The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

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Book – The Holocaust was one of the most repugnantly dehumanizing historical happenings of the twentieth century. Nazi Germany’s ethnic cleansing systematically killed an estimated six million Jews, as well as persecuted the physically and mentally handicapped, homosexuals, people of color, Slavs and Poles, numerous religious sects, and anyone else not of Aryan descent or who strayed from the political ideologies of the Nazi regime. Germany’s crime was not only on the scale of history, but on the scale of evolution.

The Zookeeper’s Wife recounts how dangerously humans bridle unruly instincts, not always playing by nature’s rules. Author Diane Ackerman uses the diary of the zookeeper’s wife, Antonina, as well as other historical artifacts to transport readers back to a time of Polish revolution in WWII Warsaw. In efforts to protect passerby Jews seeking asylum, Antonina and her husband successfully save the lives of 300 Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, by hiding them in animal cages and teaching them how to appear Aryan in the public eye. The Zookeeper’s Wife is a compelling, tragic story that asserts the serious outcomes of combining eugenics with hateful intentions. Additionally, this book was adapted into a movie back in 2017 and is available on the shelves as well.

NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman

Book – Autism spectrum disorders exploded into the public consciousness in the early 2000s, along with worries that this sudden uptick in diagnoses meant that something unnatural was happening to children, something that had never been seen before. Really, Silberman explains, with great and gracious detail, our understanding of what “normal” development looks like and how eccentricity shades into disability is changing. In this book, he follows the history of autism and the researchers, parents, and people with autism who shaped our understanding of the different ways the human brains can work.

This isn’t a nice history; people have, historically speaking, not been nice to other people who have disabilities or even just differences that make them annoying. And since Hans Asperger and Leo Kanner, who shaped our modern understanding of autism, were physicians working in Austria and Germany in the mid-twentieth century, eugenics and genocide play a large role in early chapters. It gets better after the Nazis, but that’s not a very high bar to clear. The way people diagnosed with autism have been treated under the guise of helping them to become “normal” is upsetting at best. And yet, I found this a very hopeful book. Despite the burying of Asperger’s research; despite the litany of abuse and mistreatment; despite the struggles autistic people still face in being understood, accepted, and listened to; Silberman paints a picture of a flourishing subsection of humanity, one with astounding gifts and a great uniqueness, one which is ready, in this age of technology, to come into its own.