Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Courage and Resistance

What makes someone courageous? Is it a genetic instinct or a learned behavior? I often wonder how I would react to a significant threat or test of principles. Such questions are again on my mind after reading The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman. It is as the subtitle describes “A War Story” (non-fiction) set in Warsaw during the German occupation in World War II. The Warsaw Zoo under the direction of Jan Zabinski and his wife Antonina was quite well regarded prior to the invasion of the Germans in 1939. But the Nazi ideal of genetic purity included animals as well as humans. So in due course all of the best animals from the Warsaw Zoo were removed for breeding experiments and many of the remainder shot. Many were killed or escaped during the bombings.

Though the Zabinskis were Christian, they had many Jewish friends and acquaintances confined to the Warsaw ghetto. They were able, over the next few years, to rescue over 300 people. Among other ruses, they used the “cover” of gathering garbage to feed the animals, including a fur farm on the property, as a means of communicating with the Polish underground resistance and providing meager supplies to the confined Jews. They were able to use many of the zoo’s cages and connecting passageways to hide those trying to escape. As the Zabinskis were wont to give their animals all human names, it only helped to confuse things they they gave their underground contacts animal names. It seems all the more remarkable that their activities remained undetected by the Germans as they had a very young school-age son. How easily and innocently he could have betrayed them. The risks to themselves were great but as Jan Zabinski is quoted as saying: “We did it because it was the right thing to do.” Yes, but not everyone did it.

Because Diane Ackerman is herself a naturalist, she brings an additional sensitivity to her writing about the animals and the zoo. The zookeeper's residence on the property sounds like a veritable Noah's Ark. That she has done a great deal of research is evident. By her choice she essentially ends the story in 1945 with only cursory mention of the Zabinskis’ lives until their deaths in the 1970s.

By coincidence, in The New York Times Magazine of December 28, 2008, there was a portrait of Irena Sendler who died in 2008. She was a Catholic Pole in her 30s who also smuggled Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto between 1941–1943 because, she said, “my heart told me to.” After she was captured by the Gestapo she managed to escape and spent some time as a “guest” of the Zabinskis at the zoo.

Ackerman describes some research by Malka Drucker and Gay Block on the personality traits of rescuers. “Rescuers tended to be decisive, fast-thinking, risk-taking, independent, adventurous, open-hearted, rebellious and unusually flexible – able to switch plans, abandon habits, or change ingrained routines at a moment’s notice. They tended to be non-conformists.” I imagine they felt as Jan did: “I only did my duty—if you can save somebody’s life, it’s your duty to try.”

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