Friday, April 30, 2010

The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story by Diane Ackerman

Stories of war time occupation are many and somewhat repetitive. Countries are invaded by forces with no regard for the life and welfare of the inhabitants. Lawless soldier commit atrocious acts, including theft, arson, rape, and murder. Innocent citizens are held prisoners in their own homes and are treated with disdain. Soldiers taunt and threaten them, and resisting the urge to respond in kind is almost irresistible. The better stories are often those of people who find positive ways to uphold their dignity and work to undermine the oppressors. Such is the case with The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story by Diane Ackerman.

Antonina Zabinski was the wife of Jan Zabinski, the keeper of the Warsaw Zoo from 1929 until the end of World War II. The zoo was set in an old wooded park, but with Jan in charge, had a particularly modern attitude. Enclosures were designed to be as much like the animals habitats as possible, in contrast to many European zoos that still kept animals in small cages. Jan was as much a scientist as zookeeper, studying the animals to better understand how to care for them. Antonina was also involved in zoo work, as she had proved a good nurse to injured or orphaned animals. The couple often kept animals needing special attention in their home.

The Zabinskis were understandably upset when first the Polish Army killed some of predators as a precaution against their escape and then German soldiers killed more animals for the sport of it. The director of the Berlin Zoo, now a Nazi officer, came and stole many others for his own institution. As the grounds lost their purpose as a zoo, the couple had to find other reasons to justify staying. Staying was important because Jan was an important member of the Polish resistance and the zoo with its many buildings and tunnels became the secret home of many Jews, Catholics, gypsies, and anyone else that the Nazis wanted to exterminate. So the zoo became first a pig farm and then a fur farm. Much of the care and protection of these guests fell to Antonina, who was also raising her two small children.

The Zookeeper's Wife is a great story filled with many interesting characters, some of them the Nazi authorities and others drawn from the cosmopolitan life of pre-war Warsaw. It stands out among occupation stories and is a good book to offer to readers of history and biography.

Ackerman, Diane. The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story. W.W. Norton, 2007. ISBN 9780393061727.

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