have a purpose, they’re all chosen for a reason. If you like the song, please support the artist by purchasing the MP3 or Album that features it.
Today’s music can be found on Amazon.com:
MP3: Talk to the Animals
Album: If I Were a Carpenter