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Themed Reading: WWII

October 19, 2009

Three of my latest reads have centered around events of WWII, and since I’ve had a lack of desire/time to blog lately, I’m writing about all at once.

The Chosen by Chaim Potok is the story of Reuven Malter and his best friend, Danny Saunders.  Reuven & Danny come from the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, though their upbringing is surprisingly different: Danny grows up in a Hasidic community, where he is expected to take his father’s place as tzaddik; Reuven comes from a more conventional home, where his father teaches Reuven to merge religion and science; tradition and logic.

This story unfolds in the final months and aftermath of WWII.  Through this, you see the impact this war had on Danny, Reuven, their families, and their community.  The book provided a new perspective illustrating not only the sorrow felt over the Holocaust, but the responsibility to preserve and restore the Jewish culture, after so many of the world’s Orthodox Jews were slain.

This was my second attempt at reading this book.  (I was scared off the first time by a VERY s l o w and loooooong account of a baseball game.)  I’m so glad I picked this up again.  It’s a brilliant book which contrasts the lives of Reuven & Danny, amid but not necessarily centered around a historic setting.

Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky is a two-part story of the French occupation during WWII.  The first part, A Storm in June, tells of various Parisians who flee the city during the initial German campaign.  In this book, a wide range of reactions to the war are depicted: from love, compassion, and sorrow to fear, greed, and selfishness.  It’s stunning to feel the range of emotions each of the characters exhibit.

The second part, Dolce, tells of a peaceful interlude in WWII as German soldiers occupy a small French village.  Again, reactions to the occupation in the village range from complete distrust, animosity, and rebellion to complacency, collaboration, attempts at cautious peaceful coexistence.  The story focuses on a German officer and young French woman, torn between pressures of national and familial pride and human affection and compassion.

The book is compelling, but most of all I was drawn to the backstory.  Suite Française was written during WWII by Némirovsky as she lived in German occupied France.  Originally intended to be a five-part novel, the author’s work was cut short in 1942, when Irene Nemirovsky was sent to Auschwitz because of her Jewish heritage, and was killed within a month.  It was bittersweet to read the conclusion of this book, which so strongly suggests a continuation that will never be completed.

Last of all is Diane Ackerman’s biography of Antonina Zabinski in The Zookeeper’s Wife. Antonina and her husband Jan, the zookeeper of the Warsaw zoo at the outset of WWII, made use of the zoo’s space during the war to help hide over 300 Jews as they escaped from Warsaw’s ghetto and evaded Nazi death camps.

Jan was a leader in Poland’s underground resistance, using the zoo as a hiding place for bomb materials used to damage the Nazi”s fortifications and weaponry.  Antonina, meanwhile, safeguarded her home and made it a priority to keep spirits high to those seeking shelter and safety amid the terror surrounding the zoo.

Thanks to Antonina’s journal, which is quoted extensively to paint a colorful picture of life at “the villa”, I enjoyed the heroic tale of this Antonina’s quick thinking, calming influence, and selfless care.  While reading this, I often found myself wondering if Antonina, Anne Frank, and so many others knew what historical impact their writings would have, and by extension if events in our lifetime will someday make an otherwise ordinary person’s diary, journal, or even blog be noteworthy or valued through time.  In any case, this beautiful story, which reads more like fiction than a biography, is highly recommended.

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