Letter from America: Remembering JFK (and The Zookeeper’s Wife) in Troubled Times
By David Fedo
I urge Singaporeans and everyone else to be on the lookout for a powerful new film, The Zookeeper's Wife, which just debuted in late March in the United States. My wife Susan and I watched its screening in late April at our nearby 100-year-old Somerville Theatre, located just a quick subway ride from Boston.
This film is another Holocaust-related movie, but this time with a twist: it is partly about the zoo animals that are being wantonly killed in Warsaw, Poland, by the Nazis, as well as touches on the harrowing fate awaiting the Jewish population at the end of the 1930s and into the early 1940s. In short, it's a chilling and unforgettable work, depicting in unflinching detail the devastating and genocidal crimes of Hitler's troops, which, after taking Poland, destroyed the Warsaw Ghetto and slaughtered by gas, guns and starvation at least 300,000 captive Jews. (It is thought that only about six percent of Polish Jews survived the war.) Most animals in the Warsaw Zoo were collateral victims, too.
By any measure, The Zookeeper's Wife is a stunning film. Yet the initial critical reception in the US has been remarkably lukewarm. "Schindler's List with Pets" is the scornful view of The New York Times (March 29, 2017), with the added patronising comment: "so timid and sanitised it almost feels safe for children." New York Daily News calls it "worthwhile but choppy" (March 30, 2017), and The Boston Globe, while at least acknowledging that the "mostly true story" is at times "inspirational", attacks what it calls the "trite [and] obvious script and Daniel Bruhl as a villainous Nazi zoologist," which "keep it from fully connecting" (April 21, 2007). This critical response may be yet another instance where the film's audiences run ahead of the critics: at my viewing – the movie runs to 126 minutes – there wasn't a peep from the spectators until the ending, when I heard someone gasp, "Oh, my God," and then deep silence as we all left the theatre.
The film is based on a 2007 non-fiction book, which I had not read, by Diane Ackerman. The director is Niki Caro; the screenplay is the product of Angela Workman. The American actress Jessica Chastain has the lead role of the zookeeper's wife, Antonina Zabinski; her husband Jan is played by Johan Heldenbergh. Their seemingly blissful lives, and those of the zoo's miscellaneous animals, are brought to a sudden halt on September 1, 1939, with the deadly bombardment of Warsaw. The wrecked zoo must close, and Jewish inhabitants are immediately put at great risk. But the resourceful husband-and-wife team finds a way to hide many Jews and guide their way by secret tunnels to freedom; pigs play a key role in this deception. (It is estimated that some 300 Jews eventually were saved by the Zabinskis from the Nazi extermination.)
There are many challenges. Not the least is the attempted seduction by Dr Lutz Heck (the menacing Daniel Bruhl), Hitler's so-called zoologist, of Antonina, who must play along with the advances as a way of distracting him and the Nazis from discovering the Jews in hiding. It mostly works, but not without some pain in the Zabinskis' marriage. Jan is then shot in the Warsaw uprising and disappears. The Warshaw Ghetto is savagely burned during the Passover of 1943, and all seems lost. But in 1945 the army of the Soviet Union reaches Warsaw at last, and Dr Heck and the Nazis are defeated. And the film reunites, in that same year, Antonina and Jan (with their two children), who are then engaged in rebuilding the Warsaw Zoo. After all of the sufferings, the film's ending tugs at the heart, and Chastain and Heldenbergh carry it off with just the right sentiment.
While watching The Zookeeper's Wife, it is hard not to think of the ongoing and horrendous violence in the Middle East, especially in Syria. The common but hollow mantra – "Never again!" – in connection with Israel and other global genocides based on race and religion demonstrates that the world has not yet the will to withstand the horrors of precipitating or stopping such slaughter. In these perilous times, the film is an urgent reminder that there is much unfinished business left on the agendas of civilised societies and countries.
"Now is one of those times," declared the Toronto-born novelist Margaret Atwood in March, speaking at a National Book Critics Circle ceremony in New York, which was honouring her with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Atwood then continued with a warning: "Never has American democracy felt so challenged" (The New Yorker, April 17, 2017). A month later, my congressional representative from a suburban district near Boston told Americans that our new president, Donald Trump, "truly is a danger to our democracy" (The Boston Globe, April 13, 2017).
Trump's recklessness as the self-proclaimed "leader of the free world" is, as nearly everyone knows by now, well-documented, and apparently it will have to be endured for another three-plus years – and given the volatility of American voters, perhaps even longer. A recent op-ed piece in my local newspaper, entitled "A Plea to Impeach President Trump" (The Medford Transcript, April 13, 2017), is, I'm afraid, pure fantasy. The process is far too unwieldy, and very unlikely, to happen.
In these trying times, it might be helpful for many Americans, already discouraged and even bewildered by Trump's follies and outrages, to turn back from the current political scene and remember, for a moment, that the US has survived bad presidential leadership in the past (Richard Nixon and Watergate come to mind). But the American citizenry has been mostly fortunate, at crucial moments in its history, to elect presidents who, while certainly not perfect, have first upheld the Constitution, and then inspired citizens of all sexes, races and religions to noble goals that had otherwise seemed unreachable. One might assert that a kind of moral courage stands at the centre and soul of our greatest leaders. So there is always hope.
A handful of these presidential leaders have included the warrior/statesman George Washington (presidential term: 1789–1797), and then much later the heroic Abraham Lincoln (1861–1865), who freed the slaves and saved the nation by rescuing it through a divisive Civil War. Even later there would be Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1937–1945), another hero who dealt with an economic downturn and the horrors of war. But in more modern times I would propose John F. Kennedy (1961–1963), Bill Clinton (1993–2001) and Barack Obama (2008–2016), as three presidents whose intelligence, guts and charisma gave their fellow Americans the prospect of a new world, where the US would not, as newcomer Trump has foolishly boasted, "make America great again" (it's great enough!), but rather cajole the country into the front ranks as a steadfast partner in the global community of nations.
I recently visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, an I.M. Pei-designed building which stands majestically near the Boston harbour. It's one of the city's most visited tourist sites; even Lee Kuan Yew once took the tour of its galleries, which focus on the election of then Senator Kennedy to the presidency in 1960. For the millennials who do not know or remember, Kennedy's presidency was cut short in November of 1963 by an assassin's bullets in Dallas.
But Kennedy, though his presidency was brief, was special. As the 35th president, Kennedy is best known as the leader who kept the world from employing nuclear weapons in 1962, in what surely would have been a devastating war with the Soviet Union over the installation of missiles in Cuba. That crisis eventually led to the test ban treaty of 1963. In addition, Kennedy created ambitious economic programmes which, according to historian Frank Freidel (in his 1994 book, The Presidents of the United States of America), "launched the country on its longest sustained expansion since World War II." His government's groundwork on equal rights for all Americans would eventually lead to major new civil rights legislation. And importantly, he also made those of us in his generation – he was my first vote for an American president – proud of being an American.
Kennedy was a president of action (his momentous visit to the infamous wall in Berlin is only one example), but as in Germany, his initiatives were often presaged by words too, which were often marked by a soaring eloquence. Some remarks from his inauguration speech of January 1961 are still worth our noting:
Thoughtful words, indeed, by a man whose legacy is still revered by many Americans.QLRS Vol. 16 No. 2 Apr 2017