According to the research of Malka Drucker and Gay Block, as reported by Diane Ackerman in The Zookeeper’s Wife, “rescuers” show certain key personality traits. Drucker and Block interviewed over a hundred people who saved Jewish people during WWII, and, in so doing, risked their own lives. They did it because it was their “duty” or “the right thing to do.” Rescuers tended to be “decisive, fast-thinking, risk-taking, independent, adventurous, openhearted, rebellious, and unusally flexible - able to switch plans, abandon habits, or change ingrained routines at a moment’s notice.” “They tended to be nonconformists, and though many rescuers hold solemn principles worth dying for, they didn’t regard themselves as heroic.”
Diane Ackerman reports the following on the zookeeper’s wife, Antonina Zabinski, a Polish Christian, who managed narrow escapes, time after time. She lived in wartime Warsaw, often without protection nearby, and yet, was never attacked or raped. She had always lived around animals and knew how to handle them. This is how her husband, Jan, describes her “abilities,” her gifts.
“It’s as if she’s porous. She’s almost able to read their minds. It’s a snap for her to find out what’s bothering her animal friends. Maybe because she treats them like people.”
Jan goes on.
“I’m talking about this to explain a little how animals react in different situations. We know how cautious wild animals can be, how easily they scare when their instinct tells them to defend themselves. When they sense a stranger crossing their territory, they get aggressive for their own protection. But, in Punia’s case (his nickname for Antonina) it’s like that instinct is absent, leaving her unafraid of either two-or four legged animals. Nor does she convey fear. That combination might persuade people or animals around her not to attack. Especially animals, which are better at telepathy than humans, and can read each other’s brain waves.”
“When our Punia radiates a calm and friendly interest in her animals … she works as a sort of lightning rod for their fear, absorbs it, neutralizes it. Through her comforting tone of voice, her gentle movements, the safe way her eyes meet them, she imparts a trust in her ability to protect them, heal them, nourish them, and so on.”
“You see what I’m trying to say - Punia is able to emit waves of calm and understanding. Humans aren’t as sensitive as others animals when it comes to signaling in this way, but everyone can tap into some of these invisible waves, more or less, depending on how sensitive their nervous system is. I think some people are much better at catching these signals, and I don’t think it has any connection with intellectual ability. It may even be that more primitive organisms are more receptive. If we were to use scientific nomenclature, we might ask: What kind of psychic transmitter is Punia,and what kind of message is she sending?”
Diane Ackerman now comments. “If Jan were alive today, he’d know about the role of mirror neurons in the brain, special cells in the premotor cortex that fire right before a person reaches for a rock, steps forward, turns away, begins to smile. Amazingly, the same neurons fire whether we do something or watch someone else do the same thing, and both summon similar feelings. Learning from our own mishaps isn’t as safe as learning from someone else’s, which helps us decipher the world of intentions, making our social whirl possible. The brain evolved clever ways to spy or eavesdrop on risk, to fathom another’s joy or pain quickly, as detailed sensations, without resorting to words. We feel what we see, we experience others as self.”
Jan adds this on Punia.
“She’s not a child, she’s not stupid, but her relationship with other people tends to be very naïve; she believes that everyone is honest and kind. Punia knows there are bad people around her, too, she recognizes them from a distance. But she really can’t believe that they may hurt her.”
Antonina and Jan ran an informal study through the war as they lived closely with mammals, reptiles, insects, birds, and a variety of humans. Antonina kept extensive journals and, in one, she asked herself this.
Why was it that “animals can sometimes subdue their predatory ways in only a few months, while humans, despite centuries of refinement, can quickly grow more savage than any beast.?”
It is a good question. She and Jan seemed able to tame any animal, and, of course, she tamed the Germans and the Russians, and yet, why is it, we can’t all meet in a place of peace?