The movie, The Zookeeper’s Wife, will be out soon, so I rushed to read the book beforehand. (I have included a list of quotes from the book here—some are heartwarming and inspirational, others are more fact driven.) The story starts by saying, “JAN AND ANTONINA ZABINSKI WERE CHRISTIAN ZOOKEEPERS horrified by Nazi racism, who capitalized on the Nazis’ obsession with rare animals in order to save over three hundred doomed people” (p11). Interestingly, that’s really the only reference in the book about their Christian faith. The story is still amazing, although I was hoping there would be more about how their faith was behind their actions. I actually was under the opinion as I read that Jan didn’t really have a faith, while Antonina seems to have had some ties to Christianity. In either case, they did what Jesus would have asked of His followers, and they worked to save all the lives that they could, animal and human.
I have read many stories about the Nazi regime and the horrors they inflicted on people. The Zookeeper’s Wife offered a bit of a new angle for me, however, as it also emphasized the broader focus on ALL life, not just human life. As the author explains, “I studied how Nazism hoped, not only to dominate nations and ideologies, but to alter the world’s ecosystems by extinguishing some countries’ native species of plants and animals (including human beings), while going to great lengths to protect other endangered animals and habitats, and even to resurrect extinct species like the wild cow and forest bison” (p12). “Under the Third Reich, animals became noble, mythic, almost angelic—including humans, of course, but not Slavs, Gypsies, Catholics, or Jews” (p86). The disparity between the Nazi elevation of animal life and subjugation of some human lives was insane. “Although Mengele’s subjects could be operated on without any painkillers at all, a remarkable example of Nazi zoophilia is that a leading biologist was once punished for not giving worms enough anesthesia during an experiment” (p86).
The irony of it all—the irony of Hitler’s obsession with a perfect race is that, “Much as Hitler publicly championed a fit, vigorous Aryan race, Goebbels had a clubfoot, Goring was obese and addicted to morphine, and Hitler himself seems to have been suffering from third-stage syphilis by the end of the war, addiction to uppers and downers, and quite possibly Parkinson’s” (p327). Such hypocrisy. Furthermore, it seems most of the Nazi regime was addicted to drugs. “The Wehrmacht commissioned an array of drugs that would increase focus, stamina, and risk-taking, while reducing pain, hunger, and fatigue. Between April and July of 1940, troops received over 35 million 3-milligram doses of the addictive and mood-altering amphetamines Pervitin and Isophan” (p327). So much for a perfect race.
On the other hand, the drug use does make it easier for me to understand the depths of depravity that was epidemic among the Nazis. The entire army was hooked on mood-altering drugs. Furthermore, having spoken with numerous people who have done drugs during my time teaching Bible study in the jail, I can tell you that time and again people tell me that they have, without a doubt, had demonic encounters while on drugs. Drugs are an open door to the demonic, and, if the Nazi regime was anything, it was demonic. Pure evil. Not that evil can’t occur without drugs, to be sure, but I had not heard before that the Nazi’s were handing out drugs to everyone and when I read it, it was like, oh, that makes sense—yes there was sin and pride and a mob-mentality and the depravity of man at play… and also they were incited and crazed by mood-altering amphetamines.
One of the more powerful messages that the book told through multiple scenarios is that, God (or the book gives credit to fate) uses the most unusual things to work His plans. He used their zoo—its location, its structure, its reputation, its collection of animals, etc.—to save many lives. He also used the Nazis’ obsession with bioengineering. He used Jan and Antonina’s unusual skill set as zookeepers, creature lovers, care takers, studiers of animal nature… “There are many kinds of obsession, some diabolical, some fortuitous. Strolling through Bialowieza’s [a forest] mass of life, one would never guess the role it played in Lutz Heck’s ambitions, the Warsaw Zoo’s fate, and the altruistic opportunism of Jan and Antonina, who capitalized on the Nazi’s obsession with prehistoric animals and a forest primeval to rescue scores of endangered neighbors and friends” (p321).
In another unusual and specific example, two men, one Nazi and one Jew, were connected by their obsession with insect collections. Through this unusual passion and because of the excellence of the Jew’s extensive collection, many Jews were able to be smuggled out of the Ghetto—their lives saved. “One often recognizes only in hindsight a coincidence or unlikely object that altered fate. Who would have imagined that a zealous professor’s cavalcade of pinned beetles would open the gate from the Ghetto for so many people?” (p152).
It’s a story of these “coincidences” in which you can see how God can use both our passions, talents, hobbies, jobs, relationships and connections… and even our sins (or the sins of others) for good, for the saving of many lives (Romans 8:28, Genesis 50:20). Even while we also see that those saved lives also came in the midst of horrors. There are no easy answers for why some were saved by a beetle collection while others were killed senselessly. These miracles of grace don’t erase the horrors, but they give us hope in them.
That balance between reality and hope is a difficult one to find in any time, but all the more so times and places like Nazi occupied Poland. (See this discussion about how we struggle with that today, both in reality and in our art.) “How do you retain a spirit of affection and humor in a crazed, homicidal, unpredictable society?” (p101). This was part of the wonder of this story—the way in which the Zabinski’s did so for themselves and all who came under their roof, even their enemies. “Jan believed in tactics and subterfuge, and Antonina in living as joyously as possible, given the circumstance, while staying vigilant. So, on the one hand, Jan and Antonina each kept a cyanide pill with them at all times, but on the other, they encouraged humor, music, and conviviality” (p209). Reading their story, I was inspired, not only by their courage but also by their commitment to having and spreading joy.
Another story of beauty in the midst of horror that was told within the book is that of Janusz Korczak.
[Janusz Korczak was a doctor who worked with orphaned children during the war. He had the children perform a play about a circus of stars] to help the trapped, terrified children accept death more serenely. Anticipating their calamity and fright when deportation day came (August 6, 1942), he joined them aboard the train bound for Treblinka, because, he said, he knew his presence would calm them—“You do not leave a sick child in the night, and you do not leave children at a time like this.” … “A miracle occurred, two hundred pure souls, condemned to death, did not weep. Not one of them ran away. None tried to hide. Like stricken swallows they clung to their teacher and mentor, to their father and brother, Janusz Korczak.” … The Poles claim Korczak as a martyr, and the Israelis revere him as one of the Thirty-Six Just Men, whose pure souls make possible the world’s salvation. According to Jewish legend, these few, through their good hearts and good deeds, keep the too-wicked world from being destroyed. For their sake alone, all of humanity is spared. The legend tells that they are ordinary people, not flawless or magical, and that most of them remain unrecognized throughout their lives, while they choose to perpetuate goodness even in the midst of inferno. (p185-186)
As awful as the story is, what grace is there. Those children (I’m sorry I forget how many) faced their certain death with calm peace, with bravery, with dignity, because their teacher and mentor had helped prepare them for the day. He loved them so much he gave his life to die with them. He was Jesus for them.
The Bible promises us that in this life we will have troubles. God forbid we have to suffer such persecution as they did, but countless people in the world have. The question isn’t, How do we avoid it? But, How do we face it well? The Zookeeper’s Wife is the triumphant story of the Zabinskis primarily, but also Janusz Korczak, Irena Sendler, and many, many others who faced it so well. Oh that if our time comes we might be as faithful!
The author asked an interesting question—What makes some people more likely to be rescuers, to risk their lives for others? It’s an interesting question. Would I be willing to do what the Zabinski’s did if I was in their shoes? I pray to God I would, but I don’t know. Just because it’s interesting, I will close with her findings.
Intrigued by the personality of rescuers, Malka Drucker and Gay Block interviewed over a hundred, and found they shared certain key personality traits. Rescuers tended to be decisive, fast-thinking, risk-taking, independent, adventurous, openhearted, rebellious, and unusually flexible—able to switch plans, abandon habits, or change ingrained routines at a moment’s notice. They tended to be nonconformists, and though many rescuers held solemn principles worth dying for, they didn’t regard themselves as heroic. Typically, one would say, as Jan did: “I only did my duty—if you can save somebody’s life, it’s your duty to try.” Or: “We did it because it was the right thing to do.” (p315)
We may not all be decisive and risk-taking. We may not all be flexible and adventurous…but I pray the Lord our God makes us all so full of principle and conviction, and so full of faith in His loving power, and so full of His love for our fellow man that we would all find ourselves willing to “do our duty to try” and save a life.
Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13