Survivors: A Visit to the Berlin Zoo

According to Wikipedia, during World War II the Berlin Zoo was destroyed, and “only 91 of 3,715 animals survived, including two lions, two hyenas, an Asian bull elephant, a hippo bull, ten hamadryas baboons, a chimpanzee, and a black stork.” Not having a firm grasp of World War II history, which was too recent to be taught when I was in school, I’m not sure exactly how the animals were destroyed, but I believe at least some of them were eaten by hungry Berlin residents. Most of what I know about the Berlin Zoo during the war (and to me “the war” is World War II, not Vietnam or any of the wars that  followed) I learned from reading Richard Zimler’s The Seventh Gate, a novel that mixes Jewish history with a compelling mystery story. The zoo appears and reappears several times during the Zimler novel, although one of the most important animals in the novel was not a zoo animal at all but a squirrel.

I like squirrels. When I was a child, my imaginary playmate was a squirrel named Zipper. I don’t remember why I chose that name, but, when I’m sitting on the porch off our kitchen and I see a squirrel in the cedar tree outside, I always call him or her Zipper. My original Zipper was a lighthouse keeper, and I always explained Zipper’s absence from any birthday or Christmas party I attended by saying he couldn’t leave his light. I’m proud of inventing an imaginary playmate with a solid alibi.

On our last day in Germany, Joe and I visited the Berlin Zoo in the Tiergarten and saw many of the 20,000 and some animals now present, although some were probably already hibernating or just shy or uneasy around people. The giraffes and zebras were particularly impressive, and a lone polar bear with a solid sense of self surveyed us from his habitat. We saw animals that looked like squirrels and animals that looked like house cats. We saw parakeets that resembled my old friends Tippy and Roscoe. And we saw elephants. I love elephants, although my political leanings are solidly Democratic and of course I also love donkeys.

I couldn’t help but remember a passage from The Seventh Gate about the fate of the zoo animals during the war:

Hans asks me if we can go now to the Berlin Zoo. I’ve told him about it as a bribe. “What a good idea!” Else exults, plainly trying to please my son. “We’ll walk through the Tiergarten. I think the zoo might still be closed, but we can look at ducks in the ponds on the way. A few have come back.”
          “They left?” I ask.
          “We were starving. We ate ducks, rabbits … anything we could catch or raise.”
          Hans turns up his nose.
          “Yes, it wasn’t pretty,” she tells the boy. Whispering to me, she says, “The zoo animals were slaughtered too . . .”

 We were glad they were back, and we enjoyed watching the elephants, meerkats, rhinoceroses, and oryxes in something approaching their natural habitats. We were glad to see that they were well fed. And I actually got to spend some time in a monkey house, although I felt sorry for the large gorilla sitting with his back to the crowd trying to enjoy his dinner in peace. He was a little too close to human—a loner whose sense of privacy was being violated. I’m sorry about that, about being one of the violators, although I think it’s important for children to see these animals up close and personal, accompanied by all the zoo smells they produce.

Wikipedia reminds us that human history can produce its own variety of zoo smells: “In 1938, the Berlin Zoo got rid of Jewish board members and forced Jewish shareholders to sell their stock at a loss, before re-selling the stock in an effort to ‘Aryanize’ the institution. The zoo has now commissioned a historian to identify these past shareholders and track down their descendants.”

I wrote most of this post on my iPad on the Amsterdam-to-Detroit leg of our return flight. By the time we arrived home to an empty refrigerator, it was morning in Berlin, and our bodies were still running on German time. The next day was Election Day. We voted and went grocery shopping, and then we went out for pizza, wanting to compare it to the flammkuchen we had eaten just three days earlier. Then the election returns started to come in.

On Wednesday I was depressed about the election and still jet-lagged, no longer familiar with either my habits or my wardrobe. My disorientation was so complete that I seemed to be walking around in a different kind of zoo, one run by pigs who walked upright and engaged in neverending battles. They governed themselves according to a familiar principle: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”