The first matinee at the Providence Place Cinema on a very rainy day. I dislike the lower parking garage, I can’t figure out how to get in and out, so what do I do? I leave my car at the Marriott and hike under my umbrella along the littered bank of the tracks by the shining State House and on to the mall.
I had to catch “The Zookeeper’s Wife” after reading two reviews, one in The Providence Journal and the other in The Wall Street Journal. “We” – that is, our local newspaper – gave it a good grade, while Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal detested it. He thought it sentimentalized and trivialized the Warsaw tragedy.
I sought to make up my own mind.
One thing that Morgenstern did like was the opening sequence, in which a kind and beautiful young woman rides her bike with a troupe of grateful and amiable beasts, who affectionately and peacefully trot behind her. It was not my favorite scene.
The rest, of course, is horror. The Nazi occupiers not only strip the menagerie and ship its best specimens to Berlin, but then they shoot the poor creatures that are left. Then the real plot starts: Our lovely heroine thinks up a trick. She flirts with the German commandant to distract him while her husband gathers up garbage, which he uses to secretly rescue scores of doomed Jews, hiding them in the swill piles. Then both zookeepers, man and wife, clean them up and give them safe space in their cellar, where they thrive and survive!
It is an endearing and wondrous exception to the fate of the vast majority of the inmates of the Polish prison world of Warsaw, which is problematic. I mean, the purpose of Holocaust “art” should not be to make audiences feel good, nor to give the impression that the Polish people went out of their way to help their Jewish neighbors!
So, why am I going on about this movie? As an excuse to bring up the subject of the plight of animals among us, including the pets who are our companions, the poultry we eat and the working beasts of burden. And what about the rights of God’s “children” in his oceans, above us in his “firmament,” doin’ their thing in God’s Edens, the wilderness areas of the planet? They keep busy mending and healing the mess we have made wherever Cain and his descendants, all of us, in fact, roam with blood on our hands and faces. That’s why I didn’t approve of that serene scene that The Wall Street Journal liked.
What I did like about “The Zookeeper’s Wife” was simply the reminder that God cares about every living thing; that is the essence of Genesis, indeed the entire Torah, if we know how to look for it. We see it in the Old Testament story of Balaam and the Burro. In Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals.” Among the short stories of Isaac B. Singer and Bernard Malamud.
It’s a Jewish tradition to be kind to animals – this is a point I make in two overlapping courses I am teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design this semester, “Jewish Literature” and “Birds in Books,” or “Birds and Words.”
MIKE FINK (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.