The Zookeeper's Wife

Somewhere between doing and not doing, everyone’s conscience finds it’s own level…
Diane Ackerman

From what a friend told me about Diane Ackerman’s, The Zookeeper’s Wife, I thought it was a novel. But no, as I began reading it, I soon realized it was a non-fiction account of wartime Poland and particularly the effort of the two zookeepers of the Warsaw Zoo, Antonina and Jan Zabinski , to save hundreds of people, including several hundred Jews.

There were 380,000 Jews who lived in Warsaw at the start of World War II. A fraction survived the Holocaust, among them were the 300 that Antonina and Jan managed to smuggle, hide, and keep alive at the zoo until the war ended. They were hidden amongst the rubble of the zoo that was virtually destroyed by the Nazis, in underground tunnels, and in the villa that was the Zabinski’s home on the zoo’s grounds.

I knew about the Nazi effort to exterminate the Polish Jews and the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto. After reading Ackerman’s account, I knew a great deal more. For example, that anti-Semitism was rampant in twentieth century Warsaw, a city of 1.3 million people, a third of whom were Jews.

“I ask nothing of the Jews except that they disappear.” German Governor Frank

And that there was a well organized resistance movement in Poland that was larger and in many respects more effective than the better-known French Resistance.

With courage and ingenuity, the Polish Resistance would sabotage German equipment, derail trains, blow up bridges, print over 1,100 periodicals, make radio broadcasts, teach in covert high schools and colleges…, aid Jews in hiding, supply arms, make bombs, assassinate Gestapo agents, rescue prisoners, stage secret plays, publish books, lead feats of civil resistance, hold its own law courts, and run couriers to and from the London-based government-in-exile.

Lastly, that the spirited rebellion in the Warsaw Ghetto collapsed after 30 days of ferocious street to street fighting with much of the Ghetto in rubble after the Nazi’s massive effort to destroy both the Ghetto and the city of Warsaw itself.

The uprising is the Ghetto was the largest single revolt by the Jews during World War II and also the first mass uprising in German occupied Europe.

The origin of The Zookeeper’s Wife also interests me. While Ackerman is a naturalist, it was her Polish grandparents who first drew her to this story and from them she learned a great deal about living in Poland then. She also chanced upon the memoir Antonia had written, had it translated, and began interviewing those who knew her and had managed to survive the war. Her research into books and documents in Polish, Hebrew and Yiddish was extensive and she has skillfully brought it to the pages of the book, a book that I keep thinking is a novel, and even though it isn’t, still reads like one.

At the end Ackerman raises a question that continues to be at the center of every book I read about the Holocaust. Namely, what led some people to come to the aid of Jews at the risk of their life and the life of everyone in their family? She offers the same reasons most rescuers give when asked this question.

They say they could not turn away from a person fleeing the Nazis, that it was the right thing to do. Ackerman writes, Rescuers tended to be decisive, fast thinking, risk taking, independent, adventurous, openhearted, rebellious and unusually flexible—able to switch plans, abandon habits, or change ingrained routines at a moment’s notice.

However, most people didn’t want to get involved and we have no account of those Poles or the citizens of any other country who did not put their lives at risk to save Jewish individuals fleeing the Nazis. The difference between the rescuers and non-rescuers is a topic worthy of any serious investigator of the Holocaust and altruistic behavior in general.


Goodbye Philip

Quit while you're ahead. Philip Roth

When is it time to quit, to stop doing what you’ve done all your life? I am reminded of this question by the self-proclaimed end of Philip Roth’s writing days. “To tell you the truth, I’m done…I did the best I could with what I had.”

I’m a great admirer of the tennis legend, Roger Federer, for his elegance and grace and winning ways on the court. Every time Federer loses, and that occurs more and more often now, I learn once again an important lesson about loss. I also think perhaps it is time for Federer to stop playing, although I am aware of how much he loves the game.

Ted Williams of the always-losing Boston Red Sox, retired from baseball at the peak of his performance, although he could have continued playing for several more years. He hit a home run his last time at bat and remains to this day the last hitter in the major leagues to hit over 400 in a single season.

Roth is not the first writer to stop writing near the peak of their skill. His last novel, Nemeses, is one of his finest. His work has always meant a great deal to me and I will miss reading another one. A friend wrote to me about Nemesis, “The last 3 pages are some of the most beautiful lyricism I've seen.”

Other writers have not bowed out so gently. Hemingway shot himself, Wallace hanged himself, the young Plath stuck her head in a gas oven, and Zweig, along with his wife, took their own lives with overdose of barbiturates. He wrote, “I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labour meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on Earth.”

Many writers simply run out of things to say, they have nothing new to write about, and even if they did, it would be far from their best and they were not ready to settle for anything other than their best. Roth has written over 30 books, several short stories, as well as a good many critical studies of authors he admired or wanted to introduce to a wider audience. What more could he do that he hasn’t already done before?

Maybe age is getting the better of him. It is the topic of some of his last books. The “massacre” of old age, he called it. He is 79 years old now and he is not only running out of years, but perhaps he has lost the ability to concentrate for sustained periods or the remarkable energy and vitality that characterized those sentences when he was at his best.

I am sure many writers, especially those as prolific as Roth, run out of ideas at some point in their life. Then it becomes a question what to do next, how to get through the day to be utterly frank. Roth doesn’t seem concerned with that question, not yet anyway.

In what he claimed was his last interview, reported by Charles McGrath in this Sunday’s Times, Roth said he sat around for months trying to think of an idea for a new book. He concluded, “I knew I wasn’t going to get another good idea, or if I did, I’d have to slave over it…I know I’m not going to write as well as I used to. I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration…It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time…I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can’t do that anymore.”

Not long ago he reread all of his books, beginning with the last, Nemesis. “I wanted to see if I had wasted my time writing. And I thought it was more or less a success.”

His many readers concur and, as he did, will want to reread a goodly number of his previous books. I am fairly sure we will conclude, as he did that it was “more or less” worthwhile.

Here is Roth in an interview last year:


On Blogging

“When I began to make friends, writing was the vehicle. So that in the beginning, writing, like reading, was less a solitary pursuit than an attempt to connect with others. Jhumpa Lahiri

What is the function of blogging, the unspoken motive beyond the desire to inform, rant, or report in all the ways that blogging has given rise to? Laura Gurak suggests one reason, especially for young bloggers, in her study, “The Psychology of Blogging:”

“…the most popular topic among bloggers is “me.… the blur between private (“me”) and public …are truly the most interesting psychological features of blogging.”

In her paper Gurak claims that blogging, like writing therapy, is to a certain extent therapeutic for some individuals. Journaling has been both recommended and reported to be a way to reduce stress and express emotions. A recent report indicates that blogging may also have that effect for teenagers.

In this well-controlled field experiment, adolescents were assigned to one of six separate groups for a period of ten weeks. Two of the groups were asked to blog about their current emotional difficulties, one open to responses and one closed. Two other groups were asked blog about any subject, again one open to responses and one closed. Another group was asked to write freely in a diary, while the sixth group was a no-treatment control.

The results showed that adolescents who blogged about their current difficulties, regardless of the response condition, improved the most on all social-emotional measures and that these effects were maintained two months later in a follow-up assessment.

I suspect there are reasons other than lessening emotional stress why blogging might also be therapeutic. And in a way I continue to find the experience beneficial. Like a classroom assignment, it gives me something to think about and I confess sometimes simply sets the agenda for a few hours.

From the beginning I had always viewed blogging as an intellectual exercise where I had a chance to write something coherent about an issue that mattered to me. After writing it, I sometimes felt good about what I’d done.

I have no interest in Texting, Tweeting or Facebooking. The increasing popularity of theses forms of expression among young adults cannot be taken lightly. According to a recent Pew Internet research report, social networks are starting to replace blogging as the preferred means of communicating for teens and young adults (less than 30 years of age). In 2006 approximately 28% of teens and young adults were said to be bloggers, while a few years later in 2009 the number decreased by half to 14%.

I’ve not read any blogs written by this group but I do know the kind of writing and fragmentary comments on social media sites does little to sustain a habit serious commentary. I also have no idea if this way of communicating to other individuals has any lasting value. Any such account of the effects of social media must remain speculative for now and I’m not one who does much of that.

Note: In order to embark on a new project, Marks in the Margin will take a break from blogging on a regular basis for a while. Postings, if any, will be sparse and intermittent during this period.


The Friendship of Books

“Lasting friendship is rare. It requires constant maintenance and is never a passive accomplishment. Not so with books. Despite our neglect and ingratitude, they remain constant, happy whenever we return.”
Patrick Kurp

You form your friendships where you find them. They can be anyone, anywhere, at anytime. There was an era when book collectors and readers had a close relationship with books and its characters. They viewed them as friends, companions, as real as any person and for some that era still lives on.

In Companionable Books, first introduced to me by Patrick Kurp on his blog, Anecdotal Evidence, George Gordon writes, “What most men and women are looking for all their lives is companionship…There is a companionable quality in some books that skips the centuries…”

The neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne, in Ian McEwan’s Saturday is as real to me as anyone I will ever hope to meet. I continue to think about his ideas, his medical expertise and his sense of humor. Perowne’s daughter is a poet and he is amused by her tutorials to try to get him up to speed about literature.

In turn, I was entertained by their delightful banter and the ironic exchanges they have about his disinterest in following her lead. And it is clear that Perowne isn’t much of a reader. So even though he is a deeply reflective man, I suppose one should not have been surprised, as I was a first, by the following passage:

Henry read the whole of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, two acknowledged masterpieces. At the cost of slowing his mental processes and many hours of his valuable time, he committed himself to the shifting intricacies of these sophisticated fairy stories. What did he grasp after all? That adultery is understandable but wrong, that nineteenth-century women had a hard time of it, that Moscow and the Russian countryside and provincial France were once just so.

No, Henry is a scientist devoted to his work and the promise he sees in neurophysiology. Still he is restless, at times silently dissatisfied with his life, and yearns for something more. If it is anything, the missing element is music.

There’s nothing in his own life that contains this inventiveness, this style of being free. The music speaks to unexpressed longing or frustration, a sense that he’s being denied himself an open road, the life of the heart celebrated in the songs. There has to be more to life than merely saving lives.

It’s hard to find a friend quite like Henry Perowne. But he became a close friend during the time I was reading the book. I greatly enjoyed his company and the chance to spend some time with him. And once in a while, I think back on our conversations and return to the ideas we discussed. It seems we had a good deal in common especially our tendency to spend part of each day ruminating about one thing or another and examining the contents of our mind down to the smallest synapse.


The Anne Frank Game

I’m not good at games—my only defence is not to play it back but to opt out of the game altogether. Samantha Harvey

Have you heard of the Anne Frank game? It’s not exactly Scrabble Light. In fact, it’s a dangerous game, full of unknown risks and devastating consequences, especially if you play it with your dearest friend or spouse. Beware: Falling Rocks Ahead.

Nathan Englander described the game in his short story, “What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” first published in the 12/5/11 issue of the New Yorker. It is also one of several other stories in his recent book with the same title. Each of the tales is said by Englander to involve a moral test of its characters.

The game is a “thought experiment” in which you make a prediction about another person’s behavior. In this case, it’s a prediction about whether or not the individual will hide you in the event of another Holocaust. When asked about the origin of the game, Englander replied:

“The truth is the idea for the game comes from the fact that my sister and I have played the game forever and ever. She is older. And she invented it. And it become clear to me that it wasn’t a game at all. The highest compliment we give to certain friends is to say something like, “Yes, Nicole would hide me. She really would.”

In the story, the narrator and his wife are talking with old friends of his wife who are visiting from Israel. All four are Jewish, the Americans living in Florida are secular Jews, while the couple from Israel have shifted from Orthodox to ultra-Orthodox. The characters are drunk and high and begin trying to decide who might hide them and who might betray them if there ever was to be another Jewish genocide.

The game becomes quite another matter when the couples move beyond their friends and neighbors, strangers, Christian or Jew, and start trying to decide if they would save their spouse. Would you hide your wife or your husband and would you say what couldn’t be said?

You see how risky this so-called game can be? Had you known that, you might not have agreed to play. However, in the story, the characters had been drinking all afternoon and then started smoking marijuana. And so they began. Elsewhere Englander says,

I am obsessed with the social contract, or rather the ways it can be tested and eventually broken. It fascinates me how an individual has to hold so many opposing realities in his or her head simply in order to survive.

Let’s look at this game from another perspective, one less a test of a person’s character and more a matter of what is known about predicting future behavior. And what has been confirmed over and over again in studies of this issue is that individuals are woefully inaccurate in predicting their own and anyone else’s behavior.

Given that you know about the game and the fallibility of human judgment, would you want to play at all?

There are many roads that lead to Rome. If fact, all roads are said to lead to Rome. Some are more scenic than others, but they can be treacherous in spots. Whatever road you take will have its consequences.


Modern Times

"I fear the day when the technology overlaps with our humanity. The world will only have a generation of idiots." Einstein

First it was the telephone and then the television and now e-mailing and texting and the constant stream of whatever it is that people are staring at or listening to on their cell phones. Rarely do I see a young person walking about without their eyes focused on its screen or talking to someone with the thing. What is it that they are talking about? How can they have so much to say to one another?

At dinner one night at an outdoor cafĂ© in Italy, I observed a couple sitting silently together at their table. Each one was peering at their cell phone. I never once saw them speaking to one another. Instead, they spent the entire time talking to someone on their mobile. And when they were finished speaking, they continued to fiddle with it, no doubt searching for the latest text message or poking around the Web. I thought they were surely a couple on the verge of a meltdown. Since then, I’ve seen this scene played out at almost every restaurant and on the streets of every place I’ve been to recently. And it’s just not the young who are doing this.

What is lost when people no longer experience or know how to deal with the “separation” and the desire to be alone for any length of time, or even a moment of reflection? “First, the propensity for introspection, that examination of the self…Lost, too, is the related propensity for sustained reading.” William Deresiewicz

What had happened in these ten years for there suddenly to be so much to say—so much so pressing that it couldn’t wait to be said? Everywhere I walked, somebody was approaching me talking on a phone and someone was behind me talking on a phone. Inside the cars, the drivers were on the phone. When I took a taxi, the cabbie was on the phone. For one who frequently went without talking to anyone for days at a time, I had to wonder what that had previously held them up had collapsed in people to make incessant talking to a telephone preferable to walking about under no one’s surveillance, momentarily solitary, assimilating the streets through one’s animal senses and thinking the myriad thoughts that the activities of a city inspire. For me it made the streets appear comic and the people ridiculous. And yet it seemed like a real tragedy, too. Philip Roth Exit Ghost

We were sitting in the window of the luncheonette and could see people walking by on the street. At the moment I looked up, every one of them was talking on a cell phone. Why did those phones seem like the embodiment of everything I had to escape? They were an inevitable technological development, and yet, in their abundance, I saw the measure of how far I had fallen away from the community of contemporary souls. I don’t belong here anymore, I thought. Philip Roth Exit Ghost

I guess this is nothing new. Even the speedy Mercury was fixated on his cell phone.