Diane Ackerman

The Zookeeper's Wife

When I first saw the subtle, ethereal cover of The Zookeeper’s Wife with the words ‘A War Story’ set against a small but startling red background, I assumed this was a novel. And if the intriguing cover was anything to go by, I was willing to wager this would be a thumping good read.

There’s nothing I love more than historical fiction novels where I learn through imaginary characters.  As much as the experiences of the make-believe characters are based on actual happenings, the characters themselves are only fictional.  Call me a wimp but this distinction is a great comfort to me when reading war stories, in particular. When the going gets tough for the characters in which I’ve invariably become invested, the left side of my brain can acknowledge the horrors and hardships as being historically factual while my brain’s more emotional right side takes shelter under the blanket defence of ‘it’s just a story’.

No such luck with The Zookeeper’s Wife, I’m afraid.  This is not a novel but an astonishing work of non-fiction by poet and naturalist, Diane Ackerman, acclaimed author of A Natural History of the Senses. This is a painstakingly researched, highly detailed reconstruction of the real story of Antonina Żabiński, wife of Jan Żabiński, instigator and keeper of the celebrated Warsaw Zoo.

Located in urban Warsaw, this zoo was a standout in European ‘city zoos’ because of the diversity of species and the innovative environments in which the animals were housed, mimicking as much as possible their natural habitats. While Jan is the documented zoological brains of the operation, Antonina is surely his willing accomplice, one who possess a ‘shamanistic empathy’ for animals.  In a diary entry quoted in the first chapter of the book, Jan describes his wife as having, ‘…a precise and very special gift, a way of observing and understanding animals that’s rare…a sixth sense.’ As such, Antonina’s talents are much in demand as the zoo nurse - calming the fractious, treating the sick and injured, and most tellingly, nurturing and protecting orphaned animals.

As the story opens, the white villa in the Warsaw Zoo grounds is not only home to Jan, Antonina and their young son Rhyś but to a menagerie of other critters in various states of repair or development. Alas, this harmonious human/animal kingdom existence was short lived. The invasion of Poland by the Germans in September 1939 brought incessant bombing of Warsaw, resulting in the destruction of the zoo and annihilation of the bulk of the animals.

Almost as soon as the war starts, Jan becomes active in the Polish underground while Antonina keeps the home fires burning at the zoo villa. With their unique approach to human and animal co-existence and the villa’s location amongst what remains of the zoo’s customised animal cages – the Żabiński’s managed to hide more than 300 people from the Nazi’s over the course of the war.

Based on diaries, notes, sermons, memoirs and even media interviews with the Żabiński’s and many of their contemporaries, Ackerman tells this amazing drama through Antonina’s eyes, as if she were a character in her own story. Simultaneously, however, Ackerman keeps the reader firmly rooted in facts.

For example, in one paragraph Ackerman writes as if Antonina is a witness, like a character in a fictional work complete with dialogue and personal observations.  Then in the very next paragraph, the author describes a scene as if it is from the pages of a reference text – ‘As Antonina’s eyes travelled the room, she would have seen fixtures popular during the 1930s, a time when Baltic décor ran from Victorian to Art Deco and modernist…’.

This technique certainly demonstrates the author’s extensive command of her subject matter from every conceivable angle, be it detailed botanic descriptions of diverse flora in a forest to the calorie-count of rations based on ethnicity enforced by the German occupiers of Poland.  (In case you’re interested, German people got 2,613 calories a day, Poles 669 and Jews only184.)

The deftly applied technique of juxtaposing novel-like descriptions with reference text detail makes it impossible for the reader to lapse into the more comfortable refuge of fiction. The Zookeeper’s Wife may read like a novel but it is, in fact, a stark, true account of wartime Warsaw and all its horrors.

I loved this book because of this detail and its strong foundation of facts and eye-witness accounts.  That’s not to say it was a comfortable read for me – far from it. It was excruciating to absorb Antonina’s descriptions of the minute-by-minute terror of being discovered sheltering Jews in wartime Poland when, as Ackerman describes in her author’s note, ‘handing a thirsty Jew a cup of water was punishable by death’.

Likewise, Antonina’s roiling concerns for her son Rhyś who, at a tender age, is thrust into a terrifying, violent and unpredictable world where lives depend on secrets being kept and the places once thought of as ‘safe’ are anything but.

Ackerman’s razor sharp accuracy and detailed descriptions informed me about Poland’s unique situation and subsequent suffering during the war. This is overlaid with the singularly strange environment of the Żabiński’s Warsaw Zoo, where the lines between people and animals are frequently blurred. Jan and Antonina’s pre-war connection with one Lutz Heck, director of the Munich and Berlin Zoos and, paradoxically, a big game hunter who becomes a favourite of Hermann Göring, shines an unexpected and very harsh light on the Nazi’s obsession with racial purity in both humans and beasts.

I thought I’d seen (and read) it all when it came to the systematic barbarism the Nazi’s applied to their quest but through the pages of The Zookeeper’s Wifes we’re introduced to a wider playing field and previously unexplored depths to this depravity.

And now this book has been made into a movie by the same name, starring Jessica Chastain and directed by New Zealander Niki Caro of Whale Rider fame. In researching this post I came across a review by Jacob Soll in the New Republic hailing the film as the first ever feminist Holocaust movie. If Antonina’s voice is as strong and clear in the film as it is in the book, I’d have to agree.



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