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The Zookeeper’s Wife: Reflections on Past and Present

The Zookeeper’s Wife

I found “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” the 2017 film version of Diane Ackerman’s 2007 non-fiction construction of a tale of heroic resistance to Nazi brutality in Warsaw, deeply moving for several reasons.

Although familiar from other films, this renewed exposure to the mentality that informed the Nazi Holocaust powerfully and sensitively rendered, especially through the medium of concrete details (e.g. smuggling Jews from the Warsaw ghetto by hiding them beneath garbage collected to feed pigs, so as elude inspecting guards; or the non-Jewish pediatrician who insisted on accompanying his Jewish students on the train carrying them to the Treblinka death camp; or the contrast between the eco-humanitst tenderness toward all kinds of animals and a variety of vulnerable people of the zookeeper and his wife—the real life Żabińskis, Antonina and Jan—and the violent loutishness of the Nazi soldiers and ghetto guards).

The originality of the film arises from the relationship between the zookeeper couple, their love of and intimacy with animals, and their brave double undertaking to save 300 Jews from certain death as the ghetto was closed and destroyed with its inhabitants sent off to die in gas chambers as well as their loving dedication to what animals remained alive in the zoo after Nazis carted the most exotic creatures off to German zoos and killed for sport most of the rest in the manner of homicidal hunters.

The fact that the story was true, reconstructed from the diary of the zookeeper’s wife, Antonina Żabiński, added moral and psychopolitical weight to the narrative. And, finally, the terrifying experience of the animals, loved by the zookeepers, desecrated by the Nazis, was very affecting, especially the impact of the bombing of the zoo during the German attack and siege of the city of Warsaw in 1939 that killed some of the wild animals and sent others scurrying in frenzied shock beyond their cages onto the zoo grounds and even into the city. Of course, any zoo, however benign the zookeepers, is a kind of prison for its totally innocent and vulnerable inhabitants, and so this experience of war was an experience of double jeopardy so far as the imprisoned animals were concerned.

What struck me most intensely, and prompted this reflection, was the extreme victimization of Warsaw Jews. It made me wonder at the time whether, as a Jew myself and had I been born in Warsaw an obvious target of this genocidal fury. I realized that I was spared only because I happened to be born beyond the Nazi reach. From a metaphysical perspective, this seemed a very arbitrary dividing line between a normal life and an unseemly death. Sharing this identity with the millions of victims, should I not at least respect the post-Nazi Jewish effort to achieve security and survival in the form of Israel and refrain from further criticism? Should I not withdraw from my commitments to Palestinian solidarity, and not further interfere with Israel’s efforts to find its path as a state among states? Have I any right to pass judgment?

I realized that this reaction was testing my political identity in fundamental ways, especially raising issues about how to connect this unexpected and strangely belated responsiveness to my ethnic reality with my more cosmopolitan wish to give priority to human and species identity, and to respond empathetically to existential suffering and vulnerability. These further musings reminded me of the present Palestinian ordeal. It led me to ask myself whether such a double vision was at all manageable.

In the foreground of these reflections was undoubtedly a spate of recent high visibility attacks on my person and character as joint author of a report commissioned by the UN Economic and Social Commission of West Asia (ESCWA), and released with the title “Israeli Practices Towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid.” I was smeared by Ambassador Nikki Haley, UN Watch, and by an assortment of media outlets as an anti-Semitic Israeli-basher.

 Although such attacks were maliciously motivated, and sufficiently far from my actual beliefs or deeds to be personally unthreatening, their repetition was bound to take its toll in terms of my public reputation. As Joseph Goebbels, and modern advertising taught the world, a lie or defamatory smear repeated often and loudly enough, especially in prominent places, will eventually gain credibility, and even the most convincing refutations will be largely ignored.

Recovering my moral compass, allowed me to reaffirm the hierarchy of my commitments. I do honor the memory of the Holocaust as a prime experience of unrestrained evil, forever a source of mourning and foreboding, and acknowledge that I have a certain degree of ‘survivor guilt’ having been so arbitrarily spared despite my ethnic eligibility for the gas chamber. At the same time, I refuse to defer to that past by disregarding present evil, no matter the perpetrator.

The Palestinian experience of victimization is severe, prolonged, ongoing, without an end in sight. Israel’s refusal to seek a reasonable compromise is connected with expansionist territorial ambitions, a lofty sense of biblical entitlement, a defiant attitude toward international law and widely shared moral beliefs, and an uncritical militarism as the foundation of the security of the Israeli state.

The persistence of the Palestinian order is one of the great moral scandals of our time, and there is no credible emancipatory future on the political horizon. As a Jew, and even more as a human being, I feel morally comfortable and politically responsible about joining with others of good will and strong faith around the world in calling upon Israel to dismantle its apartheid regime, restore the state of Israel to a condition of political legitimacy, and in the interim to endure the indignities and pressures mounted by the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) campaign.


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