Professor Naomi Sokoloff recently presented a lecture as part of the series “Lessons (Not) Learned from the Holocaust” sponsored by the UW Stroum Center for Jewish Studies. Her talk, “Jewish Dogs and the Nazi Beast,” discussed animal studies and Holocaust literature, focusing on memoirs by two Hebrew authors. Alona Frankel and Aharon Appelfeld were Jewish survivors who both spent part of the war years as hidden children. Fleeing human cruelty, seeking refuge in barns and forests, they turned to animals for friendship.
Animal themes have long played an important role in Holocaust literature. Sokoloff notes that she wrote about such themes years ago in connection with Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird and David Grossman’s See Under: Love. In those novels, characters transform into wild animals to escape from persecution; each novel considers the power of imagination to cope with horror. However, Animal Studies can reframe the issues with new salience. Approaches from that field can spotlight how Nazis viewed Jews as subhuman, how Jews responded to such dehumanization, and how literary texts may challenge boundaries between Homo Sapiens and other species, yielding lessons in respect for life and all manner of living creatures.
Sokoloff’s work on animal studies has led to an essay on Frankel (published in Since 1948: Israeli Literature in the Making), to analysis of a novel by Nava Semel about a hidden child (And the Rat Laughed), and to interest in the Warsaw Zoo. During WWII, the director of the zoo and his family saved some 300 lives by concealing Jews in cages and in their home on the park grounds. Today, their house at the zoo has become a museum. Sokoloff notes, “I visited there in 2018 and it was an extraordinary experience; if you have occasion to go Warsaw, by all means take a tour of the Zabinski villa. This modest place is an extraordinary site; it was the setting for acts of greatness and courage.” In an essay that appeared in The Palgrave Handbook of Holocaust Literature and Culture, Sokoloff examines nonfiction, fiction, and film dealing with the Warsaw Zoo.