‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ coming to a big screen near you

Ten years ago, Diane Ackerman brought the story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski before the public in The Zookeeper’s Wife. Next Friday, March 31, the heroics of the Zabinskis will receive even greater exposure as the film The Zookeeper’s Wife comes to neighborhood theaters. I’ve been a cheerleader for the book for all ten years. It combines narrative nonfiction, nature writing and a little-known story of genuine heroes of the Holocaust in one tight package.

I’ve not had the opportunity to see the film as yet. Those who have seen it in preview have found it moving and frightening – both reactions completely appropriate to the subject at hand. The book is based in large part on Antonina’s journals.  Jan Zabinski was the head of the Warsaw Zoo when the Nazis invaded Poland. He and his young family lived on site, taking care of the animals as conditions worsened. For scientific reasons, several Nazi officers were keenly interested in the animals and spent considerable time at the zoo.

Of greater note are the extraordinary lengths Jan went to secreting Jews out of the Warsaw ghetto and hiding them within the zoo. Jan was the head of a cadre of resistance members that moved more than 300 Jews, partisans and other opponents of the Nazi regime out of and through Warsaw to safety in the countryside.

As is often the case, the screenplay for this movie was written by someone other than the author. Books and movies have very different ways of treating the same story.  When a screenwriter takes on the task of turning well-written nonfiction into a film the most important thing should be whether the truth remains in the telling. The cast for the film, headed by Jessica Chastain, is international and should help capture the range of people that were caught up in Warsaw during the war.

Make no mistake, this film will not gloss over the horrors of the war and just show cute animals. As in the book, there will be moments of humor and tenderness. It should also show the individual and collective depravity of the Nazi regime.  For this reason, it is rated PG-13. Anyone considering taking somewhat younger children who have had exposure to Holocaust material before should keep in mind that there may be very different reactions to pictures and sounds than to words on a page.

Without broad critical reactions, it is hard to know if the movie will have a wide distribution. If you can, see it.  Regardless, both the story Ackerman has to tell and her writing would make reading The Zookeeper’s Wife time well spent.


A delicate balance in historical fiction

  • Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly (Ballantine Books, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Ravensbrück and the medical experimentation there are among the lesser known atrocities of WWII. Kelly’s book tells of the female doctor charged with doing these experiments and an American socialite who supported the Free French and brought the “rabbits” of Ravensbrück to the US in 1958.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: New York, Paris, Poland, Germany
  • Time: 1939 – 59
  • Read this for a skilled portrayal of the horrific and little-told events of Ravensbrück during WWII.

Caroline Ferriday was an exotic creature in New York on the brink of WWII. A socialite and former actress, she was a true francophile, volunteering her efforts to aid French citizens seeking entry to the US and orphaned children sheltered in French convents. In Lilac Girls, Martha Hall Kelly aptly captures her vivacity and generosity of spirit, as well as the differences between her and many of the other upper-class young women in New York at that time.

The selflessness of Ferriday is contrasted in the other real women portrayed in Lilac Girls. The Ravensbrück labor camp was a model facility for the Nazis. Primarily populated by Polish political prisoners, it quickly became a showpiece for the Red Cross and the laboratory for horrific experimentation into the effects of untreated wounds and infections. Herta Oberheuser was completing her medical training as the war broke out and was the only woman doctor assigned to the medical staff at Ravensbrück. Initially assigned to minor ailments, she wanted to use her surgical training. Already set apart from the male doctors, she was the perfect choice for a clandestine project to infect and maim healthy young women to simulate battlefield infections and wounds. Over 70 young Polish women became test “rabbits”, intentionally untreated and reinfected to see the course these injuries and illness would take.

Herta Oberheuser was joined in her mistreatment of prisoners by a sadistic matron-like figure and an assistant out to get her. Wherever possible, Kelly has used actual names and information, made possible by the extenisve recorkeeping of the Nazi regime. After the war, Dr. Oberhauser was one of few women brought before the Nuremberg tribunal. Found guilty, she excaped execution and was imprisoned, only to be released after about 5 years.

Although the names of many of the “rabbits” are known, Kelly chose to create fictional women and in doing so provides rich backstories and intricate relationships among the sisters she has highlighted. The complex mix between real and fictional characters begs the reader to search out more about the people and Ravensbrück.

There is a vast continuum of titles that fall under the historical fiction genre. Historical figures make cameo appearances in fictional stories, and well-reasearched narratives have augmented dialogue to move actual events forward. In telling the stories of Ravensbrück and of the hardships of the Free French, Martha Hall Kelly has broadened the understanding of those beyond the Jews who were subjugated and often killed by the Nazis. If fault lies in the telling of the story, it is the conflation of Caroline Ferriday’s deeds with a love story involving her with a fictional French actor. This thread is a major element in the novel though it does not seem to have any historical basis. It does enrich the reader’s connection to Caroline and provides a view into what did occur in France during and immediately after the war. I would have preferred to see Caroline’s strength shown on her own.

Many readers I know have no interest in reading any more books, fiction or nonfiction, on the Holocaust. Though the events portrayed are horrific, there is benefit to reading the lesser-known stories. Martha Hall Kelly has done a great service by bringing to light the tragedy of Ravensbrück. And Caroline Ferriday should not be relegated only to archives.


‘The UnAmericans’ deserves your attention

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  • Unknown-2The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol (W.W. Norton & Company, 2014)
  • In 40 words or less: In eight stories, Antopol crosses continents and decades bringing together politics, love, longing and the human condition.
  • Genre: Short stories
  • Locale: Various
  • Time: Various
  • Read this to experience the richness of an excellent collection of short stories.

I admit it.  It took far too long for me to pick up Molly Antopol’s extraordinary collection of stories. From the opening sentences, each story in the UnAmericans drops the reader into a distinct location and time. Throughout the collection, Antopol brings in elements gleaned from her family’s Eastern European experience and their leftist leanings when they arrived in the U.S. Several stories in the collection take place in Israel, each depicting very different family situations.  The precision with which she creates the wide range of settings is extraordinary in writings of this length.

The first story, The Old World, brings together a lonely dry cleaner and a woman longing for her life in Ukraine before Chernobyl. Antopol deftly weaves in each character’s backstory, bringing in the disapproving daughter and son-in-law to underscore the businessman’s vulnerability.imgres

Both The Quietest Man and The Unknown Soldier are twists on the classic theme of divorced fathers seeking to elevate themselves in their child’s eyes. The Unknown Soldier is set as an actor-father leaves prison, having been jailed as a result of the McCarthy hearings. His celebratory road trip with his son does not go as planned, each wanting it to be the other’s trip of a lifetime. In The Quietest Man, a young woman has sold her first play. Long divorced, she has spent little time with her father over the years. Her parents were Czech activists and her father was a celebrated lecturer on their arrival in the U.S. While in the spotlight he neglected his family. Over the years, as new world crises arose, his fame declined. Now her father brings her for a visit seeking reassurance that his image isn’t tarnished in her writings.

With all the different timeframes and settings, there are recurring themes throughout the book. Family is key. Standing up for your beliefs should be lauded, fakery punished. Love isn’t always what it seems. It is how these themes are revealed that differentiates Molly Antopol from most other writers. Antopol was recognized by the National Book Foundation as “5 Under 35” author for this book. She won the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, was longlisted for the National Book Award, and finalist for numerous other awards. The UnAmericans appeared on more than a dozen “Best of” lists in 2014. My only criticism is I enjoyed the stories so much that I rushed to read through them rather than taking more time to savor each one.



The Haunting Voice of ‘The Book of Aron’

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  • Unknown-2The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard (Knopf, 2015)
  • In 40 words or less: In this much-lauded novel, Shepard inhabits the body and soul of a child in this story of the privation in Warsaw as the Ghetto was established, made smaller, and then eliminated. Extensive research adds depth to the writing.
  • Genre: Historical fiction
  • Locale: Warsaw, Poland
  • Time: 1939 – 42
  • Read this for a unique and heart-wrenching portrayal of life in the Warsaw Ghetto. The heroics of Janusz Korczak, a doctor in the ghetto orphanage,  are seen through the eyes of young Aron.

How is this Holocaust novel different from all other Holocaust novels? As a book group leader and member for many years, I’m well aware that many people have had their fill of Holocaust literature.  For some, it is a reminder of the suffering and loss of family members. Others find little new in the telling. Shepard’s choice of character and voice set The Book of Aron apart from any other.

Aron is about ten years old, living well outside of Warsaw, when the book begins. His family is barely subsisting and barely talking to one another. His father invests his limited funds in odd inventory which he is unable to sell. His mother has little patience for his efforts and devotes much of her time to her youngest son who is chronically ill. Aron is left to his own devices and badgered by his older brothers as only being out for himself. As life in the countryside becomes more difficult, the family moves to Warsaw with the hope of bettering their situation.

Shortly after arriving in Warsaw, the Germans ordered the Jews into the area of the city walled in to become the Ghetto. A second family moved into Aron’s small apartment, including a boy of Aron’s age, Boris. They develop an uneasy friendship and become part of a small group of children who developed street skills to aid in their families’ survival.

This band of scavengers and thieves crosses paths with the variety of authorities in the Ghetto: Jewish, Polish, German and Gestapo. In his essence, Aron is lonely and unhappy. So when approached by a low-level authority with a small measure of kindness, Aron has little problem with occasionally answering his questions.

As conditions decline in the Ghetto, cold, hunger and disease are the driving forces as the children scrounge for food and other basics. Early on Aron’s brother dies from his infirmities. Then his father and brothers are taken, allegedly to provide labor at a camp away from the city. Alone together, Aron and his mother rebuild their bond until she succumbs to disease. Left alone, homeless with no family to take him in, Aron moves to Dr. Korczak’s orphanage.

Janusz Korczak was the pen name of a true and genuine hero of the Warsaw Ghetto. Under the direst conditions imaginable, he created a home and family for the almost 200 children in his care. Through Aron’s eyes, the intelligence, resourcefulness and humility of Korczak are seen. Daily, Korczak made rounds of the neighborhood with one or two children, seeking food, clothing, medicine and money to sustain the orphanage. The children were schooled, and created musicals and programs to entertain the community and themselves. Several attempts were made to secret Korczak out of the Ghetto both for his good deeds and to tell the world about conditions inside. To his death, he insisted on staying with his children.

Every aspect of life in the Ghetto is described in Aron’s words and seen through his eyes. The word choices, be they in dialog or description, ring true for a growing pre-teen. It requires extraordinary skill for Shepard to stay in character throughout the book. Beyond the language, there is the combination of risk-taking and naiveté that is seen in children who must fend for themselves.

The depth of Shepard’s research colors every aspect of his storytelling. The Book of Aron was rightfully a finalist for the National Book Award, an American Library Association Notable Book for 2015, Carnegie Medal Shortlist 2015.

I still hear Aron’s voice.


‘The Muralist’: Historical Fiction and Art Appreciation in One Package

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  • Unknown-12The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro (Algonquin Books, November 2015)
  • In 40 words or less: At the cusp of WWII, a young French-American artist pursues her art as her family tries to escape Europe. Seventy-five years later, her great-niece works to solve the mystery of her disappearance and secure her place in the art world.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: New York and France
  • Time: 1939/40 and 2015
  • Read this for a gripping story filled with insights into the world of art and the machinations of the US government as the Jews of France sought to escape Nazi Europe.

RELEASE DATE – Tuesday, November 3. The Muralist, B.A. Shapiro’s second novel, brings together a young French-American artist with the luminaries of the fledgling Abstract Expressionist movement. In 1939, when the story begins, many soon-to-be-famous artists were working for the US government as part of the WPA project which commissioned realistic paintings and murals depicting life during the Depression. Alizée Benoit was born in America, leaving to live with relatives in France after the death of her parents when she was twelve. Seven years later she returns to advance her art career, aware that the situation in France for her Jewish family is becoming perilous. Her goal is to find a way to bring them all to the US, whatever it takes.

Alizée’s day job is drawing and painting murals intended for libraries, post offices and other civic buildings in a huge warehouse along with Lee Krasner and other artists. Their free hours are spent painting, drinking and arguing art and politics with Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and others in their group. Separated from his wife, Rothko takes particular interest in Alizée, both personally and professionally. Barely subsisting, the artists are often consumed by self-doubt, alcohol and depression, creating at times a toxic mix.

Seventy-five years later, Danielle Abrams is recasting her life assessing art work for a major auction house. Inspired by brief stories of her great-aunt, Alizée, and the two paintings of hers that survived, Danielle had been a painter before her divorce and held out hope she could solve Alizée’s disappearance in late 1940. When a group of paintings by the likes of Rothko and Pollock appear at work for evaluation with small related squares secreted on the back, Danielle sees hints of Alizée’s style and sets out to find out more.

Unknown-13 As Alizée struggles to acquire visas for her family she runs up against nativism and isolationism as typified by Lindbergh and Kennedy, and anti-Semitic and obstructionist policies in the State Department spearheaded by Breckinridge Long. Eleanor Roosevelt’s genuine interest in the WPA art projects serves to bring  Alizée a patron and ally. Throughout The Muralist, Alizée is receiving evermore frightening letters from her relatives in France describing the roundups and tightening restrictions on the Jews. Alizée keeps from her artist friends her activities to circumvent US visa restrictions and take down Breckinridge Long.

Danielle comes into her own as she works to establish the hidden squares as Alizée’s. As with many Holocaust survivors, her grandfather chose not to discuss his experiences before resettling in America. In pursuit of her quest, Danielle comes to terms with her family’s experience in France.

Shapiro is emphatic in the afternote that is this a work of fiction weaving in historical figures and situations consistent with the times, taking liberties to serve the story. It doesn’t purport to be a telling of history with fictional characters added.

The beauty of modern historical fiction is the research that authors put into framing the story. While historical accuracy may be sacrificed for the plot, one of the great benefits of these books is whetting the reader’s appetite to discover aspects of history or art which may be relatively unfamiliar. Having read The Muralist I learned that the Abstract Expressionist movement emerged from artists involved in the WPA artist project. (see http://www.theartstory.org/org-wpa.htm) Similarly, while it is now fairly well-known that tens of thousands of visas were unused annually during WWII, the name Breckinridge Long was unfamiliar. Two clicks on the web and his role becomes all too clear.

With this second novel, B.A. Shapiro is setting a high bar for others seeking to inform the reader about art world while telling a complex and well-structured story.  It is refreshing to see strong women artists as protagonists, well-drawn and wrestling with their imperfections and moral choices as they pursue their art in a male-dominated field. Her inclusion of historical events and figures moves the plot along and her clear acknowledgement of the liberties she takes with history are most welcome. The Muralist is a fine novel to share with a friend or in a group. Note: The Muralist tops the Indie Next List for November.