Jan Zabinski, the innovative director of the Warsaw Zoo, and Antonina, his empathic wife, lived joyfully on the zoo grounds during the 1930s with their young son, Ryszard (Polish for lynx), and a menagerie of animals needing special attention. The zoo was badly damaged by the Nazi blitzkrieg, and their bit of paradise would have been utterly destroyed but for the director of the Berlin Zoo, Lutz Heck, who wanted Jan's help in resurrecting extinct "pure-blooded species" in pursuit of Aryan perfection in the animal kingdom. Resourceful and courageous, the Zabinskis turned the decimated zoo into a refuge and saved the lives of several hundred imperiled Jews. Ackerman has written many stellar works, including A Natural History of the Senses (1990) and An Alchemy of Mind (2004), but this is the book she was born to write. Sharing the Zabinskis' knowledge of and reverence for the natural world and drawing on her poet's gift for dazzling metaphor, she captures with breathtaking precision and discernment our kinship with animals, the barbarity of war, Antonina's unbounded kindness and keen delight in "life's sensory bazaar," Jan's daring work with the Polish Underground, and the audacity of the Zabinskis' mission of mercy. An exemplary work of scholarship and an "ecstasy of imagining," Ackerman's affecting telling of the heroic Zabinskis' dramatic story illuminates the profound connection between humankind and nature, and celebrates life's beauty, mystery, and tenacity. (Booklist - starred review)
The 1939 Nazi bombing of Warsaw left its beloved zoo in ruins with many of its animals killed or wounded. Worse was to come when Berlin zoo director Lutz Heck had surviving rare species shipped back to Germany as part of a Nazi breeding program and held a New Year's Eve hunting party for German officers to finish off the remaining animals. Witnessing this horror was the zookeeper's wife, who wondered, as she recalled later in her memoirs, how many humans would die in the same manner in the coming months. As Antonina Zabinski and her husband, Jan, soon learned, the Nazis had targeted Poland's large Jewish population for extermination, and the couple, who were already supplying food to friends in the Warsaw Ghetto, pledged to help more Jews. And help they did. Ackerman's (A Natural History of the Senses ) moving and eloquent narrative reveals how the zookeepers, with the aid of the Polish underground, boldly smuggled some 300 Jews out of the Ghetto and hid them in their villa and the zoo's empty cages. Based on Antonina's own memoirs and newspaper interviews, as well as Ackerman's own research in Poland, the result is an exciting and unforgettable portrait of courage and grace under fire. While some critics might feel she glosses over Polish anti-Semitism, Ackerman has done an invaluable service in bringing a little-known story of heroism and compassion to light. Highly recommended (Library Journal)
Ackerman (A Natural History of the Senses ) tells the remarkable WWII story of Jan Zabinski, the director of the Warsaw Zoo, and his wife, Antonina, who, with courage and coolheaded ingenuity, sheltered 300 Jews as well as Polish resisters in their villa and in animal cages and sheds. Using Antonina's diaries, other contemporary sources and her own research in Poland, Ackerman takes us into the Warsaw ghetto and the 1943 Jewish uprising and also describes the Poles' revolt against the Nazi occupiers in 1944. She introduces us to such varied figures as Lutz Heck, the duplicitous head of the Berlin zoo; Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, spiritual head of the ghetto; and the leaders of Zegota, the Polish organization that rescued Jews. Ackerman reveals other rescuers, like Dr. Mada Walter, who helped many Jews "pass," giving "lessons on how to appear Aryan and not attract notice." Ackerman's writing is viscerally evocative, as in her description of the effects of the German bombing of the zoo area: "...the sky broke open and whistling fire hurtled down, cages exploded, moats rained upward, iron bars squealed as they wrenched apart." This suspenseful beautifully crafted story deserves a wide readership. Publishers Weekly
There were 380,000 Jews in Warsaw on the eve of World War II. Most did not survive the Holocaust. The director of the Warsaw Zoo and his wife were responsible for saving about 300. Why then write about them? Can 300 mean anything when hundreds of thousands died? Certainly any such act of wartime courage is worth recording, but Jan and Antonina Zabinski's work was distinctive. The Nazis dehumanized the Jews; the Zabinskis hid them in animal cages. The Nazis behaved like beasts; the zookeepers, who were experienced with dangerous animals, threw them off the scent with subterfuge and lies. The Zabinskis' effort was not just merciful, it was human in the deepest sense of the word.
In her poignant new book, Diane Ackerman, the noted nature writer, focuses on Antonina, the ''zookeeper's wife'' of the title. But her husband, Jan, lived the more dramatic life. He was a lieutenant in the clandestine Polish Army and a professor in Warsaw's secret university. He smuggled Jews out of the Warsaw Ghetto to the zoo. But once there it was up to Antonina to safeguard them: to find them room and food, to keep their spirits up, and most of all to hide them from the Nazis.
''The Zookeeper's Wife'' proceeds chronologically, starting before the war, when the Warsaw Zoo was as esteemed as any in Europe. Soon the Nazis destroyed the zoo with bombs and guns. Led by the criminal zoologist Lutz Heck, they carted off the best animals for their own collections. Then Heck and the SS held a shooting festival on New Year's Eve, 1939, to finish the job. Their brutality at the zoo foretold their brutality in the war, as Antonina intuited in her diary, which Ackerman draws on heavily for her book. ''How many humans will die like this in the coming months?'' Antonina asks herself, watching the Nazi shooting spree.
Soon after they captured Warsaw, the Nazis turned their attention to its Jews, first rounding them up into the ghetto, then shipping them to extermination camps. While the Nazis depopulated the ghetto, the Zabinskis repopulated the zoo -- this time with humans. The Nazis had allowed Jan to turn the zoo into a pig farm. So Jan and his staff had reason to enter the ghetto to pick up unused scraps to feed the animals. They brought in tref -- nonkosher food -- and smuggled out people. More contacts ensued; more pretexts to go into the ghetto; more Jews safeguarded. The Zabinskis hid Jews in sheds, enclosures and even the lion house. Those who had papers or Gentile looks were passed via the underground to other parts of Poland. The rest stayed.
Antonina's own looks helped allay suspicion. Fair and tall, she looked ''like a Valkyrie at rest,'' Ackerman writes. She also had a unique gift, ''a nearly shamanistic empathy when it came to animals.'' Antonina ''loved to slip out of her human skin for a while and spy on the world through each animal's eyes.'' Ackerman's chronicling of this ''slippage of the self'' forms the freshest part of this book. For Antonina, animal and human formed a continuum. Each of her ''guests'' was given an animal code name. The distinguished sculptor Magdalena Gross, for instance, was called ''starling'' because Antonina ''pictured her 'flying from nest to nest' to avoid capture.'' To cheer up her residents, Antonina stocked her ''animal republic'' with a rabbit named Wicek and a chicken named Jacob and a pet badger who uses Antonina's son's potty. ''This house is totally crazy,'' one mystified resident complains. ''You use animal names for people and people's names for animals!''
To fend off cuteness -- Herriot's Heroes -- Ackerman returns often to the carnage outside the zoo's gates: the routine murder of children, Himmler's determination to destroy every stone in the ghetto as a birthday present for the Fuhrer, the firebombing of entire cities. In 1943, the Allies turned the tide and began driving the Nazis back. The Polish Army rose up in rebellion as the Russian Army, fox-like, waited for the Germans and the Poles to fight to the death. Then they moved in. The zoo reopened in 1949 -- with some of its old animals but without its old vigor, and with Stalinism casting a new pall over the grounds. Two years later, Jan resigned as director.
At her lowest moment during the war, Antonina wonders whether the horrible period she was enduring wasn't ''a sort of hibernation of the spirit, when ideas, knowledge, science, enthusiasm for work, understanding and love -- all accumulate inside'' where ''nobody can take them from us.'' Her dream of a Warsaw spring -- and a reborn zoo -- would come true after the fall of Communism, though she wouldn't live to see it; she died in 1971. Nature is patient, people and animals fundamentally decent, and the writer, as she always does, outlives the killer -- that is the message of ''The Zookeeper's Wife.'' This is an absorbing book, diminished sometimes by the choppy way Ackerman balances Antonina's account with the larger story of the Warsaw Holocaust. For me, the more interesting story is Antonina's. She was not, as her husband once called her, ''a housewife,'' but the alpha female in a unique menagerie. I would gladly read another book, perhaps a novel, based again on Antonina's writings. She was special, and as the remaining members of her generation die off, a voice like hers should not be allowed to fade into the silence. (Source: Max, D.T. "Antonina's List." The New York Times Book Review)