Friday, April 7, 2017

Lessons from a Zoo in Warsaw and a Ghetto in Lodz

So already, a few months ago, I began writing a short story, my first since I was eleven years old. The main character, a retired high school teacher (surprise!), spends much of the story observing a high school class on a school field trip to the same art exhibit she's visiting.

During the course of the story, Dena, the retired schoolteacher, has reason to reflect back on her experience of being the only Jewish kid in a some of her own high school classes*--particularly when something "Jewish" came up in class:
 . . . She['d] hated how every eye in the class had turned toward her at the mention of the Holocaust. In truth, she hadn't known much more about the Holocaust--or Judaism, for that matter--than the other kids in her class did. And she wasn't someone who became viscerally or visibly upset when the topic of the Holocaust came up. At those moments, she'd rummage through her binder, not liking that her classmates were assuming that because she was Jewish, she must be both expert and distressed. She also couldn't help feeling that a few of her classmates who seemed almost too sensitive to her assumed pain were on some level deeply relieved not to be Jewish themselves.
Jewish Diversity Mural by Jameel Parker and his CRLS Students**
In fact, my teenaged self was sometimes impatient and uncomfortable with some of my Jewish classmates' very emotional public reactions to references to the Holocaust. To my mind, hearing about the Nazi effort to exterminate the Jewish people and looking at graphic photos of atrocities were two different things. If some of my fellow Jewish kids had looked at more of those images than I had, perhaps at tenderer ages, I could understand how hearing the word "Holocaust" might bring all those images to mind and cause them to become upset. Personally, I preferred not to get emotional in school, probably as a result of my having been the only Jewish kid in my class throughout my elementary school years in Boston. Whatever the reason, I did what I could as high school student to resist the pressure I felt to play my prescribed Jewish part.

While my high school experiences were much on my mind, I happened to see a preview for the yet-to-be-released film, The Zookeeper's Wife. Recognizing that it interested me because it was a story of resistance, I realized how much the present political moment was making me hunger for examples of people who were refusing to be victims or to let others be victims. While for some living during World War II, resistance simply meant striving to stay alive under the most squalid, dangerous, dehumanizing conditions, for others it meant doing all they could to save the lives and preserve the humanity of others. I purchased Diane Ackerman's The Zookeeper's Wife soon thereafter. [Note: I've yet to see the movie, but am hoping to see it in the next few weeks.]

The Zookeeper's Wife taught me that resistance and decency were as commonplace in World War II Poland as Nazi occupation. Resistance was silent, organized, clever, and stealthy. Because in our current era so many people trumpet their smallest acts of risk-free sacrifice in hopes of establishing their goodness to others, I found it both hard and heartening to imagine so many people routinely and discreetly risking everything for others whom they didn't know personally. And they did it for so long. Resistance was more often the endless monotony Camus describes in The Plague than the high drama of face-to-face confrontation and armed uprising.  

From Barnes and Noble Web Site
I believe I have some idea of how the zookeeper's wife, Antonina Żabińska, managed to do it. First of all, there were the endless chores and efforts required of her to protect and sustain the zoo's constantly fluctuating "Guest" population--the Jews living secretly in the villa in the zoo complex and also in the cages and other enclosed spaces formerly inhabited by the animals.

Second of all, there were her ongoing concerns about the welfare of her resistance fighter husband Jan and her son Rys. About Rys she worried most: what would be the aftereffects of the demands made by their dangerous, hidden life on his young, formative psyche?

Third of all, there was her love of nature--of the changing seasons, all manner of plants, animal life within and beyond the zoo. The natural world often entered her consciousness through her peripheral vision and elicited her interest, joy, hope, and gratitude, distracting her from the drudgery of resistance:
Starlings in Rome*****
     "Antonina stood in the kitchen, kneading bread dough, a daily ritual, when she heard Rys's excited voice at the back door: 
     "'Hurry up! Starling! Come here!'***
     "Apparently, her son had another new animal friend, and she liked his choice of species. Starlings had always charmed her with their 'long, dark beaks, springy hop, and cheerful cackles,' and she enjoyed watching  them pogo-hop on the ground and dig for worms, tail and head nimbly twitching. The feast of the starlings always foretold winter's end and 'the earth softening up its belly for spring.' Flocks of starlings form wonderful shapes as they circle the sky--troika reins, kidney beans, cone shells. Turning as one unit, for an eye blink they vanish, then suddenly reappear a moment later like a shake of black pepper" (149-150).****
Antonina's attention moves from the bread she's kneading to her son, then on to the starlings before circling back to her kitchen through Ackerman's black pepper simile. Antonina resists and endures through attention and activity.

Kids Playing in SAMS-affiliated Jordan Refugee Camp
As for Rys, resistance is chosen for him by his parents. Antonina's worries about Rys resonated with me a week ago when, at a whole-day symposium about forced migration at Weston High School, a doctor whose volunteer work with the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS******) takes him regularly to a refugee camp in Jordan talked about the toll that refugee life takes on children. It's not just because they lack education, health care, warm clothing, and toys with which to play. The reality is that even if they themselves have not experienced or witnessed violence and atrocity, they are frequently being raised by parents who have been traumatized by such experiences. Children--as the news from northern Syria this week grimly, unacceptably attests--easily become victims of physical and psychological violence both directly or indirectly. 

Unlike many of the mothers in the Syrian refugee camps, the zookeeper's wife isn't a trauma victim, though she lives and functions in a state of chronic anxiety and fear that she's sure Rys senses. That said, it's better for a child to be Rys than to be one of the child "Guests" living in the zoo. And it's better for a child to be one of the child "Guests" in the zoo than to be one of the children deported from the Warsaw Ghetto or Janusz Korczak's orphanage.The Zookeeper's Wife recounts the story of how Janusz Korczak, the Polish educator and writer who, despite several opportunities to stay alive, insisted on being deported to Treblinka with the almost two hundred children for whom his progressive Warsaw orphanage was home. He didn't want the children to feel at all sad and worried as they marched unknowingly toward their deaths.

Translation: The Champion of Children*******
I first encountered this story--and the Holocaust itself--when I was in the sixth grade of Hebrew School. We were finally at the point that we could comprehend actual stories written in Hebrew (I no longer can), and one of the first whole books we read was the story of Korczak and his children. When I came home from Hebrew School that Sunday morning and told my mother about the story--I don't think I'd ever read a true story about children dying, let alone one that took place while my parents were both alive--she said, "You don't have to worry about that. That will never happen to you." I obediently asked no more about it. But I never forgot it.

I encountered it for a second time when, as a teacher in my twenties at Marblehead High School, I participated in a Facing History and Ourselves professional development workshop. Finally I could ask questions about the story and understand it in a broader context. It's interesting to recall this experience just a few days before Passover, given how central questions are to the Passover Seder: the youngest child asks four ceremonial questions, and all those assembled are reminded of how four different kinds of children (traditionally sons) ask questions about holiday and how each of those children are to be answered. The Seder's expression of the freedom to speak and be Jewish stands in stark contrast to the unnatural silence demanded of  Antonina's "Guests" and own son during the war.

It wasn't until I encountered the story for a third time in The Zookeeper's Wife that I finally understood that resistance is first and foremost an act of love. Korczak resisted by creating, and then sustaining for as long as he could, a world in which children could be children.

About a week ago, with resistance still much on my mind, I decided quite spur of the moment to go see the Boston Museum of Fine Arts' new exhibit entitled "Memory Unearthed: Photography from the Lodz Ghetto." I had two purposes: to seek out images of resistance, and to observe my reactions to profoundly disturbing images in order to better understand my teenage emotional flatness when the Holocaust was mentioned.

I found plenty of resistance: Henryk Ross was an official photographer of the Lodz ghetto--and a self-directing unofficial one. He was determined to leave a record of the Jewish life of Lodz, especially when he realized that the Nazis were bent on extinguishing it altogether. This meant not portraying Jews exclusively as undifferentiated victims of the ghetto's desperate conditions--there was so much death by starvation--or as herds of contented workers for the Reich. Working on behalf of the ghetto residents, Ross took it upon himself to take photographs that conveyed their dignity and humanity. He set out to capture their distinct personalities, their most treasured relationships, and their individual expressions of a range of emotions, delightful and terrible. There was resistance not only in his photographic acts, but in his subjects' insistence on surviving, preserving their connections to those they loved, and expressing their senses of self as much as possible.

I also found plenty of horror--not just in the explanations of the first deportations of those who could not work--the young, the sick, and the elderly--but in the actual images of those deportations and of those who did not survive to be deported. One image of very sick people uncomfortably stacked atop one another on a wooden cart was especially terrible to behold because their suffering was so pronounced. An image of another wooden cart unceremoniously piled with the bodies of people who had succumbed to starvation before they could be deported filled me with the deepest, most hopeless kind of sadness.

Nikki Haley Shows Pictures of Dead Syrian Children********
In truth, there are far more stomach-turning Holocaust images to be seen than the ones in "Memory Unearthed": at least the bodies of the dead in Ross's photos are intact and recognizable as people. But over the years, I've learned to look at such images--at least most of them. They horrify me often, sadden and anger me often, but they don't traumatize me. I make myself look at them because I believe that it's a combination of privilege, irresponsibility, and potentially fatal stupidity that leads us to think that we--we personally--don't need to look at them. In the April 6 Boston Globe, Ty Burr's "Images from Syria too awful to look at, and too important to look away" explores the tension captured by the article's title and concludes that we need to look. Some nights of bad sleep and some nightmares aren't a big price to pay for learning what we need to know so we can decide what we need to do.

Interestingly, the exhibit confirmed what I had always believed to be the case: that none of my personal experiences of being upset and troubled qualified as traumatic. The exhibit concludes with a segment from the 1979 documentary called Memories of the Eichmann Trial********* that provides an example of what emotional trauma really is. In it, both Ross and his wife Stefania describe their experiences of collaborating to take forbidden photographs--and of testifying against Adolf Eichmann at his trial. When pressed to describe the terror she felt at being in the same room as Eichmann, Stefania Ross explained (and I paraphrase) that just seeing him made her fear that she was going to die. Given that Eichmann had already killed so many whom she'd known and loved, she was certain that it was finally her turn. As she had always suspected and feared, her death would be at his hands.

Watercolor by young Simon Jeruchim**********
Not all difficult experiences are traumatic--and it weakens and limits us to categorize all upsetting experiences as traumatic. As much as possible, we need to distinguish between the genuinely traumatic experiences that exert an identity- and world-view-shaping hold on our senses of physical and psychological safety and other truly painful experiences that may make our worlds dark and sad for a long while but that we ultimately move beyond. Our world daily serves up capital-C crises (like the use of chemical weapons in Syria this week) and small-C crises (like Donald Trump's accusing Barack Obama of wiretapping his phones), more than any of us could hope to respond to. But we just can't bow out of resisting altogether because we're dismayed, disappointed, saddened, offended, and overwhelmed.

For me personally, it feels important to resist several times a week at least. In my case, this generally means signing petitions that arrive in my email inbox, contacting elected officials to share my concerns and my preferences for how they should vote, contacting friends from other states about issues they might contact their elected officials about, and making charitable donations. Frankly, much of what I do feels like one more monotonous thing to do. But I believe it's helpful.

There is one other way I am resisting, and that's by speaking up more when I hear something that sounds unsubstantiated, partially understood, self-deceptive, and/or reflective of privilege. This requires me not only to be well-informed, but to risk both offending and being wrong and needing to admit it and learn. I'm trying to ask questions in ways that encourage others to examine their behaviors, attitudes, and understandings rather than defend them to me. If, for example, someone tells me she's given up listening to the news*********** because it upsets her so much, my goal is to get her to think about the implications of her choice. Intentionally or unintentionally, she may be leaving the work of resisting up to others though she believes resistance is important and necessary.

I believe that people--and I'm thinking particularly about people whom the road has generally risen up to meet************--need to understand whether they're truly fragile, or if they simply prefer not to feel sad, scared, and discouraged. I realize that my belief is very much a reflection of who I am personally: as my classroom experiences attest, I've never liked being fragile and never wanted the world to view me as fragile. I also suspect that probably because I'm Jewish, I've never assumed that life would keep becoming happier and safer and more just without people's efforts to steer it that way. 

These days, acting against the forces, policies, and plans that imperil people's dignity and safety is most often a matter of daily, non-glamorous routine. In light of the grind of it, we need to remember that the reason for our routine and the antidote to its tedium are the same thing: our love of people and of the world in which we all live. There is joy to be had. The story of Antonina Żabińska reminds me to pay attention to the natural world, which for the most part goes forward in its customary but nonetheless inspiring way. "To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with the spring," George Santayana said (155).************ May our affection for the beautiful and ideal cause us to strive rather than to mourn. May we have strength and trust in that strength on our most discouraging days. And may many positive changes come to our world, because of and despite our best efforts.

* Dena's a somewhat autobiographical character. It was really in Boston that I was the only Jewish kid in my class--and that was all through elementary school; at Needham High School, there were generally a few other Jewish kids in the class, though not always. 

** This mural was destroyed during the most recent renovation of CRLS. I still have feelings about that.
*** These are actual quotations from Antonina Żabińska's unpublished diaries.
****Ackerman, D. (2007) The zookeeper's wife: A War story (pp. 149-150). New York City, NY: W.W. Norton & Company. [Note: This is an ebook downloaded on my NOOK.]
***** Screen shot of image on this blog: Screen Shot of
****** Screen shot of page from Syrian American Medical Society web site: 
*(7) Screen shot of Hebrew children's book about Janusz Korczak available at the Israel bookstore.
*(8)  Angerer, D. (2017, April 6). Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, held photos of dead children while she spoke. [Photograph found in Getty Images, New York]. Retrieved April 6, 2017, from (Originally photographed 2017, April 05) 
*(9) Screen shot of part of the May 3, 2011 Jewish Daily Forward article entitled "Dusting Off an Eichmann Documentary":
*(10) This image is on one of the notecards that are often part of fundraising appeal mailings sent out by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Simon Jeruchim was a young boy in hiding in France during the Holocaust.
*(11) I'm not talking about a brief hiatus--a few days off--from listening to the news.
*(12) I know these are the words of a traditional Irish blessing, but I am thinking about all kinds of people who've generally been quite fortunate in terms of encountering a just, responsive world.
*(13 Stern, C. (1998). Day by day: Reflections on the themes of the Torah from literature, philosophy, and religious thought. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.