Monday, February 10, 2014

Heroic Poles

As much as I enjoyed Lily Brett's novel Too Many Men when I read it two or three years ago, I was bothered by how Brett, or at least her main character, portrays Poles as willing collaborators with the Germans in the attempted eradication of Polish Jews. Ruth Rothwax, who returns to the country where so many of her family members died during World War II, finds as much hatred for Jews as ever. She seems to blame the Poles more than she does the Nazis.

My maternal grandparents immigrated from Poland. I don't believe such things as bigotry and hatred are passed down through blood or genes, and I didn't care for the novel's suggestion that Poles are, by nature, evil.

Diane Ackerman sets the record straight in her work of nonfiction, The Zookeeper's Wife (2007). When the Germans began rounding up Polish Jews, a great many Polish Catholics placed their own lives in jeopardy by protecting their Jewish neighbors until the war ended. Her story focuses on Antonia Zabinski, the wife of a Warsaw zookeeper, who hid a number of Jews on the grounds of the zoo while Jan, her husband, fought with the Polish underground. The whole family, including two children, survived the war, as did all but a couple of the Jewish guests who passed through their property on their way to safety.

The fact that Antonia had two small children, one of them born during the war, makes her heroism seem all the greater. It's one thing to risk your own life to save others, but to risk the lives of your children seems almost foolhardy. Only someone who believed strongly in the rightness of her actions would do such a thing. And Antonia, according to the journal she kept during that harsh period, had many friends who were doing the same thing.

Ackerman wrote an inspiring book that deserves to stand with Schindler's List. It's full of wonderful little moments that take the reader back to that time and place. One of oddest finds Antonia visited by a German officer who, spying a piano in her home, asks her to play "The Star-Spangled Banner" while he sings along.

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