‘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.


Incredible heroism in wartime Warsaw in two versions

  • unknown-14Irena’s Children by Tilar J. Mazzeo (Gallery Books, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Irena Sendler, a Polish social worker, developed an extensive network that saved 2,500 Jewish children and countless adults, under the eyes of the Nazis. An extraordinary narrative look at the individuals and their actions from interviews, diaries and documents.
  • Genre: Nonfiction
  • Locale: Warsaw, Poland
  • Time: World War II; limited material through her death in 2008
  • Read this for an intimate look at Irena Sendler, and those she recruited, their extraordinary actions and the obstacles they overcame. Not a canonization, this book portrays Irena and others as people with personal motivations and failings.
  • unknown-13Irena’s Children by Tilar J. Mazzeo, adapted by Mary Cronk Farrell (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Pulling no punches, the Young Readers Edition focuses on the events in Warsaw during the war and the actions Irena Sendler took to save thousands of lives.
  • Genre: Nonfiction
  • Locale: Warsaw, Poland
  • Time: World War II
  • Read this for a clear narrative of Irena Sendler’s life and actions from 1939 through 1944. Note, while the language and presentation are suitable for readers 10 and older, adult guidance is strongly recommended because of the disturbing information presented.

Please bear with me. Neither these books nor the author fits the mold of usual Holocaust histories or biographies, if there is such a thing. Tillar Mazzeo is a cultural historian and professor, brought to the reading public through her books about Madame Cliquot (champagne) and the history of Chanel No. 5, arguably the world’s most famous perfume. Her path to writing about Irena Sendler was far from obvious.

In 2009, Mazzeo visited family posted to Krakow, Poland, with the State Department. She noticed a wide expanse of open parkland adjacent to a forested area near the international school where her sister worked. Mazzeo wondered why the land was left to go wild. Her sister told her the trains to Auschwitz traveled through there and it remains a reminder, coming to life on November 1 when the local citizens come with candles and flowers to memorialize all those lost. Offered the chance to visit Auschwitz, Mazzeo declined, but when her sister told her about Irena Sendler a few years later she decided it was important for her story to be told.

Within the last decade, Sendler’s extraordinary actions to save approximately 2,500 Jewish children and countless other persons persecuted by the Nazis in Poland during World War II have become better known. Though recognized at Yad Vashem in 1965, her story was little known previously for many reasons – she sought no recognition, Poland came under Soviet control after World War II, her actions and motivations were not consistent with Poland’s government’s interests, she wanted a “regular” life, and she was a woman.

Irena Sendler was a young social worker in Warsaw when the Germans invaded on September 1, 1939. The daughter of a doctor who died as a consequence of tending patients in the most difficult circumstances, she became a dedicated Socialist, pursuing her principles through the university and in her profession. Her circle included a mix of social action-oriented Catholics, Socialists and Jews, doctors, nurses and other social workers among them, who became the foundation of an extensive lifesaving and resistance network.

Irena Sendler and her compatriots took advantage of the extensive system the Polish/German government to provide false documentation and secure medication for those in the Ghetto. Sendler took complete responsibility for maintaining information on each of the children taken from their parents and placed in homes, orphanages and other locations. Through a combination of extensive planning, lucky breaks and many people looking the other way, Irena Sendler avoided arrest until late in 1943. As the lynchpin of the network, her capture endangered the safety of the resistance network and all the identity information about the children. Her escape on the day slated for her execution was purchased by the resistance.

Mazzeo’s research and writing and Farrell’s adaptation are both strong additions to the canon of Holocaust literature. While it is at times difficult to keep track of the many individuals involved in the rescues, in hiding, and providing assistance, those details provide a sense of the magnitude of the undertaking. So why two versions? The original version delves deeply into the personal life and motivations of Irena Sendler. Her personal and family relationships were complicated. At times she ignored her family to their detriment while attending to her network. It also contains extensive footnotes documenting the narrative.

The Young Reader Edition focuses on the events and actions of Irena Sendler and her network. Since it is intended for those with less knowledge or exposure to the history, there is context and background provided. The language, while appropriate to the audience, is far from juvenile. This version would be ideal for intergenerational book groups. While it includes a great deal about many aspects of Sendler’s life, there are personal relationships and familial issues that are omitted. While they may have influenced her choices, they do not change what she did.

I read both and I would recommend both wholeheartedly.

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.