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The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Storyby Diane Ackerman
Ackerman's bestselling books, including A Natural History of the Senses and An Alchemy of Mind, are illuminating windows into the human condition, and are distinguished not only by Ackerman's graceful and exuberant prose but by her inclusion of her own life experiences into the larger scientific questions she explores.
The Zookeeper's Wife is a different kind of book; Ackerman is very deliberately telling someone else's story. A work of narrative nonfiction, The Zookeeper's Wife focuses on Jan and Antonina Zabinski, zookeepers in Warsaw during World War II. In addition to saving as many animals as possible during the German assault on the city, the Zabinskis saved the lives of hundreds of Jews, often at great risk to their own.
Publishers Weekly claims in a starred review that "this suspenseful, beautifully crafted story deserves a wide readership." In An Alchemy of Mind, Ackerman writes that her "favorite fascinations are nature and human nature." In Antonina's story, she has found the perfect confluence of the two.
Synopses & Reviews
A true story — as powerful as Schindler's List— in which the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo saved hundreds of people from Nazi hands.
When Germany invaded Poland, Stuka bombers devastated Warsaw — and the city's zoo along with it. With most of their animals dead, zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski began smuggling Jews into empty cages. Another dozen guests hid inside the Zabinskis' villa, emerging after dark for dinner, socializing, and, during rare moments of calm, piano concerts. Jan, active in the Polish resistance, kept ammunition buried in the elephant enclosure and stashed explosives in the animal hospital. Meanwhile, Antonina kept her unusual household afloat, caring for both its human and its animal inhabitants — otters, a badger, hyena pups, lynxes.
With her exuberant prose and exquisite sensitivity to the natural world, Diane Ackerman engages us viscerally in the lives of the zoo animals, their keepers, and their hidden visitors. She shows us how Antonina refused to give in to the penetrating fear of discovery, keeping alive an atmosphere of play and innocence even as Europe crumbled around her.
"'Ackerman (A Natural History of the Senses) tells the remarkable WWII story of Jan Zabinski, the director of the Warsaw Zoo, and his wife, Antonina, who, with courage and coolheaded ingenuity, sheltered 300 Jews as well as Polish resisters in their villa and in animal cages and sheds. Using Antonina's diaries, other contemporary sources and her own research in Poland, Ackerman takes us into the Warsaw ghetto and the 1943 Jewish uprising and also describes the Poles' revolt against the Nazi occupiers in 1944. She introduces us to such varied figures as Lutz Heck, the duplicitous head of the Berlin zoo; Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, spiritual head of the ghetto; and the leaders of Zegota, the Polish organization that rescued Jews. Ackerman reveals other rescuers, like Dr. Mada Walter, who helped many Jews 'pass,' giving 'lessons on how to appear Aryan and not attract notice.' Ackerman's writing is viscerally evocative, as in her description of the effects of the German bombing of the zoo area: '...the sky broke open and whistling fire hurtled down, cages exploded, moats rained upward, iron bars squealed as they wrenched apart.' This suspenseful beautifully crafted story deserves a wide readership. 8 pages of illus. (Sept.)' Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)"
"A lovely story about the Holocaust might seem like a grotesque oxymoron. But in 'The Zookeeper's Wife,' Diane Ackerman proves otherwise. Here is a true story — of human empathy and its opposite — that is simultaneously grave and exuberant, wise and playful. Ackerman has a wonderful tale to tell, and she tells it wonderfully. The book begins in the mid-1930s, when a young couple,... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Antonina and Jan Zabinski, were the directors of Warsaw's elaborate, fecund zoo, which housed its animals not just in cages but in habitats meant to recreate their native wetlands, deserts and woods. Antonina was a Russian-born Pole whose parents were killed by the Bolsheviks in the early days of the Russian Revolution. Jan was a rarity: a Polish Catholic whose father raised him as a staunch atheist in a working-class Jewish neighborhood. The Zabinski household was a sort of madcap bohemia, full of artists, intellectuals and a rotating assortment of non-human friends, including a lion kitten, a wolf cub, a chimpanzee, a 'sluttish' cat named Balbina, a kissing rabbit named Wicek, and a paunchy muskrat who practiced an 'exquisite' ritual of morning ablutions. As all this might suggest, Antonina and Jan weren't much interested in conventional boundaries. 'Antonina and Jan had learned to live on seasonal time, not mere chronicity,' Ackerman writes. 'Their routine was never quite routine, made up as it was of compatible realities, one attuned to animals, the other to humans.' And so their lives were imprinted 'with small welcome moments of surprise.' The mercilessly effective Nazi bombardment of Warsaw in 1939 destroyed the zoo. Ackerman, a poet and naturalist whose previous books include 'A Natural History of the Senses,' is particularly evocative in describing the wreckage: 'The sky broke open and whistling fire hurtled down, cages exploded, moats rained upward, iron bars squealed. ... Wounded zebras ran, ribboned with blood, terrified howler monkeys and orangutans dashed caterwauling into the trees and bushes, snakes slithered loose, and crocodiles pushed onto their toes and trotted at speed. ... Two giraffes lay dead on the ground, legs twisted, shockingly horizontal. ... The monkeys and birds, screeching infernally, created an otherworldly chorus. ... The tumult surely sounded like ten thousand Furies scratching up from hell to unhinge the world.' And here is where the Zabinskis' real story begins. Jan immediately joined the resistance, teaching biology at an underground university, smuggling food into the Warsaw Ghetto and using the ruined zoo as an arms cache. (After the war, Antonina learned that he was also building bombs, sabotaging trains and poisoning the pork sent to the German army's canteens.) Equally important, Jan and Antonina opened their home — a Bauhaus-style glass villa — and the zoo to partisans and Jews, some of whom were smuggled out of the ghetto by Jan himself. The Zabinskis hid their 'Guests' in closets, rooms and even the old animal cages; in the course of the Nazi occupation, they helped approximately 300 women, men and children. And Antonina insisted, throughout, on maintaining a festive, music-filled household, even as she and Jan lived with the constant threat of exposure, torture and death, not just for themselves but for their young son, too. How to account for the Zabinskis' actions? Jan was a cool, courageous risk-taker, and his upbringing had brought him personally close to many Jews. But Antonina was high-strung, often fearful (after all, the Bolsheviks had taught her something about political violence). In Ackerman's telling, it was Antonina's connection to the animal world — her belief that every living thing is entitled to life, respect and nurture — that made her incapable, despite her own terrors, of turning away from suffering. Nazi ideology, obsessed with categorization, hierarchy and uniformity, was incomprehensible to Antonina, who delighted in life's messy, rambunctious diversity. A story like this could easily devolve into Dr. Doolittle-like sentimentality. Ackerman avoids mawkishness in two ways. First, the horrors of the Holocaust seep into almost every page, just as they should. The Zabinski household may have maintained a determined joie de vivre, but we never forget that the Guests' time in the ghetto has transformed them from accomplished, vibrant people into broken, hunted prey: 'shipwrecked souls,' Antonina called them in her diary. Equally important, Ackerman refuses to romanticize nature. She knows that the animal world is full of — in fact, depends upon — deception and violence, and that a person's immersion in the natural world is no guarantee of goodness. Which brings Ackerman to Lutz Heck, the distinguished director of the Berlin zoo who became the Zabinskis' nemesis. In the midst of the occupation, he promised Jan and Antonina that he would protect the tattered remnants of their zoo — until, one day, he and his drunken SS friends laughingly murdered the animals for sport. Yet like Jan and Antonina, Heck adored animals; his love, however, took a peculiar form. Supported by his patron Hermann Goring, Heck hoped to recreate pureblood versions of certain extinct, presumably noble species, such as tarpans (ancient horses) and aurochsen (ancient cattle), while eliminating others that the Nazis regarded as racially degenerate. Heck aspired, as Ackerman writes, 'to nothing less than recasting Germany's natural world, cleansing it, polishing it, perfecting it.' In short, the Nazi program for animals was much like the Nazi program for humans. Ackerman posits that, after years of observing predatory behavior among animals, Heck might have justified genocide as 'hygienic and inevitable.' But she reminds us that here, precisely, is where humans differ from animals: We are capable of resisting our violent natures. 'What's instinctive isn't inevitable,' she writes, and 'we don't always play by nature's rules.' At the heart of the Nazis' madness, she implies, lay a paradoxical refusal to control our most amoral impulses on the one hand and to accept the natural world's imperfections on the other. 'The Zookeeper's Wife' is not flawless. Ackerman glosses over some complicated issues, such as how Hasidic thinkers faced the Shoah, conflicts between factions of the underground and the relationship of Poland's postwar communist government to former members of the resistance. She describes her sources — including Antonina's diaries, Jan's recollections and various postwar interviews — but provides sparse endnotes, so it is unclear if the book's many detailed conversations consist of verbatim quotes or were reconstructed. And the end of the book feels rushed; Ackerman's discussions of those who perform what she calls 'radically compassionate acts,' and of the Zabinskis' postwar lives, are disappointingly sketchy. Still, this is an extraordinarily moving story, told with style and vigor. Jan and Antonina Zabinski remind us of what we mean by the word 'humane,' at least in our most optimistic moments. Susie Linfield directs the program in Cultural Reporting and Criticism at New York University." Reviewed by Susie Linfield, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[A] shining book beyond category....[A] book to read and reread and give to others." Los Angeles Times
"With its biblical allusions, cuddly characters and well-covered historical subject matter, The Zookeeper's Wife might have been a gamble, had anyone else but Diane Ackerman tackled it." San Francisco Chronicle
"[An] absorbing book." New York Times
"Ackerman has done an invaluable service in bringing a little-known story of heroism and compassion to light. Highly recommended." Library Journal
When Germany invaded Poland, bombers devastated Warsaw — and the city's zoo along with it. With most of their animals dead, zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski smuggled Jews through the empty cages, saving hundreds of people from Nazi hands.
The New York Timesbestseller: a true story in which the keepers of the Warsaw zoo saved hundreds of people from Nazi hands.
2008 Orion Book Award
A true story--as powerful as Schindler's List--in which the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo saved hundreds of people from Nazi hands.
When Germany invaded Poland, Stuka bombersdevastated Warsaw-and the city's zoo along with it. With most of their animals dead, zookeepersJan and Antonina Zabinski began smuggling Jewsinto empty cages. Another dozen guests hidinside the Zabinskis' villa, emerging afterdark for dinner, socializing, and, during raremoments of calm, piano concerts. Jan, active inthe Polish resistance, kept ammunition buried in the elephant enclosure and stashed explosives inthe animal hospital. Meanwhile, Antonina kepther unusual household afloat, caring for bothits human and its animal inhabitants-otters, abadger, hyena pups, lynxes.Withher exuberant prose and exquisite sensitivity to the natural world, Diane Ackerman engages usviscerally in the lives of the zoo animals, their keepers, and their hidden visitors. Sheshows us how Antonina refused to give in to thepenetrating fear of discovery, keeping alive anatmosphere of play and innocence even as Europecrumbled around her.
About the Author
Diane Ackerman is the author of the best-selling A Natural History of the Senses, among many other books of nonfiction and poetry. She lives in upstate New York.
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