Tag Archives: History

The Zookeeper’s Wife, by Diane Ackerman

The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story, by Diane Ackerman is an amazing book on so many levels. From incredible word-images, to profound scenarios, Ackerman takes us on a journey through Warsaw, Poland, through the eyes of two zookeepers, Jan and Antonina Zabrinski. Jan was the director of the Warsaw Zoo, Antonina was his wife.

It is an incredible story of fortitude and strength, love of animals (large and tiny) and love of humanity. The Zabinskis felt that every organism, no matter how minute, was a part of the scheme of the earth and universe. This attitude prompted them to take the course of action that they did. The force involved in Jan and Antonina’s acts of human kindness are not only conceived out of circumstance, but out of their almost innate necessity to save Jewish individuals in WWII Warsaw. They were not Jewish, in fact Jan declared himself an atheist, and Antonina was a Catholic. They knew the risks they were taking, but chose to help others at the expense of not only their lives, but their young son’s life, and their newborn daughter’s life. Jan and Antonina had a deep respect and devotion to caring for life, in all of its forms, from the most minute insect, bit of algae or moss, to the largest of animals, including their favorite lynxes.

It was this devotion, their ideals and values for what constitutes life and its worth, and their moral code, which consumed their every thought and emotion during World War II. This innate passion for saving life, turned their villa and the zoo into a refuge, for animals that you wouldn’t expect to find in a zoo setting. This is true account is one of many unusual stories to come out of World War II.  Antonina played a large role while Jan was off at war, and when he was imprisoned, in continuing to keep the Jews and partisans hidden. Through journals, articles, and historical documentation, the author has written the Zabrinksi’s unique Holocaust story, from their extremely unusual perspective.

The author had access to Antonina’s diary, and has infused the pages with direct quotes from it. It was a barbarous time period, and the brutality and harshness is reflected quite well within the book. The word imagery is strong, and it is sometimes difficult to discern where Antonina began, and where Ackerman evokes her own telling. Nonetheless, the book is factual, within its poetic aspects. Some details are sweetened, mainly pertaining to the people, animals and their lives within the confines of the villa. The author infuses some of her own thoughts, blending them with Antonina’s (she, herself states this) The Holocaust itself, and atrocious events and occurrences are not sugared in any aspect. The entire family is portrayed in the book.

The zoo and the villa become a human menagerie, no let me say they become a menagerie for both humans and other life forms, tiny to huge. It was like a Noah’s Ark. Each with their own respective and unique personality, each with their own needs and strengths, adapting within unique surroundings and under difficult circumstances. All life forms in the villa live together in a carnival and tour de farce environment, yet live in harmony. The Zookeeper’s Wife chronicles human and animals, and their lives within the confines of the Holocaust and war-torn Poland like it has never been documented before.

The heroine’s actions are vividly demonstrated throughout the book, Antonina’s almost innate sense of not only caring for the animals in the zoo, but getting into their minds, and reading their thoughts, sparked her passion for the value of life, the worth of all animals, small to great, that encouraged her in her endeavors to shelter almost 300 Jews in the zoo, within the confines of barred cages, underground passages, huts, secret hiding places in her villa, etc. Any place she could conceive of as a dwelling for hiding Jews, became one. Any disguise thought of was utilized for the Jews, whether it be aunt, uncle, or other visiting relatives and friends, ruses were created.

Antonina’s story, taken from her journal is captivating, poignant, intriguing, humorous, tear-jerker material, and compelling as no other story you have read. Ackerman’s story, which surrounds Antonina’s, is poetic prose, a weaving of lives. She is often seems long-winded in her descriptions and word images, but once you get past them, you realize there is a purpose behind the prose. Ackerman wrote this way for a reason, and it isn’t necessarily apparent in the beginning.

The Zookeeper’s Wife often reads like a beautiful prose-poem, of breathtaking writing and astounding imagery seeping through the pages. Ackerman is brilliant in not only her prose, but also in the scientific aspect of the animal kingdom. She sometimes rambles on regarding various species (much like I have rambled in this review), but in the end, it is for a reason, and coincides with the humans and their own stories of survival. She compares and contrasts humans and their evolution with animals.

He was intrigued with being able to control the fate of producing animals with excellent traits, and animals of purity, through mating, reproducing, etc., until he produced the perfect example. He used eugenics in his experiments (breeding animals with specific traits). The love of magical and mythical animals enthralled the Nazis. Those animals were elevated in status.

Animals are almost humanized in the Nazi world, and of course the humans, the Jews, are thought of and treated as less than impure animals by the Nazis. Experiments performed on Jews were abundant. From brain surgery to agonizing and tortuous experiments, the Jews were tools utilized. One has to read carefully in order to perceive what Ackerman is trying to accomplish.

Jews, the Polish resistance, the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943, and then the Warsaw uprising of 1944, we are given a look at Warsaw daily life during the Nazi occupation, both the willing “prisoner’s and caged humans, and the unwilling Jews in prison camps. Life in the ghetto is depicted frankly and truthfully. The horrid and unsanitary conditions are explored and painted.

The perspective is almost incomparable, and the historical facts and documentations are gleaned from newspapers, witness accounts, Survivor stories, scientific research, and from Antonina’s diary, her incredible diary.  Within the pages humor is reflected within living arrangements and lives inhabited within the confines. Man and animal live together, eat together, sleep together. Lives are saved by courageous and empathetic individuals.  At times the book can be difficult to follow, and I found myself rereading excerpts due to the fluidity.  Overall, Diane Ackerman weaves the tapestries together with excellence. Both the scientific and historic aspects work well together, and The Zookeeper’s Wife is brilliant in its illumination of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, their moral code, and their courage to save lives despite risking their own lives. The story binds the threads of an unusual perspective in this amazing Holocaust telling. What an accomplishment! Bravo!

Jan and Antonina Zabinski are honored by Yad Vashem’s The Righteous Among the Nations.

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Avner Gold New Release

If you are a fan of Avner Gold, then you will be delighted to learn that “the long awaited continuation” of his historical novel series “Rauch Ami”, “The Long Road to Freedom“, has been published. As in previous books of the series, “The Long Road to Freedom” is a novel whose journey brings into focus the plight of European Jews during 17th century.

You can read an excerpt of “The Long Road to Freedom“, here. It is the “immediate sequel to “The Marrano Prince“, which was the eighth book in the “Rauch Ami” series.

The table of contents to “The Long Road to Freedom“” can be seen here.

The new release has been a long time in coming, and is an exciting event.

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Legends of Our Time, by Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel is the narrator in “Legends of Our Time” an amazing book of stories and essays, written through doubt, through clarity, through knowledge, through self-analyzing, through questioning God, and through events before, during and after the Holocaust. His experiences are compelling in their insights, and his assessments are filled with overwhelming acuteness.

Nothing had changed. The house was the same, the street was the same, the world was the same, God was the same. Only the jews had disappeared.”

These were the poignant and haunting thoughts that Wiesel had, upon returning to Sighet, Romania, as he walked through the streets of his hometown. What he saw was almost unbearable to witness, as Wiesel remembers what once was.

Wiesel’s characters are given life eternal through his vivid and poignant writing. Each story is filled with spiritual illumination and learnings. Each situation brings Wiesel insight, revealed through each person,and/or vision. Heroes are acknowledged and become eternal impressions in the continuum of time, and in Wiesel’s mind and spirit.

Legends of Our Time” expands our minds, as to the acts performed by individuals before, during and after World War II. “Legends of Our Time” is a testament to those who interacted or had contact (whether knowingly or unknowingly) with Wiesel during his life, sometimes selflessly, sometimes not so selflessly. Each person made their impression on his emotions and on his life, whether positively or negatively, and at times his perceptions on the person changed slightly. He was often in disagreement with the individual, but at times came away from his experience understanding how they came to their own decisions.

Wiesel is brilliant in his writing, his thought processes are vivid, his word images are filled with clarity. The overwhelming burden of suffering before and after the Holocaust is apparent in every story and essay within the pages of Legends of Our Time. Wiesel’s book is testimony to the suffering, and the will and strength of mankind, and an eternal testament to humanity, in all its degrees. Wiesel’s “Legends of Our Time” is a testament to Elie Wiesel, himself, and his continuing quest/search for answers.

I personally own and have read this book.

~~~Book Diva

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The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million

Daniel Mendelsohn will be signing his book, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million on Wednesday February 13, 2008, at Davis Kidd in Memphis, TN. I wish I could be there for it. Unfortunately, I can’t.The Lost is an excellent book, and compelling family chronicle that takes us on a journey all throughout the world. It is part tour-de-farce, at times comical, yet the undertones are serious, strong and insightful. It is searing, tearing, and our hearts are in our throats, flying along with him through so many countries, jetting across the world in a frenzy. He didn’t have time for jet lag, he only had time for truth and knowledge.

Mendelsohn’s childhood was somewhat bizarre. His grandparents and other extended family members would cry whenever he walked into a room. To them he was the spitting image of an uncle he never knew, his uncle Schmiel, who died during World War II. He became curious, wondering what was it about that uncle that made his relatives cry. What are the stories behind the man, the mysteries of his life, and the lives of his other long-lost relatives. What evoked such tears in his aunts and uncles. It was a given, it never failed to happen. This was the spark that caught the flames of his curiosity.

Mendelsohn was fascinated with genealogy as a youth, and considered himself to be the family historian. Little did he know, then, that the history he would be researching, documenting and accounting, would take him on a journeys and escapades to Israel, Australia, the Ukraine, Scandinavia and other countries in order to interview witnesses who knew his family members. He would become passionate, obsessed, untiring in his quest for the truth. Mendolsohn was like a man possessed, and he couldn’t stop to even breathe until he put his family members to rest, in his search for identity, and truth. We feel Mendelsohn’s urgency, his unrelenting need to know, and feel anxious, ourselves.

Reading Mendelshon’s The Lost is involving, a page turner, like an intriguing mystery or spy novel. The historical content is extremely well-researched and amazing. The documentation of Mendelsohn’s and some of his family members’ travels in order to to find out what happened to six relatives during the time of the Holocaust is a descriptive blend that fills our senses and tears at our emotions. It is heart-wrenching, yet Mendelsohn does bring us a bit of comic relief here and there, between the pages. He also writes with intensity about ancestors and the past, and how families hand down tales and stories (often shielding their own pain or shame), from one generation to the next until the distorted truth is even believed by the original story teller.

Mendelsohn refers to The Bible, alluding to The Book of Genesis and Cain and Abel, in order to demonstrate brothers, betrayal, loss, familial ties, love, destruction, war. He ties the Biblical references together with the history of the Holocaust, contrasting and comparing events of The Bible to his own family’s background…they were from a small Shtetl, Bolochow, in the Ukraine. He scrutinizes each word verbalized, each word in each document in order to find the truth of the fate of the missing family members. The Lost is a book about the choices we make, and the consequences of those choices, whether positive or negative. It is also a story about origins/beginnings, and a story about travels towards truth, answers and endings, written in almost mystical fashion.

The historical Holocaust accountings in this book are amazing…so many witnesses…so little time. Stories needing documentation, and needing telling, stories needing remembering. Witnesses needing to speak, lest we forget. And, Mendelsohn, himself, along with other family members…I can’t even begin to describe my thoughts and feelings, while reading their reactions to what they see and discover in Bolochow…there’s a lump in my throat while I am writing this. I read this book a while ago, and it has continued to stay with me. That is the power of Mendelsohn as an author.

Mendelsohn is brilliant, and a masterful story teller and writer. His almost mystical manner of writing is not only articulate, but beautiful. Word images prevail on every page, and in almost every line, with drama and flair. His book is a tribute to those “Six of Six Million“, and a tribute to his own perseverance and endurance to set the story straight, to write it correctly, unedited and uncolored in time’s continuum. Mendelsohn’s journey was a personal one, and a sojourn and commitment to family, to those who perished and who were lost, to those living, to future generations. But, most of all, it is a compelling and poignant read, and it is an incredible tribute to life…life in every realm.

I personally own and have read this book.

~~~~~~

© Copyright 2007 – All Rights Reserved – No permission is given or allowed to reuse my photography, book reviews, writings, or my poetry in any form/format without my expresss written consent/permission.

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The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, by Lucette Lagnado

The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family’s Exodus From Old Cairo to the New World, by Lucette Lagnado is a vividly written book, descriptive of the plight of the Egyptian Jews from Cairo during the 1940s through the early 1970s. Lagnado writes from the perspective of her childhood memories, memories of a loving daughter, one who adored her “boulevardier” father, Leon, who she felt gave her more attention than her mother, Edith.

Leon was much older than Edith, and expected Edith to wait on him hand and foot, leaving her more like a doormat. She was a wife who was not viewed as an equal in any aspect, and was a compliant, passive, demure, tragic figure in their lives. Edith hardly had time for herself. Lagnado’s father, Leon, was in his own mind, a legend in his own time, while living in Cairo, demanding respect and devotion wherever he went. The man who liked to be known as a “boulevardier” (repeated many times throughout the book, as if it was a title fitting a king, rather than that of a man who walked the streets of Cairo wheeling and dealing) felt he was a worldly man, although he never did travel the world (other than to flee with his family to Paris, before emigrating to the U.S). He didn’t actually work to earn a living, but gambled daily, and also played the stock market, and even kept that a secret from his wife, until he was hospitalized and she needed to access funds to pay rent, etc. Lagnado said that gambling was Leon’s passion, not really understanding it was much more than a passion, and it was an interference in his family life. He enjoyed his nickname “The Captain”, and dressed sharply in white sharkskin suits, staying out until dawn.

Leon considered himself a devout Jew, going to Synagogue early in the morning, afternoon and evening to pray. Yet, the patriarchal man who prayed, also strayed on his wife, often returning home in the middle of the night, after frequenting the gambling houses and bars, thriving within the fast, night life of Cairo. To him, religion, prayer, drinking, gambling, and other external pleasures outside the marriage could coexist. This behavior continued, even after they lost a daughter, and Edith was in mourning. Nothing could keep him home.

The first half of The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit deals with their lives in Cairo and is well-written with its historical content. Lagnado writes with reverence for her father, but much of that adulation is from the point of view of a child, aged five through eleven. She doesn’t display the same sense of adoration for her mother.

The second half of the book deals with their emigration from Cairo to Paris, and eventually to their final destination in Brooklyn, New York. The family had to sell off all their furniture and belongings, and could only leave Cairo with a little over $200, due to Egypt law. We see Leon and the family go from riches to rags, immediately upon leaving Cairo. They were a family in transit, no country, and living off of the handouts of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) in both Paris and Brooklyn. Leon sold ties, not earning much, and the “silk” ties he sold were not actually made of silk, and not made where the tags stated they were made. They were made in New York with phony labels, and not sewn in the exotic countries he claimed they were made in. He often took Lagnado with him when selling ties, introducing her as his granddaughter, not his daughter, in order to gain sympathy so he could sell a tie or two.

Lagnado writes of their difficult times in Brooklyn, and her father’s inability and/or refusal to assimilate into his new environment, causing stress on her mother and the rest of the family, who protested his attitude. Her father wanted to borrow $2000 to start a business, and was refused the loan. He complained to no end, and continually blamed his dire circumstances on everyone but where the blame belonged, on himself. There were medical issues, also.

Lagnado had been misdiagnosed with “cat scratch fever” in Cairo. This diagnosis lasted through the years. After moving to Brooklyn, and going to medical hospitals, she was finally diagnosed with Hodgkins Disease by one Dr. Lee, a specialist, and she was given a course of treatment. The family never failed to demean the hospital staff, the resident medical doctors, etc. Other than Lagnado, herself (she remains close friends to this day with Dr. Lee), the rest of the family never seemed grateful for the fact that Lagnado’s Hodgkins Disease had finally been diagnosed correctly and was given a treatment program (unlike the misdiagnosis in Cairo). It almost seemed as if they wanted to believe the doctors in Cairo. The family was, seemingly, in denial, unable to comprehend and cope with the situation.

The Lagnado family’s difficulty in assimilating, and Leon’s refusal to heed the HIAS’s instructions left me with no sympathy for them and their situation. They expected that everyone but themselves should pay for their wants and needs. They were a family in crisis who could not, or would not, help themselves. Their indecisiveness was often the root of their problems. They helped to create much of the chaos and emotional distress in their depressive lives.

When Lagnado returned to the old neighborhood in Cairo in 2005 for a sojourn, she realized how well off they actually would not have been, had they stayed, or if they had returned to live there, again. The same street today, now called Ramses Street is by no means the Malaka Nazli of her remembered childhood. Of course she initially wrote about their lives in Cairo from the perspective of a child, her formative years. And, she wrote from her father’s own stories. As an adult she viewed things differently, with the clarity of a grown woman.

The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit was well-written, descriptive, vivid with word visuals, describing life in Cairo, and their lives in Brooklyn. Lagnado has a sense of time and place, and her research proved effective in conveying it to the reader. It is an excellent family historical accounting. Although the last half of the book left me feeling a bit empty towards the family and their circumstances, it was just as descriptive and well-written as the first half. Lagnado does illuminate the pages of The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit with excellent word-paintings of the history of Jewish Cairo, of Jews in transit and stateless…Jews with no country, and Jewish immigration and assimilation.

I personally own and have read this book.

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