Zookeeper's Wife

The Zookeeper's Wife

by Diane Ackerman

Overview: After their zoo was bombed, Polish zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski managed to save over three hundred people from the Nazis by hiding refugees in the empty animal cages. With animal names for these "guests," and human names for the animals, it's no wonder that the zoo's code name became "The House Under a Crazy Star." Best-selling naturalist and acclaimed storyteller Diane Ackerman combines extensive research and an exuberant writing style to re-create this fascinating, true-life story―sharing Antonina's life as "the zookeeper's wife," while examining the disturbing obsessions at the core of Nazism. Winner of the 2008 Orion Award.

Deanna Boe (07/29/17): I have given reviews in the last few years about books that tell about World War II and aspects that I knew nothing about. This is another of those books. Unfortunately I knew how Hitler exterminated not only the Jews, but also the hatred he felt for the Polish people. To him they were inferior and could additionally be exterminated. Poland had for centuries been one of the few European countries that welcomed Jewish people as they escaped various pogroms in other countries who wanted to annihilate them. By the end of WW II, one-fifth of the Polish population had been exterminated; three million of them were Jews, or 90% of the Jewish population. Grouped by nationality, the Poles rescued more Jews then any other European country, an interesting fact I did not know.

This book is a true story about one woman, Antonina Zabinski, and how she helped to rescue over 300 Jewish people. Her husband, Jan, was gone all during the day working with the Polish underground. It was up to her to casually hide or prepare Jewish people to escape from the Nazis. She and her husband had established an irreplaceable zoo in Warsaw before the war. One of the Nazi leaders, Lutz Heck, happened to be a zoologist and we learn how he removed unique animals from their zoo and took them to Berlin with various degrees of success; saving them and the study he was conducting. His presence also provided a type of shield for the Jewish people she was hiding in cages, sheds, and her villa of which Lutz knew nothing.

The author, Diane Ackerman, was able to write such a well written and worthy of note book because Antonina had kept wonderful diaries of all that was happening during the war. Not only does Ackerman give us a feel as to who Antonina actually was and the compassion she showed to anyone who showed up at her doorstep but also their son, Rys, and what a unique young boy he was growing up to be with all this intrigue happening all around him. It was amazing how he learned to keep hidden all the emotions that went along with their hiding these people from the Nazis. Very early he matured well beyond his young age. Interestingly enough, the author was able to interview him as an adult for this book.

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE provides so much information about the Polish underground, the unique zoo, German officials, Antoninia, people she rescued, the Warsaw ghetto, anti-Semitism, etc. that it can be somewhat confusing at times. It could easily have been written in two books, but even so, it is well worth reading.
Rating: *****

Judy Stanton (08/06/11): The library had this in a special area for its "book club" readers, and the title was familiar so I picked it up. The premise of a family in Poland working in the underground, using their zoological gardens to save hundreds of people from extermination was appealing to me. I agree with Gail that the story could have/should have been riveting if it was written as "historical fiction" rather than a sort of "documentary." Still, I give Diane Ackerman credit for her extensive research and ability to put the reader in the place and time of events. Despite the somewhat "dry" approach, I did get a real sense of how awful it was for the Polish people to live in an occupied country, constantly on edge, afraid for their lives, scared of saying or doing the wrong thing. Several anecdotes demonstrated how often minor chance occurences made the difference between life and death.

Bringing up children during this time was exceptionally challenging, let alone giving birth to a baby. Truly, the Zookeeper's wife was an exceptional human being. The details describing the zoo's animals and the German interest in breeding animals to a Germal ideal was something new to me. A very interesting story.
Rating: ****

Robin Mann: The story is amazing but presented in an odd fashion. I skimmed over a lot of the information that didn't tell the Zabinski's story directly because THAT is what I wanted to know. It was worth reading for the uplifting truth it shows about humanity but not an "easy" read.
Rating: ***

Gail Reid: The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story focuses on Jan and Antonina Zabinski, the zookeepers of the Warsaw zoo during the German occupation of Poland. Among the Righteous Gentiles, the Zabinskis manage to harbor, at one time or another, more than 300 Jews by hiding them in the main house and the animal habitats. Jan uses his connections and status to travel in and out of Warsaw's ghetto smuggling food and goods to the residents. Antonina's empathy for the animals and her caring nature enable her to play a crucial role in the safety of her "guests."

Author Diane Ackerman is a naturalist by training and the best writing in the book is reflected in the descriptions of the animals and forests. This nonfiction work should have been a riveting page-turner. After all, the Zabinskis always seemed to be a mere half-step ahead of the Nazis. The prose is drier than you would expect even though the source of much of the material is derived from Antonina's diary. I appreciated the book more for the subject it covered than the way it was presented.
Rating: ***

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