Hope is something we often forget about, often take for granted, until times such as the present. While living overseas, my life there haunts me in moments when I am about feel sorry for my present situation, going from job to job in a tough economy. I am lucky to be employed. It is the catch phrase of 2008. Isn’t it? But hope is something so precious and truly what makes us human. Recently, I was reminded of that precious gift at an interview given by Diane Ackerman about her new book, The Zookeeper’s Wife, held at the Museum of Jewish Historyon December 9th.
It comes as no surprise to me or any other fan that anthropologist, natural life enthusist and essayist, Diane Ackerman set her first book of narrative non-f iction in a zoo. The surprise is in who lives there.
Set in Nazi Germany, 194os, Diane Ackerman tells the story of a zookeeper and his wife who choose to use their zoo as a underground hideout for Jews. The story would be horrifying and sad if it didn’t hold such inspiring notes of hope in the human interaction between the Zookeeper’s wife and her Jewish houseguests.
I have always found Ackerman’s prose masterful and a pleasure to read, but she does something extraordinary in her new non-fiction book, she talks about hope, something Americans are very much in need of now. As someone who hates the idea of animals in cages, no one else could draw me to read a book about a zoo. She brings this unusual situation alive with color and whimsical description until you are wrapped up in the charaters world. Her research in Poland of Antonia and Jan and their zoo was obviously very thorough.
The book takes place in Warsaw, Poland at the city zoo and is about the heroic tale of a zookeeper and his wife who housed altogether 300 Jews from the Nazis in their home and zoo.
Last night, there was a live interview on stage between a museum curator and Diane Ackerman at the Museum of Jewish History. In this interview, the curator asked a lot of probing questions about the way why she chose to describe the other zookeeper and nazti from Berlin in such an intimate way. She said that she kept seeing him as this little boy playing with the beetles as he used to do as a child. She was told at one point, he took the entymologosts owho were working for hitler in a different capacity, outside the city to look at bugs. It was such an unusual gesture of humanity and common needs that goes beyond the temperment of the time.
One of the most interesting comments Ackerman made was about how this approach to the Holohaust is what she wanted tto do because she was interested in “celebrating a certain kind of heroism during the holocaust”.
“For some reason, we’re always presented with the worst of humanity (in the media) everyday..instead of the best..”
She talked about how the only heros we hear about are ones with superhuman powers but never about the “heros of compassion”.
There were two women she spoke with frequently during her visit to Poland. They were messenger girls during the Nazti occupation and they said of anyone they might have helped in the process or the risks their job entailed that ” it isn’t unusual..it’s what any humane person would have done.” She said that she “couldn’t imagine having that kind of courage”.
To prepare for this book, she did travel to Poland although she didn’t speak Polish nor did she speak to as many people as she would have liked about the Nazi occupation. She relied on a few sources suich as the son of Anotonia and Jan, the current zookeeper who worked for Jan during one point and a two women who were messaengers. she also relied on books about WWII in Poland, about Luois Hetch, and Germany’s plans for nature after they had eliminated all the jews. What was moist interesting was hearing her talk about Germany’s plans for the animals. Hitler wanted to build an arian race of animals too which would be housed in a virgin forest between poland and russia. It is currently the only place in the region that still has all the original animals living during the WWII period in the zoo. (Apparently, The purpose was to create a forest of animals for Hitler to hunt while he occupied Poland.)
And meeting Ms. Ackerman in person was such a treat. With her thick curly black hair and bright red lipstick, she had the insatiable yet calming air, I’d expected. She’s full of life but has the practical nature of a scientist. Maybe, that is why she was the perfect person to write such an original approach to the holocaust. This book is a must read!