6.29.17 VisionFW Ladies Summer Book Club

We’ve discussed before how impactful my involvement with VisionFW has been on my professional and personal life over the past 3 years. This summer, some of the ladies decided to get together monthly and form a book club. As an avid reader when I choose to be, I was drawn to the opportunity to read outside of my normal genres and interact with other women in the process. 

Our first meeting was a great success and I think everyone enjoyed the discussion surrounding the book and our personal takeaways. Most enjoyable, in my opinion, was the lengthy discussion pertaining to the selection of our second book. It was then that we developed a collective purpose for this group and what each person was seeking to gain from their involvement. Also, the snacks were bomb.com 

Our first months selection was The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman 

Easily the most challenging book I’ve ever read, but the endless accounts of her triumphs and determination in a time of unimaginable horror is beyond awe inspiring. 

I plan to have the book finish this week, but so far Here are some of my takeaways:

  • On Jan’s daily rounds of the zoo by bicycle, a large elk named Adam swayed close behind, an inseparable companion.
  • In 1932, abiding by Polish Catholic tradition, Antonina chose a saint’s name for her own newborn son, Ryszard, or Rys for short—the Polish word for lynx. Though not part of the zoo’s “four-legged, fluffy, or winged” brigade, her son joined the household as one more frisky cub that babbled and clung like a monkey, crawled around on all fours like a bear, grew whiter in winter and darker in summer like a wolf. One of her children’s books describes three household toddlers learning to walk at the same time: son, lion, and chimpanzee. Finding all young mammals adorable, from rhino to possum, she reigned as a mammal mother herself and protectress of many others.
  • Jan planned an innovative zoo of world importance at the heart of Warsaw’s life, both social and cultural, and at one point he even thought of adding an amusement park.
  • And then there was Tuzinka, still covered in baby fuzz, one of only twelve elephants ever born in captivity. Hence her name, from tuzin, the Polish word for a dozen. 
  • All the animals telegraph scent codes as distinctive as calls, and after a while, Antonina grew used to the thick aroma of their agendas—biological threats, come-ons, and news reports.
  • Jan kissed her hand lightly according to Polish custom, said it would honor him if she considered the zoo her open-air studio and the animals her fidgety models.
  • Cursed by its strategic location in eastern Europe, Poland had been invaded, sacked, and carved up many times, its borders ebbing and flowing; some village children learned five languages just to speak with neighbors.
  • Optimistic by nature, she concentrated on her fortunate life.
  • a baby badger named Borsunio (Little Badger), too young to leave unattended.
  • and they provided the ensemble of human and animal characters that transformed it from bungalow to burlesque.
  • In her diary, she noted how Badger’s instincts mixed with human customs and his own one-of-a-kind personality.
  • In Rys’s bedroom, she stooped to look under the bed and glimpsed Badger pushing Rys’s training potty out into the open, climbing onto the white enamel bowl, and using it as it was intended.
  • but she also thought how much easier life would be if they could stay together, sharing comforts, worries, and fears.
  • When a platoon of Polish soldiers found the panicky bears, ribboned with blood and circling round their old haunt, they quickly shot them. Then, fearing lions, tigers, and other dangerous animals might escape, too, the soldiers decided to kill the most aggressive ones, including the male elephant, Jas, Tuzinka’s father.
  • “At least humans can pack their essentials, keep moving, keep improvising,” Antonina thought. “If Germany occupies Poland, what will become of the delicate life-form of the zoo?. . .The zoo animals are in a much worse situation than we are,” she lamented, “because they’re totally dependent on us. Moving the zoo to a different location is unimaginable; it’s too complex an organism.”
  • For many Poles, life had become residue, what remains after evaporation drains the juice from the original. During occupation, everyone lost the many seasonings of daily life, trapped in a reality where only the basics mattered and those bled most of one’s energy, time, money, and thoughts.
  • “I’m just like our lioness,” she told the others, “fearfully moving my cub from one side of the cage to the other.”
  • Instigators and helpers are subject to the same punishment as perpetrators; an attempted act will be punished in the same way as a completed act.”
  • “Decree for the Combating of Violent Acts,” which imposed death on anyone disobeying German authority, mounting acts of sabotage or arson, owning a gun or other weapons, attacking a German, violating curfew, owning a radio, trading on the black market, having Underground leaflets in the home—or failing to report scofflaws who did. Breaking laws or failing to report lawbreakers, both acting or observing, were equally punishable offenses.
  • One of Frank’s key tasks was to kill all people of influence, such as teachers, priests, landowners, politicians, lawyers, and artists. Then he began rearranging huge masses of the population: over a span of five years, 860,000 Poles would be uprooted and resettled;
  • 75,000 Germans would take over their lands; 1,300,000 Poles would be shipped to Germany as slave labor; and 330,000 would simply be shot.
  • The Underground Peasant Movement adopted the slogan of “As little, as late, and as bad as possible,”
  • “The wounded city is trying to feed their animals,” Antonina reassured Jan one morning as she heard a clop-and-clatter, then saw two wagons creaking up to the gate with leftover fruit and vegetable peelings from kitchens, restaurants, and houses. “At least we’re not alone.”
  • But given the era, his beliefs, and the ultranationalism of his family, he clearly wanted to please Nazi friends by contributing to the ideal of Germany’s master races.
  • Without his type, maps would still show a flat earth and no one would believe the source of the Nile.
  • After Hitler came to power, the biological aims of the Nazi movement spawned many projects to establish racial purity, which justified acts of sterilization, euthanasia, and mass murder.
  • Although Mengele’s subjects could be operated on without any painkillers at all, a remarkable example of Nazi zoophilia is that a leading biologist was once punished for not giving worms enough anesthesia during an experiment.
  • A 2006 study of mitochondrial DNA tracks Ashkenazi Jews (about 92 percent of the world’s Jews in 1931) back to four women, who migrated from the Near East to Italy in the second and third centuries. All of humanity can be traced back to the gene pool of one person, some say to a man, some a woman.
  • Germany’s crime is the greatest crime the world has ever known, because it is not on the scale of History: it is on the scale of evolution.”
  • Writing of it, she experienced their suffering twice, as human friend and baffled victim.
  • The big-game hunter in Heck coexisted with the naturalist, and paradoxical as it seems, he was a zookeeper who didn’t mind killing animals in someone else’s zoo if it meant ingratiating himself with powerful friends.
  • How do you retain a spirit of affection and humor in a crazed, homicidal, unpredictable society?
  • “As long as we didn’t witness such events themselves, feel it with our own skin,” Antonina later recalled, “we could dismiss them as otherworldly and unheard-of, only cruel gossip, or maybe a sick joke.
  • However, Germans, Poles, and Jews stood in three separate lines to receive bread, and rationing was calculated down to the last calorie per day, with Germans receiving 2,613 calories, Poles 669 calories, and Jews only 184 calories. In case anyone missed the point, German Governor Frank declared: “I ask nothing of the Jews except that they would disappear “
  • and Jewish women, as further humiliation, were forced to use their underwear as cleaning rags on floors and in toilets.
  • non-event known as “Wanda’s Disappearance.” But before Wanda vanished, she decided to throw a farewell party for family and close friends at the old armory downtown, and she chose summer solstice for the event.
  • JAN AND ANTONINA FOUND NAZI RACISM INEXPLICABLE AND devilish, a disgust to the soul, and although they were already assisting friends inside the Ghetto, they pledged, despite the hazards, to help more Jews, who had figured importantly in Jan’s childhood memories and loyalties.
  • “to spite my father, who didn’t like or appreciate animals, and didn’t allow them in the house—other than moths and flies, who entered without his permission!”
  • “I don’t understand all the fuss. If any creature is in danger, you save it, human or animal.”
  • Still, discovery would have meant pitiless, on-the-spot death for him and his family, and who knows how many others. 
  • Many Guests, like Wanda Englert, were longtime friends or acquaintances, and Antonina regarded them as one amphibious family.
  • and she was very smart, a fast thinker with an excellent memory, very polite and sensitive. She had a big full-bodied laugh and a great sense of humor. 
  • in Poland harboring a Jew was punishable by immediate death to the rescuer and also to the rescuer’s family and neighbors, in a death-frenzy deemed “collective responsibility.”
  • The wayfarers often spent years in the dark, barely able to move, and when they finally emerged, unfolding their limbs, their weak muscles failed and they needed to be carried like a ventriloquist’s dummies.
  • Not even Antonina realized that he was collecting fuses for making bombs.
  • (During one month in 1943, they derailed seventeen trains and damaged one hundred locomotives.)
  • She didn’t know during the war that he also infected some pigs with worms, butchered them, then shaped the poisoned meat into balls which, with the help of an eighteen-year-old working in a German army canteen, he slipped into the soldiers’ sandwiches.
  • Since paradise only exists as a comparison, Guests in flight from the Ghetto found villa life a small Eden, complete with garden, animals, and motherly bread-maker (the etymological origin of the word paradise).
  • At odds with Nazi aesthetics (which worshipped classical architecture), building and living in a modernist villa was itself an affront to National Socialism, and Jan and Antonina made the most of all the style implied: transparency, honesty, simplicity.
  • Inevitably, a vital paranoia reigned in the house as the only sane response to perpetual danger, while its inhabitants mastered the martial arts of stealth: tiptoe, freeze, camouflage, distract, pantomime.
  • Would she be one of those people, Antonina wondered, who vanished because they happened to be on a tram or in a church when Germans chose it at random, sealed off the exits, and killed everyone inside as revenge for some real or imaginary insult?
  • The editors also sent copies to the Gestapo HQ “just to facilitate your research, [and] to let you know what we think of you. . ..”
  • Antonina noted that he didn’t even try to make friends at school, but hurried home instead to play with Morys the pig, whom he could talk with as much as he pleased, and who would never betray him.
  • One evening, German soldiers noticed Rys and Morys playing in the garden and strolled over to investigate; not fearing humans, Morys trotted right up to them for a snort and a scratch. Then, as Rys watched in horror, they dragged Morys off squealing to be butchered.
  • in cahoots with another low-level official, the director of slaughterhouses had conspired to rent the zoo to a German herbal plant company.
  • that meant starting clean, replacing thousands of Polish farmers and so-called Polish or Jewish crops and livestock with their German equivalents.
  • Unlike Leist, Jan knew of Kulski’s link to the Underground, and as Kulski proposed a public vegetable garden with individual plots, Jan smiled, impressed by a scheme that served the double purpose of cheaply feeding locals and portraying the Nazis as compassionate rulers.
  • “the idea of really gay, cheerful, witty music—in short, the idea of music with life in it—was gradually being forgotten.”
  • The sheer time it took to catalogue, gas, prepare, and pin them humbles the mind.
  • Watching keyhole life thriving beyond the Ghetto became torture, and in an inspired twist, Warsaw’s Uprising Museum (opened in 2005) includes a brick wall with reverse views: holes through which visitors can glimpse daily life inside the Ghetto, thanks to archival films.
  • If one lived on the surface and was stopped by police, even with false documents one might be asked for the names of neighbors, family, friends, who would then be telephoned or interviewed.
  • Each escapee required at least half a dozen documents and changed houses 7.5 times, on average, so it’s not surprising that between 1942 and 1943 the Underground forged fifty thousand documents.
  • Along with languages, they absorbed the lessons of facade-building, tribal loyalty, self-sacrifice, persuasive lying, and creative deception.
  • “A good strategy should dictate the right actions. Any action mustn’t be impulsive, but analyzed along with all its possible outcomes. A solid plan always includes many backups and alternatives.”
  • “I have one talent, “he wrote, “and that is the capacity to be tremendously surprised, surprised at life, at ideas. This is to me the supreme Hasidic imperative: Don’t be old. Don’t be stale.” Most people know that 30 to 40 percent of the world’s Jews were killed during World War II, but not that 80 to 90 percent of the Orthodox community perished, among them many who had kept alive an ancient tradition of mysticism and meditation reaching back to the Old Testament world of the prophets. “In my youth, growing up in a Jewish milieu,” Heschel wrote of his childhood in Warsaw, “there was one thing we did not have to look for and that was exaltation. Every moment is great, we were taught, every moment is unique.”
  • “to open the heart, to unclog the channel between the infinite and the mortal,” and
  • All our senses feed the brain, and if it diets mainly on cruelty and suffering, how can it remain healthy? Change that diet, on purpose, train mentally to refocus the mind, and one nourishes the brain.
  • Zookeepers by disposition, not fate, even in wartime with food scarce, they needed to remain among animals for life to feel true and for Jan to continue his research in animal psychology.
  • According to Jan, “The personality of animals will develop according to how you raise, train, educate them—you can’t generalize about them. Just like people who own dogs and cats will tell you, no two are exactly alike. Who knew that a rabbit could learn to kiss a human, open doors, or give us reminders about dinnertime?”
  • One of the most remarkable things about Antonina was her determination to include play, animals, wonder, curiosity, marvel, and a wide blaze of innocence in a household where all dodged the ambient dangers, horrors, and uncertainties. That takes a special stripe of bravery rarely valued in wartime.
  • Classes were small and the meeting rooms nomadic, to avoid discovery, floating from one edge of Warsaw to the other, in private apartments, technical schools, churches, businesses, and monasteries, inside the Ghetto and outside. It issued primary school, bachelor, and graduate degrees in medicine and other professions, despite the lack of libraries, laboratories, and classrooms. A certain sad irony (or perhaps it was optimism) prompted the Ghetto doctors, who could only comfort those dying patients whom a little food and medicine would have cured, to teach cutting-edge medicine to a future generation of doctors.
  • Passersby wouldn’t be surprised to hear animals mentioned at the zoo, and one gets a sense that it also just felt right to Jan and Antonina, that naming the usual animals helped them restore a little normalcy to their lives.
  • She was justly proud of the way strong, agile hands cradle newborns, build cities, plant vegetables, caress loved ones, teach our eyes the shape of things—how round swells, how sand grits—bridge lonely hearts, connect us to the world, map the difference between self and other, fasten onto beauty, pledge loyalty, cajole food from grain, and so much more.
  • Magdalena seasoned the villa with “loads of sunshine, energy, and a great spirit,” Antonina wrote, “which she never lost, even during terrible crises, and she faced horrendous ones in her life. No one ever saw her being depressed.”
  • Once its sprightly melody had been a favorite of hers, but war plays havoc with sensory memories as the sheer intensity of each moment, the roiling adrenaline and fast pulse, drive memories in deeper, embed every small detail, and make events unforgettable.
  • An unusually active thirty-four-year-old, she hated being confined to her bedroom, in heavy clothes, muffled under strata of blankets and comforters (” I felt so embarrassed and useless,” she moaned in ink), when there was a large household to manage.
  • details of daily life in the orphanage, imaginative forays, philosophical contemplations, and soul-searching.
  • “I am a doctor by training, a pedagogue by chance, a writer by passion, and a psychologist by necessity.”
  • Thank you, Merciful Lord, for having arranged to provide flowers with fragrance, glow worms with their glow, and to make the stars in the sky sparkle.”
  • he said he chose the play to help the trapped, terrified children accept death more serenely.
  • “A miracle occurred, two hundred pure souls, condemned to death, did not weep. Not one of them ran away. None tried to hide. Like stricken swallows they clung to their teacher and mentor, to their father and brother, Janusz Korczak.”
  • “It would be a pity to waste such good food,” he said of the bizarre scene, as if he’d found the only and obvious thing to do.
  • “They desperately needed hope that a safe haven even existed, that the war’s horrors would one day end,” while they drifted along in the strange villa even its owners referred to as an ark.
  • Typically, when the police stopped Jews on the street, they checked the men for circumcision and ordered the women to recite the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary.
  • who reshaped Jewish noses and operated on Jewish men to restore foreskins, a controversial and clandestine surgery with an ancient tradition.
  • Rys spent more unsupervised time, but she reckoned him “more capable and levelheaded than any child his age should have to be.”
  • Risk isn’t shaped the same in a child’s eyes, nor can a child see as far downstream from an event, and punishment works only if both parties feel it to be fair, fairness being the gold standard of childhood.
  • “Stop that! We’re helping you out of pure selfishness. What on earth could we do without you? Your only job is to get stronger. And to give us our orders! We’ve missed all your energy, wit, and, okay, sometimes your scatterbrained behavior. Amuse us again!”
  • Jan continued: “She has a precise and very special gift, a way of observing and understanding animals that’s rare, certainly not typical for an untrained woman naturalist. It’s unique, a sixth sense.”
  • Learning from our own mishaps isn’t as safe as learning from someone else’s, which helps us decipher the world of intentions, making our social whirl possible.
  • We feel what we see, we experience others as self.
  • Only a month after the Germans occupied Poland, historian Ringelblum conceived the idea of an archive, because he felt what was happening was unprecedented in human history, and someone should accurately report the facts and bear witness to the unspeakable suffering and cruelty.
  • but there’s a difference between not knowing and choosing not to know what one knows but would rather not face. Both she and Jan continued to keep a small dose of cyanide with them at all times.
  • Well, I proved there weren’t any poisonous vipers by catching the snakes by hand!” Then Jan added somberly: “Luckily, I didn’t need the cyanide this time.”
  • “I’m lost,” Jan thought. With disarming casualness, he smiled and said: “How can I open my backpack with my hands up? You’d better check it yourself.” A soldier poked around a little inside the backpack and saw the carcass.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s