“The Zookeeper’s Wife” and complicated Polish-Jewish relations



I see that the film, “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” based upon the 2007 same-titled book by Diane Ackerman, will be opening at theaters today. The movie follows the true-life story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, a husband and wife team who ran the Warsaw Zoo and bravely hid hundreds of Jews from the Nazis during the German occupation of Poland.

When I walked away from the Lord for a very long “season,” I needed something to fill the void so I immersed myself in Polish and Polish-American history and culture (I’m 50% Polish, 38% German, and 12% Irish by ethnicity). I read a ton of books, joined some local and national organizations, and actually became pretty knowledgeable on the subject. After several years I became increasingly drawn to the controversial sub-topic of Polish-Jewish relations. If you’re even somewhat aware of Polish history and culture you know that relations between Poles and Jews are very strained with recriminations coming from both sides. I’ll try to very briefly give you some of the basics of this tense relationship.

Poland in the Middle Ages was an extreme example of feudalism. There was the nobility, the clergy, the peasantry and nobody else. The merchant/artisan class was springing up in other countries but Poland lagged behind. When the Jews were expelled from Western European nations in the 14th and 15th centuries, the Polish nobility invited them to immigrate to Poland to fill the void. Eventually, half of Europe’s Jews ended up residing in Poland. The Polish nobility relied on the Jews for their acumen in mercantilism and finance but the peasantry increasingly resented these “foreigners” who were often appointed as middlemen landlords and agents. The Roman Catholic clergy often incited resentment against the “Christ-killers.”

Beginning in the late-18th century, Poland was carved up by Prussia, Austro-Hungaria, and Russia and erased from the map, only to emerge again following World War I. Inter-war Poland was marked by increasing anti-Semitism. A severe brand of Catholic ethno-nationalism began sweeping the country to the point that Polish national leaders were exploring the possibilities of expulsing the Jews. The Polish ambassador to Germany met with Hitler in 1938 and promised the Fuhrer a monument in Warsaw if he could help resolve Poland’s “Jewish Question.”

But animosities were put on hold in September 1939 when Germany and Communist Russia staged a joint invasion of Poland and split the country in two. All Poles in the Western part of the country suffered under Nazi rule but the Jews would be targeted for total annihilation. In the East, some Jews who had become radicalized in response to Polish Catholic oppression welcomed the invading Red Army as liberators. In the minds of many Poles, all Jews subsequently became hated traitors. The myth of “Zhydo-kommuna,” Jewish communism, was born. When the German army drove the Soviets out of Eastern Poland in 1941, ethnic Poles began a bloody campaign of revenge against Jews, whether they had collaborated with the Soviets or not.

When Polish Jews were shipped en masse to the death camps by the Germans in 1942-43, most Catholic Poles kept a low profile but there were some who actively assisted the Nazis in rounding up Jews. Some capitalized on the Jews’ precarious circumstances via blackmail. But there were also some brave Poles who hid Jews from the Nazis, such as the Zabinskis, sometimes paying with their lives. The rescuers often feared their Polish-Catholic neighbors as much as they feared the Nazis.

Deeply ingrained in Polish national culture is the mythos of Poland as the “Christ of Europe,” mistreated by its aggressive neighbors but always noble and honorable itself. Tales of the rescuers as examples of Polish Catholic benevolence and sacrifice receive great publicity throughout the country and in the diaspora. But relatively recent research (Gross, Grabowski, Polonsky, etc.), which examines the virulent anti-Semitism of inter-war, wartime, and post-war Poland, is understandably less well received. Poles become extremely offended by any historical research that conflicts with their beloved mythos. Although there are very few Jews currently living in Poland, Jews in Israel and America are still resentful of how Jews were treated by Poles. Meanwhile, Poles still harbor negative feelings towards Jews for “Zhydo-kommuna.”

I’m looking forward to seeing “The Zookeeper’s Wife” and we should remember the Zabinskis, the other 6700 Poles recognized as rescuers by Yad Veshem, and all others who sacrificially rescued Jews during the Holocaust. But we are in the midst of another war; a spiritual war. As Christians, we need to reach out to a lost and dying world with the hope of the “Good News!” of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Through Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, we are to be rescuers as well!

Rescue the Perishing by Fanny J. Crosby

Rescue the perishing,
Care for the dying,
Snatch them in pity from sin and the grave;
Weep o’er the erring one,
Lift up the fallen,
Tell them of Jesus the mighty to save.

Rescue the perishing,
Care for the dying;
Jesus is merciful,
Jesus will save.

Though they are slighting Him,
Still He is waiting,
Waiting the penitent child to receive;
Plead with them earnestly,
Plead with them gently;
He will forgive if they only believe.

Down in the human heart,
Crushed by the tempter,
Feelings lie buried that grace can restore;
Touched by a loving heart,
Wakened by kindness,
Chords that are broken will vibrate once more.

Rescue the perishing,
Duty demands it;
Strength for thy labor the Lord will provide;
Back to the narrow way,
Patiently win them;
Tell the poor wand’rer a Savior has died.

Here’s some additional books that explore Polish-Jewish relations if anyone is interested:

  • Poland’s Threatening Other: The Image of the Jew From 1880 to the Present by Joanna B. Michlic
  • Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland by Jan Gross
  • Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz by Jan Gross
  • Golden Harvest: Events at the Periphery of the Holocaust by Jan Gross
  • Rethinking Poles and Jews: Troubled Past, Brighter Future by Robert Cherry
  • When Nationalism Began to Hate: Imagining Modern Politics in Nineteenth-Century Poland by Brian Porter
  • The Populist Radical Right in Poland: The Patriots by Rafal Pankowski
  • The Catholic Church and Antisemitism: Poland, 1933-1939 by Ronald E. Modras
  • Antisemitism and Its Opponents in Modern Poland by Robert Blobaum
  • The Crosses of Auschwitz: Nationalism and Religion in Post-Communist Poland by Genevieve Zubrzycki
  • No Way Out: The Politics of Polish Jewry, 1935-1939 by Emanuel Melzer
  • Jews and Heretics in Catholic Poland: A Beleaguered Church in the Post-Reformation Era by Magda Teter
  • Imaginary Neighbors: Mediating Polish-Jewish Relations after the Holocaust by Dorota Glowacka
  • The Neighbors Respond: The Controversy Over the Jedwabne Massacre in Poland by Antony Polonsky
  • Contested Memories: Poles and Jews during the Holocaust and Its Aftermath by Joshua D. Zimmerman
  • Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw, 1940-1945 by Gunnar S. Paulsson
  • Shtetl by Eva Hoffman
  • Bondage to the Dead: Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust by Michael C. Steinlauf
  • My Brother’s Keeper: Recent Polish Debates on the Holocaust by Antony Polonsky
  • Polish-Jewish Relations During the Second World War by Emanuel Ringelblum
  • On the Edge of Destruction: Jews of Poland Between the Two World Wars by Celia Stopnicka Heller
  • The Convent at Auschwitz by Wladyslaw Bartoszewski
  • The Jews in Poland by Chimen Abramsky
  • Forced Out: The Fate of Polish Jewry in Communist Poland by Arthur J. Wolak
  • The Jews in Polish Culture by Aleksander Hertz
  • Faith and Fatherland: Catholicism, Modernity, and Poland by Brian Porter
  • Sinners on Trial: Jews and Sacrilege after the Reformation by Magda Teter
  • From Assimilation to Anitsemitism: The “Jewish Question” in Poland, 1850-1914 by Theodore R. Weeks
  • The Jews of Poland Between Two World Wars by Yisrael Gutman
  • Economic origins of Antisemitism: Poland and Its Jews in the Early Modern Period by Hillel Levine
  • Memory Offended: The Auschwitz Convent Controversy by John K. Roth
  • In the Shadow of the Polish Eagle: The Poles, the Holocaust, and Beyond by Leo Cooper
  • Difficult Questions in Polish-Jewish Dialogue by Jacek Santorski
  • The Jews in Poland and Russia: Volume III: 1914 to 2008 by Antony Polonsky
  • Polish Politics in Transition: The Camp of National Unity and the Struggle for Power, 1935-1939 by Edward D. Wynot
  • Thou Shalt Not Kill: Poles on Jedwabne edited by William Brand
  • Between the Brown and the Red: Nationalism, Catholicism, and Communism in Twentieth-Century Poland by Mikolaj Stanislaw Kunicki
  • There Once Was A World: A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok by Yaffa Eliach
  • Symbiosis and Ambivalence: Poles and Jews in a Small Galacian Town by Rosa Lehmann
  • Holocaust and Memory by Barbara Engelking
  • Bystanders, Blackmailers, and Perpetrators: Polish Complicity During the Holocaust by Jacob A. Flaws
  • Studies on Polish Jewry, 1919-1939: The interplay of social, economic, and political factors in the struggle of a minority for its existence by Joshua A. Fishman
  • The House at Ujazdowskie 16: Jewish Families in Warsaw after the Holocaust by Karen Auerbach
  • Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German Occupied Poland by Jan Grabowski

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