One of my book groups is reading Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story, and I found it an engrossing read, although I do wonder how much we will find to say about it. We’ll say things like, “wow, that was a great story” and “wasn’t it well-written?” and “can you believe how brave those people were?” and I’m not sure where we will go from there. Maybe I’m wrong, we’ll see, but this book seems to find its power in narrative rather than in ideas, and ideas give you more to say in a discussion.
Anyway, it is a very powerful narrative. The book tells the story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, the zookeeper and the zookeeper’s wife of the title, who are in charge of the Warsaw zoo during World War II. They survive the initial attack on Warsaw by the Germans and then witness the atrocities committed against the Jews in the city, first the imprisonment of the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto and then their transportation to the death camps to be murdered. Jan quickly becomes involved in the Polish resistance movement, taking risks whenever he can to undermine the German forces and to help save people’s lives. Antonina manages their home, which she turns into a underground way station for escaping Jews and other people whose lives were at risk. They often had crowds of people in their home, hiding during the day and moving around only at night. Jan would smuggle people out of the ghetto and bring them to Antonina, who would then hide them and make sure the Germans who frequently patrolled the area never knew they were there. Jan and Antonina — and many other people Ackerman describes — put their lives at risk countless times to help others.
Ackerman herself stays well in the background through most of the book, discussing herself directly only briefly toward the end to describe meeting some of the people involved in the story. Rather than intruding herself into the narrative, she keeps the focus on her subjects, letting them take center stage. This is a wise move, as the story needs no embellishment or authorial commentary and can stand very powerfully on its own.
In addition to telling the story of Jan and Antonina, Ackerman also describes the history of European zoos and the debates that were waged at the time, about, for example, whether animals should be expected to adapt to their new zoo environment as best as they can or whether zookeepers should try to create habitats as close to their natural ones as possible. Ackerman also recounts the fascinating history of Nazi ideas about animals, in particular their attempts to recover extinct breeds of animals that they believed best represented Aryan culture. By back-breeding — mating animals who held traits characteristic of extinct breeds in order eventually to recover those breeds — Nazis hoped to create an animal culture that mirrored their ideal human one. They wanted pure-bred animals, particularly ones like wild horses and bison that demonstrated traits they valued — wildness, ferocity, and courage. Just as they hoped to strip the world of human diversity, so they were devoted to a natural world that reflected their beliefs about racial and genetic purity. It’s an ugly, not to mention unscientific, picture. German scientists took advantage of their access to the Warsaw zoo to help advance their projects, and Jan and Antonina had to see many of their animals killed or carted off to Germany. The story of human suffering the book tells is intensely moving, but animal suffering has its place too, and Ackerman’s descriptions of terrified, confused animals who didn’t understand what was happening to them were hard to read.
Ackerman’s writing is beautiful; it doesn’t draw undue attention to itself, but it does capture the landscapes and people and emotions of the story wonderfully well. I have been planning on reading Ackerman’s Natural History of the Senses at some point, and The Zookeeper’s Wife is confirmation that I should do so as soon as possible.