” One of the most remarkable things about Antonina was her determination to include play, animals, wonder, curiosity, marvel and a wide blaze of innocence in a household where all dodged the ambient dangers, horrors, and uncertainties. ” (Ch.18, p.166)
The Zookeeper’s Wife is a true story of human resiliency and empathy during World War Two in Poland. It begins in mid 1930s, when Poland was the heartbeat of eastern European Jewish culture. Jon and Antonina, then a young couple, were directors of the Warsaw Zoo, which housed animals only only in cages but in their living space such that there was no conventional boundary between humans and animals. The Zabinskis also host artists and intellectuals who congregate the villa like a bohemian cafe.
But as zookeepers, the Zabinskis understood both vigilance and predators; in a swamp of vipers, one planned every footstep. Shaped by the gravity of wartime, it wasn’t always clear who or what could be considered outside or inside, loyal or turncoat, predator or prey. (Ch.28, p.242)
When Nazi bombarded Warsaw in 1939 and ruined the zoo, the Zabinskis joined resistance effort. They smuggled food into the Warsaw Ghetto of Jews, which was later ravaged by tuberculosis, dysentery and famine in such a way to give the Nazi an excuse to annihilate it altogether. They also used the zoo as an arm cache. Although the zoo was by no means ideal for hiding refugees, consider the setting being so heavy tread and exposed to public view, the Zabinskis managed to capitalize on the Nazis’ obsession with rare animals in order to save over 300 doomed people. Antonina was sensitive and high-strung, but very good with animals. She wasn’t involved in politics or war, and was timid, and yet despite that she played a major role in saving others and never complained about the danger.
The best camouflage for people is more people, so the Zebinskis invited a stream of legal visitors . . . and established a regular unpredictability, a routine of changing faces, physiques, and accents, with Jan’s mother a frequent guest. (Ch.14, p.115)
Ackerman’s descriptive prose evinces not only the horror of Jewish Holocaust but also the profound connection between humankind and nature. Her attentiveness to details of nature and animal could be a bane or a boon. She tends to elaborate on the natural habitat in which the fateful humans and animals co-exist. The expectation that the book is an intriguing melodrama of how Jews hid in the cages and escaped the Nazi horror might have brought the slew of negative reviews. Even the publisher markets this book with heroism being the gimmick. But if one looks beyond this shallow expectation, there’s beauty to be found.
The focus of The Zookeeper’s Wife is not so much the survival by deceptive tricks as life’s beauty, mystery, and tenacity. Ackerman after all is a naturalist and poet, who can tell the Zabinski story with a fresh perspective. It tells the frightening tale of how the Nazis’ obsession with dominating nations and purifying breed go so far as to alter world’s ecosystems and nature.
368 pp. W.W. Norton. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]