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Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Zookeeper's Wife

Ackerman, Diane. The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story. Jan and Antonina Zabinski lived in a villa on the grounds of the Warsaw Zoo; Jan had become director in 1929, and when he and Antonina were married in 1931, they both devoted themselves to the zoo. For several years, the couple enjoyed their unique association with the zoo animals, and Jan worked at creating "an innovative zoo of world importance at the heart of Warsaw's life, both social and cultural..."

Antonina, with her unusual sensitivity to the zoo animals, was as much a part of the zoo's success as Jan, as deeply in love with its inhabitants, and as actively involved in promotion of its beauty and opportunities. In August of 1939, however, the threat of invasion presaged the end of their comfortable life of serving and caring for their beloved animals. And then, with terrible swiftness, their zoo was decimated by the Nazi regime.

This is the story of the German invasion and occupation of Poland and of the terrible events that ensued, including the confining of the Jewish population in the Warsaw Ghetto, the eventual transportation of the the surviving Jews to concentration camps, the final destruction of the Ghetto, the destruction of Warsaw...and the personal efforts of both the Polish resistance and courageous individuals in rescuing and harboring as many Jews as they could. More specifically, this book is the story of the "Guests" that Jan and Antonina hid in their home and on the zoo grounds at the risk of their own lives.

It is a terrible and wonderful story of real people and quiet courage. In an earlier post, I discussed the book and gave some links that provide background to the entire Warsaw story.

Ackerman has done a fine job in bringing to light the role the Warsaw zoo and Jan and Antonina Zabinski played in saving the lives of over 300 Jews. Relying on extensive research and on Antonina's diaries, Ackerman often digresses, but she never plays on your emotions in her presentation of events. Liberated in 1945, Warsaw's pre-war population of "one hundred and a half million people" was estimated in early 1946 at "half a million at most"--with "living space for a tenth that number," according to Dr. Joseph Tenenbaum. One million Poles and Polish Jews dead or, in a small percentage of cases, successfully escaped from the city to safety elsewhere. Hard to imagine.

Endangered Species: Jews and Buffaloes. An excellent article relating the terrible effect of the invasion on the zoo animals, the plundering of the rare animals by Lutz Heck, Natzi attempts at genetic engineering to "reconstruct" extinct animals, the new purpose of the zoo as a shelter and escape route for Jews, and more.

Nonfiction. Biography/ history. 2007. W.W. Norton & Co. 323 pages.

Another review can be found at CaribousMom.

18 comments:

Literary Feline said...

Great review, Jenclair! This does sound like a worthwhile book to read. I have added it to my wishlist.

Susan said...

This one is sitting on my bookshelf waiting for me - I can't wait to read it. Thanks for the review.

Sam Houston said...

I saw Diane Ackerman's talk from the National Book Festival on Book TV Saturday and the book sounds very interesting...another for my list.

Thanks for the review.

Gentle Reader said...

Great review! This is one of those books I keep hearing about lately. Really sounds interesting--going on my list--thanks!

Dorothy W. said...

Ackerman is most definitely someone I need to read! She finds the most interesting things to write about.

Booklogged said...

I was hoping you'd have positive things to say about this book.

Bookfool said...

Oh, wow, that sounds fascinating. I missed your earlier post so I was watching for comments about whether this was fiction or memoir. I love reading WWII memoirs, harrowing as they can be. Thanks, Jenclair! Another one for the wish list.

Bookfool said...

I just said memoir and then rethought that. Biography, not memoir, would be the right word. In your opinion, did the fact that it was written about the zookeepers rather than by them detract from the story in any way?

jenclair said...

L.F. -- Ackerman has a fascinating subject to work with...definitely worthwhile.

Susan -- Hope you find it as interesting as it did!

Sam -- I'm sorry I missed it as it would be nice to hear Ackerman's personal comments.

G. R. -- Yes, I read a wonderful review by D.T. Max early in September and had to order the book. Since then I've seen a number of positive reviews.

jenclair said...

Dorothy -- Ackerman does find interesting subjects, doesn't she? Her own connection to both flora and fauna must have drawn her to Antonina immediately.

Booklogged -- For anyone with an interest in WWII, this one should be on the list!

Bookfool -- Cheya, I think you'll really appreciate this one. Ackerman used Antonina's diaries, but expanded her research to cover much more. Does it detract from the story that it was about them rather than by them? I'm not sure. I found myself wanting a look at a translation of the diary, and also, since Antonina went on to write children's books, it would have been a huge bonus if she'd written her own version of her life.

SuziQoregon said...

Glad I came back and checked - I thought I'd posted a comment here on Sunday, but it looks like it didn't go through.

Great review of what sounds like a fascinating book. When I got to your comment "It is a terrible and wonderful story of real people and quiet courage." I had to stop and add it to my TBR list.

Bookfool said...

Thank you!! Good to know. I can see myself yearning to read the diaries, but if that's the case, it usually means you're engaged enough to want more, right? So, that's good. I'll add it to my never-ending wish brick.

Maggie said...

I'm reading it this weekend! Can't wait! :D

Lotus Reads said...

Thank you for this excellent review, Jenclair and for the link to the article. I had meant to start the book last week but was swamped with work, so I have had to put it off for the time being. As I type this it looks forlornly at me from the bookshelf!

jenclair said...

SuziQ- It is one of those stories in which courage is a requirement, an everyday necessity. You'll like it, I think.

Bookfool -- Exactly, "engaged enough to want more" describes the feeling of wanting to know what Ackerman chose to leave out. And I'd like to read more about the Polish Resistance movement as well.

Maggie -- I hope you like it, Maggie! I look forward to your review.

Lotus -- :) I know what you mean; sometimes I feel like turning the books around so that I can't see their titles and feel chastised!

danielle said...

I'm waiting for a copy of this from the library! Thanks for the review--it makes me want to read it now rather than waiting!

Melissa said...

Great review. I wonder if I can get this in audio? I'm just finishing up on Alex Webster and The Gods. A lively, joyful updating of mythology. Can't wait to finish it.

Wendy said...

Well-written review! I finished this earlier in the week and agree with you - beautiful and horrible at the same time. If you're interested, my review is here.