Movie Review: “The Zookeeper’s Wife”

It’s an older film (try the library) about a brave Polish couple who save 300 Jews during the holocaust by hiding them in the tunnels, basements, nooks and crannies of the Warsaw zoo. The natural response is to delight in their ingenuity, keeping the Nazis at bay, transporting Jews out of the ghetto in garbage trucks, secretly sending some to safety, keeping some until the end of World War II. The couple eventually receive the “Righteous Gentile” award from the Israeli government for their heroic stance.


The scene that haunts me, however, is one where children aren’t saved. Four-to six-year olds are being loaded onto trains for transport to the death camps, almost certainly the gas chambers. Jan, the Polish hero, sees an elderly rabbi accompanying them, and whispers to him, “My car is outside. I can get you to safety.” The white-haired rabbi declines the offer, however, insisting that he must go with the children so they won’t be afraid.


The gesture that broke my heart was the small children who weren’t rescued, standing on the train platform, lifting their arms to the rabbi and Jan, so they could be hoisted onto the terrible train. Their action reflects total trust, also seen in their eyes. My own grandchildren do the same thing, when they want out of the crib or a lift to see something beyond their small range of vision. I’ve held them up at aquariums, to mirrors, at ice cream counters to choose their flavor: all completely safe and innocent. So when the Jewish children raise their arms and we know the fate that awaits them, it’s heart-wrenching.     


Some would say there’s a grace even in the worst situation. Here, perhaps, it’s the nobility of the resistance, those who saved as many as they could, or the rabbi who holds hands tenderly as a grandfather at the cost of his own life. For Christians, it may recall Christ “lifting his arms to the cross.” In a mystery inconceivable to us, perhaps those children save us as he did, their suffering not meaningless but redemptive. And ultimately, they lift their arms to an eternal Father, eager to warmly welcome them home. Lift your hands to bless us again, small saints.


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