The Zoo Keepers Wife: A review of The zookeeper’s wife by Diane Ackerman
The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman is a non fictional account of Antonina Zabinski, the wife of the director of the Warsaw Zoo, during the invasion of Poland and WWII. The work tells the true story of Antonina Zabinski, her husband, and her family as they tried to survive the horrors of Nazi invasion and occupation. The book also details the heroic endeavors of her husband, Jan, as he worked for the underground Polish resistance to save the lives of Jews and other Warsaw citizens. In the backdrop of these human stories, however, is the poignant circumstances and fate of the zoo’s animals which also comprise this extraordinarily haunting tale.
Ackerman has written a captivating account of wartime Warsaw as seen through the eyes of two animal lovers—the Zabinski zookeepers. The suspense of the situation reads, at times, like a mystery or spy novel, but its truth is all the more compelling. Ackerman expertly weaves Antonina’s diary excerpts into the narrative to reveal a sensitive woman utterly devoted to her sense of right. Risking the lives of their family (the couple had one young son and later a daughter who was born toward the end of the war), the Zabinskis hid and cared for upwards of three hundred Jews who had escaped the Warsaw Ghetto which was eventually liquidated by the Nazis. The Zabinskis harbored these friends and strangers in their villa as well as within the zoo grounds. Jewish refugees on the run were often obliged to sleep within the cages of dead animals.
The animals themselves faced disastrous fates. Many were killed during the German bombing of Warsaw. Later the director of the Berlin Zoo visited and took many of the Warsaw Zoo animals that had particular importance such as the lynx cubs that were bottle fed by Antonina herself who was reputed to have a unique way with the animals. Throughout the war, however, even as the zoo fell apart and morphed into other venues headed by Jan Zabinski (such as a pig farm), the Zabinskis took in various animals which became family members in much the same way that the hiding humans did as well.
This book, while praised in many quarters, was sometimes given rebuking reviews for its myriad of tangents. Ackerman often deviated in her discussion to provide more background information about an occurrence in the book. For example, Ackerman goes into considerable depth about the Berlin Zookeeper who essentially stole animals from the Warsaw Zoo that he then kept for his own zoo or other zoos he was connected to. His position as a Nazi, however, was a riveting story in itself and had great significance for the larger story surrounding the Zabinski’s horrific experience. In short, these tangents were full of useful and compelling information that help to make this work well-rounded and well-researched.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is an important story and Ackerman tells it in an exquisite manner that gets to the heart of Warsaw during WWII. It brilliantly demonstrates the best qualities of humanity while contrasting them vividly with the savage nature of many of the city’s invaders. It is a memorable story of an unforgettable time in history.
A film based on the zoo keepers wife is currently in pre-production.
A documentary / short film was produced in 2009 and you can watch it online at IMDB: Safe Haven: The Warsaw Zoo
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