The Zookeeper’s Wife

Diane Ackerman is an excellent writer who writes with intimacy about human and animal behavior. Her novel The Zookeeper’s Wife transforms the reader into an observer of a world we have all heard of but few of us have viewed through more than a foggy peephole. Based largely on the diary and loose notes of Antonia Zabinska, the wife of the Polish zookeeper of the Warsaw Zoo from 1929 until the Nazi invasion of Warsaw in 1939; it relays the story of Christian Poles who fought in the resistance against the Nazis.
During a time when the Nazis occupied Poland seeking to eliminate all traces of its culture and annihilate upwards of 500,000 of its inhabitants, resistance was prevalent. “The Polish Underground in Warsaw, [] fielded 70,000 fighters in 1944” (173) and was responsible for sabotaging many German efforts to murder the Jewish population. At a time when being caught hiding a Jew was punishable not only by immediate death, but the murder of ones entire family, countless Polish Christians defied the Nazis, helping save thousands of lives. It is estimated that there was upward of 28,000 Jews in hiding in 1944 and “70,000- 90,000 people who were helping them”. (173) Ms. Ackerman relays the story of one family, the Zabinskis and their participation in the Polish Underground and concealment of over three hundred Jews in the Warsaw Zoo.

Through the use of her personal writing Ms. Ackerman describes Antonia’s life in Warsaw throughout the war. The story is told often through the thoughts and observation Antonia wrote down. Her words are entwined with the meticulous research that Ms. Ackerman conducted on all things conveyed within the story. What is captured vividly is an unwavering force of opposition by the educated classes in whose circles Jan and Antonia were a part of. In an intellectually inspired spirit the people described in this story, whether university educated or simply morally offended, go through the motions necessary to help Jews, defying the laws of their German oppressors. The story shows a sense of automatic moral obligation by those who participated, in varying degrees, to the salvaging of Jewish lives. The action of these heroes is tangible in the resolute way they conduct their lives, during the war, while seamlessly including the saving of lives.

Told from a point of view that is often overlooked in Holocaust accounts Ms. Ackerman captures the innate good in humans. Through her research of history, customs, folklore, religion and traditions Ms. Ackerman writes a flattering portrayal of Poland and its people before and during WWII.

Here is a review by Susie Linfield:

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