Diane Ackerman is a poet and naturalist who has written a moving, true account of heroism. Set in Warsaw during WWII, The Zookeeper’s Wife is the story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski who managed the Warsaw Zoo and took advantage of the Nazi’s obsession with genetic engineering (to bring extinct animals back to life) to hide Jews within the walls and cages of the zoo during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Their story spans the years from 1939, with the invasion of the Nazis into Warsaw, through 1945 when Poland was liberated. Ackerman describes the terror of the initial invasion through Antonina’s eyes with a poet’s flair:
On the rare occasions she ventured out, she entered a film-like war, with yellow smoke, pyramids of rubble, jagged stone cliffs where buildings once stood, wind-chased letters and medicine vials, wounded people, and dead horses with oddly angled legs. But nothing more unreal than this: hovering overhead, what looked at first like snow but didn’t move like snowflakes, something delicately rising and falling without landing. Eerier than a blizzard, a bizarre soft cloud of down feathers from the city’s pillows and comforters gently swirled above the buildings. -From The Zookeeper’s Wife, page 59-
The Zookeeper’s Wife is large in scope, exposing the ingenuity and daring of the Polish Underground and Resistance movements in which Jan was deeply involved, and extending to the individual acts of bravery which happened daily within the confines of the Warsaw ghetto. One of the more touching stories which Ackerman brings to her readers is that of Janusz Korczak - a pediatrician and writer - who dedicated himself to the orphans living within the Ghetto. When faced with the choice to escape to safety, Zorczak instead boarded a train to Treblinka and certain death in order to provide comfort to the nearly 200 children being deported.
Anticipating their calamity and fright when deportation day came (August 6, 1942), he joined them aboard the train bound for Treblinka, because, he said, he knew his presence would calm them - “You do not leave a sick child in the night, and you do not leave children at a time like this.” -From The Zookeeper’s Wife, page 185-
Ackerman’s gift is in showing the beauty and courage of people faced with unspeakable horror. She weaves the story of the zoo animals into the daily challenges faced by the individuals who hid among them. The healing power of animals is evident, as is the amazing relationship which Antonina had with them.
This book was difficult to read at times - the cruelty of the Nazis, the devastation of the zoo and most of its animals, the personal stories which unfold. It is almost unbearable to contemplate - and yet, written with sensitivity and skill, the book also exposes the goodness which came from one of the most horrible times in our history.