The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
Review Date: 18 Sep 2010
Antonina Zabiniski was the wife of Jan, the director of the Warsaw Zoo. She was the mother of one (she would have another child by the end of the book), had her special role at the zoo (she had a gift with claming animals), and was pretty good in the kitchen and at the piano bench. None of these skills had anything to do with war, but war found her. Jan and Antonina, guided by what they thought was the right thing to do, fought the Germans in their own covert war. Jan was a member of the underground Home Army and used his zoo facilities to store weapons and explosives for resistance fighters. Antonina, ostensibly running her household at the villa on the zoo grounds, was actually running a hiding place for Jews who had escaped from the Warsaw ghetto, and at times even housing resistance fighters. Their son Rys, though only about 10 or 12 years old, also did his part, helping his mother bring the hidden residents food and water and mindfully keeping these secrets better than any adult could.
The Zookeeper's Wife, written by Diane Ackerman, was Antonina's war time story, and by extension the story of her family and her friends. This biography chronicled all aspects of her life. During the pre-war years, the book covered everything from her treasured memories of taking care of baby lynxes to meeting foreign zookeepers at international conferences; during the occupation years, naturally, the topics of the story became more serious, covering things like dangerous attempts to sneak Jews out from the ghetto and Rys' upbringing in a resistance members' household. Wherever they could find good hiding places, whether it was in Antonina's deep closet or in the empty pheasant cage, the Zabiniski family took on the risk of hiding Jews and others wanted by the German occupation administration. Ackerman's storytelling was excellent, expertly mixing the appropriate light-hearted events with those that were far more dangerous. Combined with Suzanne Toren's reading in the audio book edition that I had reviewed, Antonina's story really came to life. It was one of those books where I really grew to know, understand, and identify with the cast members.
Being an animal lover myself, I was particularly drawn to the way Ackerman described Antonina's closeness to the many animals that accompanied her. Antonina's ability to communicate to the animals were written in such a way that I thought I was witness her feat of calming them (interestingly, she used the same talent on some humans as well, once to narrowly escape being implicated in a nearby act of sabotage possibly committed by an unknown resistance fighter). When they had to flee Warsaw and her son was forced to release his cat Balbina, I felt true sorrow inside me; when they returned to the zoo grounds at the end of the war, and Balbina was found to be alive and well, albeit half-starved, I quite literally had a smile on my face upon hearing of this happy occasion. These were further examples of how Ackerman's writing was very successful in engaging me with the story.
As previously noted, the author included many facets of the Zabiniskis' lives in The Zookeeper's Wife. Warsaw's history was briefly touched upon, so was the eugenic efforts by German zoologists to breed back extinct species, as were tidbits on music, architecture, Polish customs and superstitions, and even on a beetle collection owned by a Jewish friend who was forced to move into the Warsaw ghetto. I viewed the breadth of the book a much welcomed addition to the depth of Antonina's war time experiences. Although at a couple of places these details seemed slightly distracting, I truly enjoyed the many diversions because, after all, this was a book about Antonina and her family, not merely the war itself. Her war time story was very much the sum of all these seemingly unrelated trivias and events.
I would highly recommend The Zookeeper's Wife for it offered many alternative viewpoints that complimented other books about the WW2-era Europe. To call this book a "diversion" definitely would not do it justice, but it really offered a great change of pace from my typical readings filled with tactics, technology, and chronologies.
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Joachim von Ribbentrop, German Foreign Minister, Aug 1939