Book Review: The Zookeeper's Wife
The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman (Norton 2007)
I made the mistake of picking up The Zookeeper's Wife and reading it as though it were a novel. Maybe I was just in that headspace because the first two books on the Jewesses with Attitude Summer Reading List were fiction. The Zookeeper's Wife, however, is a genre-bending piece of prose that defies the conventions of history, memoir, and naturalist writing, all of which it employs.
Unlike most other books about World War II that I've read, The Zookeeper's Wife does not focus on the Jewish targets of Nazism. Instead, it focuses on Jan and Antonina Zabinski, the director of the Warsaw Zoo and his wife, who managed to rescue more than 300 refugees during the devastating German occupation of Poland from 1939 to 1944. Jan was also active in the Polish Underground, resisting the Germans by poisoning the food supply, smuggling weapons, and sabotaging trains and tracks.
But Ackerman does not stop at describing the Zabinskis and their heroic experience during the War. Instead, her sweeping writing makes stops along the way at a natural history of Poland including a fascinating account of the primeval Białowieża Forest, the behavior of zoo animals during times of peace and war, and the Nazi plan to Aryanize and Germanize the physical world by seeding it with native German flora, and reviving extinct species of European mammals. This naturalist's perspective on World War II is fresh, and makes it clear that as war devastates the human population, so too does it destroy the natural balance of the physical world.
When I finished reading The Zookeeper's Wife, I was left with two lasting impressions. First, that Antonina Zabinski, more than her husband Jan whose jobs and involvement with the Underground kept him out of the house from dawn until curfew, was responsible for the wellbeing and survival of their Guests. It was more than feeding the Guests and sounding the alarm to hide that made Antonina the central heroine of this book. It was her instinct to keep fear at bay, and what Jan described as an ability, perhaps learned from observing the animals in the zoo and in the informal household menagerie, to keep calm, keep enemies from suspicion and friends from panic.
Second, I was left with an overarching feeling that luck, fate maybe, shared the spotlight with Antonina in saving the lives of those who crossed her doorstep (we learn that of the hundreds of Guests in the Zabinski's villa, all but two survived the war). How scary.
Definitely worth a read.