The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story by Diane Ackerman is a nonfiction book about Antonina, the zookeeper’s wife; Jan, the zookeeper; and Rys, the zookeepers’ son. Diane Ackerman does thorough research for this book – the majority of the information comes from Antonina’s memoirs, other information or details came from interviews with people who knew her or neighbors who lived nearby, some came from interviews that Jan and Antonina did after the war was over about their efforts at the zoo. The author provides sources and additional details in the back of the book for readers who want to dig a little more into the heroism of this family. The story begins in the summer of 1935 at a zoo in Warsaw, Poland; Antonina and Jan Zabinski lived in a villa on the property.
The author begins by giving a brief summary of Antonina’s and Jan’s childhoods, their history with and love of animals, how they met and became zookeepers in Warsaw, Poland. Jan was a researcher who studied many different creatures and Antonina always loved animals and also had the gift of being able to soothe or calm the most unruly animals. As zookeepers, they lived with many types of animals and there were usually some baby animals in need of care that Antonina would keep at the villa until they were able to be returned to their habitat. Jan is described as being good with animals and very knowledgeable in his field of research. Antonina is described as having a way of really empathizing with the animals to the point of almost becoming one herself – that she would really try to think in the same way the animals would and react accordingly. The zoo and villa was a blend of human and animal noises, sounds and smells; it was also described as a peaceful place.
Jan and Antonina were highly respected zookeepers in their circle of friends and other zookeepers – many admired them, their work with the Warsaw zoo and of notable mention was their habitats which they worked really hard to provide the animals with a habitat as close to their own as humanly possible. Many spoke highly of the quality of care they provided to the animals in their zoo and how they cultivated a zoo that all citizens of Warsaw and Poland can be proud of. Eventually, Jan and Antonina had a baby boy named Rys meaning lynx. As Germany was on the move, many people did not believe it could be true or come to Poland; however, with Germany and Russia “working together”, the Polish armed forces didn’t stand a chance and Poland soon surrendered to Germany. Hitler wasted no time moving soldiers in. Jewish Poles were ripped from their homes and businesses to be moved into ghettos, some were sent to labor camps and others faced death camps.
The Zabinskis hear of the terrible things happening to Jews – many of them friends of the Zabinskis – and feel compelled to help. They are informed that Germany will be taking their best animals from the zoo and moving them to the Munich Zoo – they shot most of the animals they didn’t want to keep. The next step the Zabinskis take is to ask a friend of theirs, now zookeeper of the Munich zoo for Hitler, Herr Heck, if they can turn the zoo into a pig farm to help feed the German soldiers. Herr Heck is able to get this cleared so Jan and Antonina get to work changing the zoo into a pig farm. The pig farm will use food scraps from the Jewish ghettos as food; by doing this, Jan is able to help Jews escape the ghetto and move into safe houses within the resistance network that Jan was a part of. The Zabinskis have embarked on a daring, kind, dangerous, ambitious and life-changing mission to transform and help as many Jews flee as possible for as long as possible without putting people in danger.
The family helps numerous Jewish families and individuals escape with their lives despite some close calls like when Rys, as an older young teenager (maybe 13, I think), decides to bomb a German asset, but luckily his parents are alerted to his plans by someone in the villa who overheard them and they are able to stop him from going through with it. The number of lives it would have endangered, including Rys’ own life, is innumerable. During this difficult and trying time, Antonina gets pregnant and gives birth to her and Jan’s second child – a girl – named Teresa. They do manage to keep some animals around during the Nazi occupation of Poland which helps to keep Rys busy and his mind off of the war going on around him.
Towards the end of the war, Jan gets captured as a prisoner of war while Antonina, the kids and all of their guests have to flee the zoo because it becomes too dangerous for them to remain there. Many Poles in hiding moved out to safe houses in the country. Antonina and the children are given shelter at an elderly couple’s home through the end of the occupation and defeat of Nazi Germany by allied forces. Antonina, worried about Jan, used the network of people in the resistance to attempt to find out where he is and if he is ok. After a few weeks, she received a postcard from him with a self-portrait Jan drew to communicate his condition to her. Antonina is relieved to find out he is alive, but concerned for his condition, health and what he’s going through.
After the war ends, Antonina and the kids return to the zoo and villa – both in need of numerous repairs – and begin rebuilding; not long after their return, Jan returned to the villa as well. The Zabinskis saved over 300 Jews during the Nazi invasion of Poland and out of all of the Jews they helped, only two were murdered; that’s no small feat and saving 298 human lives is something to be proud of. Antonina and Jan appeared in TV interviews after the war detailing their heroic deeds and Antonina wrote her memoirs. More recently, Rys travelled with the author to Poland to visit some of the locations mentioned in the book and it is obvious that it is still difficult for Rys to be back there.
When I first started reading this book, I thought it was an historical fiction novel – I had a very hard time getting going and put the book down for… well, years (possibly 2-3 or more). Finally, after some encouragement from my daughter and my dislike for unfinished things – especially books – I decided to re-tackle reading it, but with the understanding or realization that it is a nonfiction book. The second time reading it went much easier and faster; I read the book and enjoyed it. It’s clear the author did a lot of research to tell this incredible story of bravery, compassion, survival and what can happen when good people decide to act on their desire to help. To fight back against injustice, prejudice and evil whenever and wherever they show up. I recommend this book to any readers who enjoy any and all things history; any and all things WWII and/or reading nonfiction books. I purchased my copy of this book at a used bookstore, but I’m sure most public libraries have a copy that you can checkout if there is no used bookstore near you and you don’t wish to buy a new one. If you’re interested in purchasing a new copy of the book, Barnes and Noble is selling hardcovers for $26.95.
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