The Zookeeper’s Wife, by Diane Ackerman
Reviewed by Paul Liptz
“Jan and Antonina Zabinski were Christian zookeepers horrified by Nazi racism, who capitalized on the Nazis’ obsession with rare animals in order to save over three hundred doomed people. Their story has fallen between the seams of history, as radically compassionate acts sometimes do. But in wartime Poland, when even handing a thirsty Jew a cup of water was punishable by death, their heroism stands out as all the more startling.” Thus commences the remarkable book by Diane Ackerman, “The Zookeeper’s Wife.”
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” forces the reader to re-evaluate earlier impressions of Poles as the epitome of evil, as Jan and Antonina risk their lives on a daily basis to help Jews imprisoned in the devastatingly oppressive Warsaw Ghetto. Jan, a lieutenant in the Polish clandestine Home Army, appears and disappears throughout the book, involved in building bombs, derailing trains and poisoning pork sandwiches headed for the German canteen. His wife, Antonina, is mostly at their villa in the zoo, caring for, and worrying about the ongoing stream of ‘guests’ who managed to creep out of the ghetto. Through her sensitive personality we experience both her fears and hopes.
The drama moves through several sites. Ackerman leads the reader to the Berlin zoo, the Polish countryside, inside the ghetto and through the tragic 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the disastrous 1944 Polish uprising, Russian soldiers entering Warsaw in 1945 and a glimpse of the Jews who survived because of the amazing activities of Jan, Antonina and other Poles. One of the most unusual aspects of the book is the other setting — the zoo. At one moment the reader is in an idyllic ambiance and in another is thrown into the depths of Nazi barbarity. We are told that cows couldn’t be inseminated by Jewish-owned bulls and yet under the Third Reich “animals became noble, mythic, almost angelic – including humans, of course, but not Slavs, Gypsies, Catholics, or Jews.”
As someone who has delved into the intricacies of the Holocaust and visited the memorials and museums of Central and Eastern Europe, I sometimes question the value of reading yet another book on the topic. However, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” draws one to new emotions. As with “The Diary of Anne Frank,” it is the mundaneness of the Holocaust reality that is so poignant. The constant reference to domestic animals reminded me of Rudolf Hoess, the Auschwitz commander and his affection for dogs in contrast to how Jan and Antonina love their animals in the purest of ways. The random killing of the zoo animals gnaws into one’s very essence.
At times in reading the book, I yearned for more analysis and recognition of confusion and contradiction. Too many Poles, and almost all the Home Army, appear unblemished. In the ghetto itself, the picture is inadequately nuanced and even among the 300 ‘guests’ in the war-torn zoo, few of them come adequately alive. A clear exception to this is the “short dark, Jewish Magdalena (Gross) who vibrated with energy” and whose sculptures played a significant role in the Polish art world.
I’ll view Warsaw differently on my next visit. Each time I am there, I perceive a new reality, as it is no longer mournful but vibrant. It is now a thriving city and the Jews are developing exciting community institutions and interacting in meaningful ways with the wider society. The fascinating Warsaw Uprising (1944) Museum and The Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw (to be completed in 2012) will hopefully ensure that the past will not be forgotten and that we can feel more confident about the future.
Paul Liptz was on the faculty of Tel Aviv University for 35 years. He continues to lecture in Jerusalem and around the world.