Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman *Review*

Jan and Antonina Zabinski were Polish Christian zookeepers horrified by Nazi racism, who managed to save over three hundred people. Yet their story has fallen between the seams of history. Drawing on Antonina's diary and other historical sources the author recreate Antonina's life as "the zookeeper's wife," responsible for her own family, the zoo animals and her "Guests"- resistance activists and refugee Jews, many of whom Jan had smuggled from the Warsaw Ghetto. Ironically, the empty zoo cages helped to hide scores of doomed people, who were code-named after the animals whose cages they occupied.

The Zookeeper's Wife is a true story of a Polish family who were involved in an underground effort to hide Jews from the Warsaw ghetto during their escape from the Nazi Germans.

Jan, Antonina and their son Rhys ran and lived at the zoo. They loved their animals and took good care of them. During the holocaust the zoo was shut down and the animals were transported to other zoos around the country.

Jan was the head manager of the zoo who had to find another job when the zoo closed. His job on the outside brought him in close proximity to the Warsaw ghetto and he is single-handedly responsible for transporting hundreds of Jews out of the prison that was their former home.

Antonina had to be on constant alert in the villa they lived in. Any knock on the door could mean detection of the Jews she has harboring or death for her and her family for abetting their escape. Because of her background caring for animals and learning their subtle cues and behaviors she became adept at reading homo sapiens as well. When suspicion was aroused she easily deflected it, coming up with an alibi or excuse that was easily accepted by the German's living in a camp based literally right outside the fence of the zoo. What daring and bravery it took to run this underground movement right under their noses!

Rhys, their young son, was a smart boy who never questioned the appearance or disappearance of various "guests". Often bringing plates of food to the "animals", (families who were given animal names like the Sables, the Mink, or the Badgers depending on which cage or house of the zoo they lived in) he kept their living their a secret.

I was interested in this book because of it's very different spin on the horror of the Holocaust. They German's were so anti-Jew and anti-Polish that not only did they want to eliminate all their people, but their culture, plants and animals as well because they were not considered pure enough.

The descriptions of trying to breed backward a purer horse to get back to more ancient genes instead of one that had been bred with Polish horses was fascinating. Ripping up beautiful rose gardens within the zoo because they were Polish hybrids was too small-minded for me to understand.

With language woven so poetically throughout the book, Diane Ackerman weaves a tale that seems too unbelievable to be true, but one that really hit me in the gut. A fantastic non-fiction find!

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