There was a time, not too long ago, when the only stories about history that made it to the page were those of great men and great wars. In the 1970s that started to change when stories of ordinary people, people who acted not because of duty or oath, began to be told. These stories would have been lost, had it not been for historians tipping their heads towards those who didn’t lead the charge, but quietly without written order or through the benefit of command saved hundreds of lives. I remember the first time I saw a film dedicated to those who saw the worst of humanity and responded with the best part of themselves. Schindler’s List stayed with me for weeks, begging the question, “Could you have done that? Put aside your self-interest and saved so many?” That was the power of the film. We could not watch the acts of selflessness performed by Oskar Schindler, without reflecting on our lives, on the times we had walked away, the times we’d failed to act or react when seeing others confronted by a bully, injustice, or overt racism. It made us inwardly cower at our weaknesses and vow that we would not fail the next time we had the opportunity to stand up to intolerance and hate.

Other films followed in Schindler’s List’s wake. Life is Beautiful, The Pianist, Nicky’s Family and most recently, The Zookeeper’s Wife. The power of this story is not in the direction. Director Niki Caro is no Steven Spielberg. The power is in the people at the core of the story. The film opens at a dinner party in pre-war Warsaw, with a glimmer of those who would help further Hilter’s rise and those who would risk their lives to stop him. The Zabinskis are quiet, modest people, who respond to innuendo and derision with downcast eyes and the acceptance of those caught in the middle between Germany and Russian.

After Hitler invades Poland, the Zabinskis faced the ultimate decision -- sit by and watch as people they love, fellow human beings be abused, humiliated, and ultimately exterminated or act. Were their lives worth more than those around us? Stories like The Zookeeper’s Wife give us hope. We like to think we would be ingenious in the face of evil. We would react bravely to the threat of fear. We would reach inside ourselves and do what we would hope others would do for us. Films and books written about those who were going about their lives one minute, raising families, building a business, celebrating life, were faced with a choice, act or regret. Save lives or spend the rest of yours regretting that you did nothing. Stand up to tyranny and inhumanity or carry your responsibility for allowing it to continue into the next life.

These films remind us that the choices are ours to make every day. Every time we see injustice. Every time someone maligns a person or people because of their difference. These films remind us that when we hear those using difference and fear as barometers of how we should act, that tyranny is not far behind. They are stark reminders of what has happened and cautionary tales of what can happen when those who fuel the flames of hatred and fear born out of ignorance and superiority rise to power. They are the reminder that while the Hitlers among us start wars, people like Schindler and the Zabinskis will rise to face them and redeem our humanity. Will you?

The Zookeeper's Wife was based on the book by Diane Ackerman. Click the book below for more information.

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