Our reading is from the Zookeeper’s Wife, describing the Nazis’ treatment of Polish Jews in the first months of the German occupation.
As warnings and humiliations increased day by day, Jews were forbidden restaurants, parks, public toilets, and city benches. Branded with a blue Star of David on a white arm band, they were barred from railways and trams. For sport, soldiers hoisted orthodox Jews onto barrels and scissored off their religious beards, taunted old men and women, ordering them to dance or be shot. Nazis seized all their cash, furniture, jewelry, books, clothing, and medical supplies. Over 100,000 people endured physical labor without pay, and Jewish women, as further humiliation, were forced to use their underwear as cleaning rags. Jews in Poland were publicly stigmatized, brutalized, denigrated, raped, and murdered.
Our movie with a message for this week is The Zookeeper’s Wife, available on HBO and Amazon Prime, which tells the true story of Antonina and Jan (Yan) Zabinksi, who used their zoo as a way station to smuggle over 300 Jews out of the Warsaw Ghetto. The movie focuses on Antonina, and her compassion, for her animals, whom she greets every morning with treats and kisses, and then, for the people she hides, that she refers to as her guests. When the Germans invaded Poland, the zoo was very close to an artillery station and was bombed. Most of the animals were killed, and those that weren’t were shot by soldiers, as they decided to use the zoo as an armory. In town, the Nazis began their plan to reduce the poles, whom they considered racially inferior, to a leaderless population of peasants and laborers by eliminating the leadership class and anyone they thought could organize a resistance. Polish nobility, local officials, priests, and teachers were pulled from their homes and shot in the street. As we heard in the reading, and as we know, Polish Jews were treated much worse. When the Nazis began moving them into the ghetto, Antonina and Jan, who was working with the Polish resistance, sought a way to help. They came up with the idea to turn the zoo into a pig farm to feed the German soldiers. They got permission to go into the ghetto to get what few scraps were left to feed the pigs, and they smuggled people out and hid them in their basement and in the pens that once held animals. Antonina treated them like valued guests. She used piano playing to let them know when the guards left after midnight, and they all came into the house to eat and socialize and feel a little less afraid for a time. When Jan told her about the evacuation of the ghetto, Antonina begged him to get more people out, as many as he could. He did, and she kept them safe, under the nose of the guards who occupied the zoo, throughout the war. Some stayed only a few days; others stayed for years. Only 2 of those she sheltered were later captured and murdered. All the others survived. Antonina made many sacrifices in order to keep her guests safe, including pretending to be attracted to a Nazi Zoologist who was infatuated with her, that resulted in him attacking and almost killing her and her son when he found out what she was doing. She did what she did out of compassion and empathy, because her own father had been murdered during the Russian revolution. She shared her story with a young teenage girl that she was sheltering, who was so traumatized she could not speak after being raped by German guards while in the Ghetto. She said, “We were taken in by friends and strangers. We were running for so long. In a life in hiding, you never know who to trust. That’s why I love animals so much. You look into their eyes and know what is in their heart.” And she gained the trust of those she sheltered by showing them her heart. In addition to compassion and empathy and trust, another theme of the movie is human courage. Jan and Antonina’s and especially the Jews. And what gave them courage was their families, their traditions, and their faith. The Warsaw ghetto was burned during Passover, and there is a scene of everyone at the zoo celebrating, telling from memory the story of their ancestors’ faith that kept them going forward when they were in bondage and despair. They sang and prayed, as the ashes from the fires fell like snow. It brought them a sliver of the familiar and hope amid the hopelessness of their situation. You and I can honor victims and survivors of the holocaust by telling their stories, and by working to make sure that what happened to them never happens again. By seeing clearly the damage that white supremacy has done and continues to do. By calling out leaders who demonize people and sow seeds of divisiveness. And by promoting and electing leaders that seek to unify rather than divide, leaders who believe in their hearts that people of all races are equally valuable and worthy, and who work to bring about justice for everyone. Leaders who, in the last words that Congressman John Lewis left for us,“by human compassion, lay down the burdens of division, and set aside race, class, age, language, and nationality to demand respect for human dignity.” Amen.