I was inspired to write the novel The Elephant Gate after reading the true-life story of the bombing of the Berlin Zoo in Cornelius Ryan’s book The Last Battle (Simon & Schuster, 1966). The thought of a zoo being bombed, even accidentally, struck me as a modern tragedy worthy of retelling. Although I had initially planned for my protagonist to be a fictitious worker at the zoo (and my first drafts even started out this way) I didn’t feel that I was adequately telling the story. Besides, other books had already been written on the subject of zoos during wartime, The Zoo Keeper’s Wife and Faithful Elephants, two of the most obvious examples, so how could I tell the story I knew needed to be told?
I scrapped my first draft and started over and, as I wrote, the idea became clear. I would tell the story from the perspective of Siam, the only elephant at the Berlin Zoo to survive the Allied bombings of 1943 and the subsequent fighting on zoo grounds in 1945. Throughout the process of writing The Elephant Gate I tried to think like an elephant: what did Siam and the other elephants think about being taken from the jungles and their families to live in a zoo? Did they still care for one another, although they were from different herds? Were they angry at their human captors for the beatings they endured with the dreaded ankus and for the deprivations they suffered through the war? (Although purely accidental, I realized much later that there are clear parallels to slavery here.)
Of course, my thoughts are conjecture but I think that I did a fair job guessing. And writing from the point of view of an elephant, or any animal for that matter, allowed me to interpret the Second World War and the Holocaust through the lens of pure innocence. Of course Siam didn’t understand human behavior, how could he? In the few passages where I used German terms, I don’t bother to translate them into English. Why? Simply because it would be incredibly stupid to assume that an elephant can speak German. I leave the translation alone so that, if we as readers don’t know what a certain phrase means in German, we are more inside Siam’s head. And this simplicity allowed me to portray horrible things in an almost childlike fashion. For instance, the lone symbol of the Holocaust in The Elephant Gate is one old man, a patron of the zoo, and his yellow star. Siam doesn’t understand why the old man is tormented by other humans or why he is forced to wear the star. He doesn’t have to, but we understand. Likewise, Siam doesn’t understand the war. He sees the various uniforms, sees the Zoo Flak Tower being built and watches as planes drop bombs on the zoo…although he doesn’t know what to call any of these things. But we, as readers, do.
Personally, I believe this to be an important book. Not just because I believe that Siam and the other animals at the Berlin Zoo during the war deserve to be memorialized (I do), but because of the underlying messages regarding war (which should be obvious) and regarding love and acceptance. And, most of all, the dignity of all living creatures.
The 272 photos and five films on this website tell in photos the story of the Berlin Zoo. The Elephant Gate is my interpretation of that story.