The Zookeeper’s Wife, the French Lieutenant’s Woman and the President’s Daughter

“The Zookeepers’s Wife” is Diane Ackerman’s book about the zookeeper of the Warsaw Zoo, who was an active member of the Polish underground during World War II, and who, with his wife, provide shelter for numerous Jew during the Nazi occupatino of the city. It is quite an extraordinary story – the zoo itself had been ruined through German bombing raids, transfer of some of the animals to zoos in Germany, and lack of funding and resources. The zookeeper and his wife remained in their “villa” and, in the heart of the city, and in full view of passers by, were willing to risk death, and to provide shelter for innumerable “guests”, some for a short time until other housing could be located, some for longer periods of time, and were able to obtain access to the ghetto and to help a few individuals escape the ghetto.

Some of my friends have had reservations about this book. I am not sure why. Assuming that the book is accurate (and Ackerman of course was not a participant), it provides a unique view of Warsaw during the war. The city is destroyed, the Jews (1/3 of the city population, almost 500,000 people) are put in the ghetto, and shipped from the ghetto the work and death camps, and the ghetto itself is destroyed after a long and deadly battle with the remaining ghetto survivors. And while this is going on, and the entire city is suffering, there is an active underground working to liberate Poland from the German occupation and to save Jews and political opponents. This is a book to be appreciated, well written, and evocative of a time not soon to be forgotten.

“The French Lieutenant’s Woman” was a novel written by English author John Fowles, and made into a movie in the mid-1980s. Who is this mysterious woman? Was she the immoral mistress of a long-gone married French lieutenant? Or is there a misunderstanding? And if it is misunderstanding, what can she do about it? Or what about her would-be suitor, who is engaged to a wealthy young woman? Should he believe her? And why did she disappear? What were her own internal demons that permitted her to wallow in her sorrow?

Sure, this story is about gender, and the treatment of women in 19th century England, but it is also about the psychological make up of a woman who is incapable of fighting back.

We saw the movie, with the screenplay by Harold Pinter (who died in England yesterday). It is not a perfect movie, but is worth watching.

The president’s daughter is Camelia Sadat, daughter of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. She is one of three daughters of Sadat’s first wife; Sadat divorced his wife to marry Jehan Sadat, who bore him several more children and remained with him until his death. Of course, Moslem men can have more than one wife, but Jehan would have none of that, forcing Anwar not only to divorce his first wife, but to a large extent to disassociate himself from his older children.

This is a terrible story (the book, “My Father and I” is quite interesting). Sadat of course is known for his trip to Jerusalem, the Camp David accords, and the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. This was an extraordinary accomplishment.

But Sadat was also Nasser’s vice president, president of Egypt when Egypt attacked Israel in 1973, and quite vicious when dealing with opponents or possible opponents in Egypt.

And, until shortly before he was assassinated, he treated his daughter terribly. Beyond terribly. He married her off at 12 (legal age was 16), and forced her to remain with a brutal husband for six years. He quite often refused to see her or her full sisters, refused to help them with their problems. He let them live in an impoverished condition for much of this time, although his actions with regard to money, as well as so many other things, changed day to day, year to year. He didn’t invite them to important celebrations, instead only inviting his children with Jehan. He mistreated his first wife (who strangely remained loyal to him) horribly.

How common this treatment is in Egyptian Moslem families, I am not sure. But I certainly would not have wanted to be part of the Sadat family.

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