Reading Log: The Zookeeper’s Wife (Diane Ackerman)

Zoologist Jan Żabiński created and directed a zoo in Warsaw in the late 1930s. His wife, Antonina, possessed a practically other-worldly talent for connecting with animals and functioned as the human heart and soul of the prominent collection. Then came the German invasion of Poland. Most of the zoo and its inhabitants were destroyed by the bombing, but Jan and Antonina used their connections to keep it open—ostensibly as a pig farm and later as a fur farm—using it as a shelter for persecuted Jews and members of the highly active Polish underground.

Jan became a prominent member of the underground, using his connections as the German appointed Superintendent of Public Parks to smuggle goods and information into the Jewish ghetto and help smuggle information and people back out. Antonina, blessed with the “Aryan” appearance preferred by the Nazis, ran the farm, ultimately sheltering more than 300 “Guests” using the remains of the zoo structures, cages, tunnels and the main villa itself. All this while the farm itself was not just near a major ammunitions depot but also a popular area for recreational carousing (and hunting) by German soldiers.

Diane Ackerman tells the compelling, harrowing story with grace and insight, much of which comes in the form of direct quotes from Antonina’s journals and other source materials. At first I found myself wishing for the freedom of a more fictionalized account. I could certainly imagine an amazing novel based on the very same story. But as the book progressed, I realized this was coming from my instinctual, paradoxical desire to reshape Antonina’s story (she and her story really are the essence of the book) into a familiar, and thus in some way comfortable and comforting, metaphor. Then I could tell myself, as terrible as the events are—and by the end of the war, after the invasion of the Warsaw Ghetto and when only 1/10 of the Jewish population has survived, it had gone beyond description—it was still a fiction, keeping a comfortable barrier between myself and the raw truth. There’s no such relief here.

Though there are many close calls and heroics, what makes this book unforgettable is the constant, ongoing tension. We’ve all read stories of Jews hiding behind false walls or in cellars while Nazis search the house, the fear of being given away by a single cough or the cry of an infant. In The Zookeeper’s Wife, this is a constant state of affairs on a larger stage. Life goes on and—in a testament to something instinctual in the human animal—little happinesses remain where they can be found or forged…but everyone at the zoo lives in a constant fear of discovery. The ironic tune they play on the piano to warn the “Guests” to hide themselves—a subversive tune from a farcical opera by a Jewish composer—is emblematic of the knife’s edge upon which they constantly balance.

Ackerman (mostly) deftly works in what must be most of a lifetime’s worth of research. Subthreads abound within the tapestry of the main narrative, including the fascinating and horrifying story of the Nazi attempt to “back-breed” extinct varieties of horse, bison and other animals through selective breeding of the best (closest in appearance to the extinct species) specimens…a misnomered attempt at “resurrection” that is also treated not as a source for metaphor but as something that is ultimately, in terms of the natural world, a kind of blip with what turns out to have many ironic consequences.

I was drawn to this book by the shallowest of its features: the image of the destruction of the zoo and its most exotic animals scattering through and settling about the war torn city. But that turned out to be just the beginning—and the only reasonably metaphorical representation—of a much more compelling tale of civilization and savagery…and the manner in which humans and the natural world are a hopeful and tormenting salve for, and scourge on, one another.

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