The Zookeeper’s Wife
By Diane Ackerman
Based on memoirs, interviews, old photos, and other historical documents, Diane Ackerman tells the story of Jan and Antonia Zabinski, a Polish couple who ran the Warsaw Zoo when World War II broke out. When the Nazis occupied Poland, the Polish Jews became persecuted – they hid within a shadow world or moved into ghettos; many were sent to labor camps or killed. Jan and Antonia opened their house and their destroyed zoo to old friends and unknown Guests who sought to escape to a safer place. Antonia ruled the home, the villa and the zoo, where Jewish Guests were hidden throughout the war, in closets, animal houses, tunnels, and cages. Jan played a lead rule in the Underground, the Polish resistance, where he and a network of Poles helped smuggle Jews out of Warsaw, created false papers for those staying in the city as well as fleeing, and, of course, led acts of sabotage against the Nazis (including everything from spray-paint vandalism to poisoning Nazi officials and bombing Nazi trains).
The Zookeeper’s Wife is rich with descriptions that make both life at a zoo as well as life in the Polish shadow-world come alive. Animal life thrived, despite the war, as pets were hidden and Guests (code-named by animals) acquired qualities of those animals they were called. At the same time, Ackerman described the daily emotional struggle of the Zabinski’s and their Guests (the story often bouncing from the Zabinski’s to highlighting the story of a Guest) – the fear for themselves and their families, the guilt at endangering others with their activities – all make the Underground resistance come alive.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is an amazing glimpse into the Underground resistance. Although the Zabinski’s were aided by many friends and corrupt Nazi and Polish officials, their story shows how much impact just a couple of people could have. Over 300 Guests stayed at the Zoo, and all but a couple of them survived the war.
Grade: A (4.5 of 5 stars on Goodreads)