Beyond the Book: Background information when reading The Zookeeper's Wife

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The Zookeeper's Wife

A War Story

by Diane Ackerman

The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2007, 288 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2008, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lucia Silva

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Janusz Korczak

Tucked into The Zookeeper's Wife is the equally myth-like story of Janusz Korczak (photo). A friend of the Zabinksis', Korczak was a Polish writer and pediatrician who founded a progressive orphanage for boys and girls in Warsaw in 1912. He had a popular radio show, enjoyed by both children and adults, and his children's book, King Matt the First, is known as well in Poland as Alice and Wonderland or Peter Pan is in the States. Korczak insisted on the importance of respecting and listening to children, believing that parents, caregivers, and instructors could do best by learning from them. He insisted that the role of the parent was not to impose a set of behaviors or expectations on a child, but rather that the child should be given a respectful, safe, loving place to thrive and work at her own pace towards her own goals. Korczak's orphanage was complete with its own child-run parliament, newspaper and a court system that encouraged the children to work out their feuds through forgiveness and reasoning rather than fists.

When the orphanage was relocated into the Warsaw Ghetto along with all other Jews in 1939, Korczak went with them. Beloved by many for his books and radio show, and considered one of the great humanists in Poland, he was repeatedly offered escape from the Ghetto and sanctuary on the "Aryan side". "You do not leave a sick child in the night, and you do not leave children at a time like this," he wrote, and remained with his 192 children, boarding the final train that took them all to the death camps at Treblinka in 1942. Korczak walked with his head held high, hand in hand with his children, leading them in calm, orderly rows. They carried the orphanage flag, with green and white blossoms on one side, the Star of David on the other.

Diane Ackerman writes:

The Poles claim Korczak as a martyr, and the Israelis revere him as one of the Thirty-Six Just Men*, whose pure souls make possible the world’s salvation. According to Jewish legend, these few, through their good hearts and good deeds, keep the too-wicked world from being destroyed. For their sake alone, all of humanity is spared. The legend tells that they are ordinary people, not flawless, or magical, and most them remain unrecognized throughout their lives, while they choose to perpetuate goodness, even in the midst of inferno.

In early 2007, Algonquin Books published a collection of Korczak’s profound and beautiful writings about children called Loving Every Child. Brief passages and quotations from his two longer books in Polish, How to Love a Child, and The Child’s Right to Respect reveal his unwavering respect for the mind of the child, for their individuality, and belief that every child deserves a safe, loving place to test out their new world.

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*According to Jewish mysticism, at any given time there are at least 36 holy Jews in the world known as Lamed-Vav Tzadikim, often abbreviated to Lamedvavnik (lamed = 30, vav = 6, Tzadikim = righteous). These righteous few are "hidden", in that nobody knows who they are and they themselves may not know who they are, but it is for their sake that God preserves the world.

Article by Lucia Silva

This article was originally published in October 2007, and has been updated for the September 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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