The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

I read The Zookeeper’s Wife back in 2008 and wrote about it on Semicolon. Since the book is set to become a movie at the end of March, here are my thoughts on the book at the time I read it.

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Jan Zabinski was the Polish director of the Warsaw Zoo in 1939 when the Nazis invaded and subjugated Poland. His wife, Antonina, was his helpmate in runing the zoo and the mother of a young son. During the German occupation, she gave birth to a daughter as well.

This nonfiction book tells the story of how Jan and Antonina worked with the Polish Underground to hide Jews, stockpile arms and ammunition, eventually participate in the doomed Uprising of August 1944 when the Russians halted outside Warsaw and allowed the Germans to destroy the Polish Underground that had come out of hiding to support the Allies in re-taking Poland and driving the Nazis out. A lot of the story tells about the animals in the zoo and what happened to them and how Antonina survived pregnancy-related illnesses, inadequate rations, and providing secret hospitality for fifty to seventy people at any given time throughout the course of the war and the German occupation.

Something about the way the story was told made me admire these people, but not like them very much. I’m not sure what I didn’t like, but I felt uncomfortable in their company. Jan seemed very controlling, and Antonina like a wife making excuses for an authoritarian husband. Maybe that’s not the way it was at all since Ms. Ackerman derives her story from written accounts, Antonina’s diary mostly, and from interviews with people who knew the Zabinskis during the war. Both Jan and Antonina Zabinski died before this book was conceived. Their son, Rys, did contribute his memories of a childhood filled with animals and with war.

I don’t know. I’m ambivalent. If you like nonfiction about animals and and about World War II, you should try it out.

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1 thought on “The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

  1. I have read the Zookeeper’s Wife within the last week and yes, I agree about Jan although Antonina seemed warmer. I don’t know how she managed to keep everything together with all the illness, shortages and difficulties.
    The book was rather discursive and seemed to keep going off at a tangent.
    It certainly wasn’t my favourite book about hiding Jews in Second World War Europe. Th,e non-fictional, Hiding Place or the fictional children’s book, Number the Stars, would have to have that place.

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