"The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story"
W.W. Norton: 368 pp., $24.95
History is a loosely knotted net, through which many lives and stories are
lost. Jan Zabinski, the director of the Warsaw Zoo, and his wife, Antonina,
saved the lives of more than 300 imperiled Jews, but the zookeeper and his wife
fell through gaps in the chronicles of Nazi-besieged Poland. They are now
reclaimed by poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman in "The Zookeeper's Wife," a
stunning tale of war and sanctuary.
Jan was an ambitious zoologist with a "grand vision" for Warsaw's 5-year-old zoo when he and Antonina (who was 11 years his junior) married in 1931. She possessed a preternaturally empathic sense of animal life. Able to "slip out of her human skin" and enter the minds of other creatures, Antonina could perceive the world from the animals' points of view and understand their fears. Not only could she soothe agitated or depressed animals of all shapes and sizes, she also discerned a mutual yearning for communication and companionship between humans and other species. As the curtain rises on this riveting slice of recovered history, Antonina, the imaginary love child of Doctor Dolittle and Jane Goodall, is looking after two baby lynxes, a wolf cub, a "sociable badger," a red deer fawn and her toddler son. Life is blissfully demanding in the lushly wooded and flowery zoo, which in 1939 is simply "magnificent." And doomed.
German bombers fill the sky above Warsaw on the first day of school in that fateful September, and in a matter of hours, everything changes. Located on the Vistula River, the zoo comes under heavy bombardment. As the terrified animals burst from their blasted cages, jumpy Polish soldiers shoot down those they deem injured or dangerous. Yet, miraculously enough, an array of animals escapes unharmed and crosses the bridge into the city, creating a "biblical hallucination."
Poland is forced to surrender; the nightmare occupation begins, and Jan, whose sangfroid and "penchant for risk" are matched by extraordinary good luck, joins the many-pronged, superlatively organized Polish Resistance. The Zabinskis remain at the damaged zoo and manage to secure some of their most precious animals. But how long will they be allowed to stay? Enter Lutz Heck, director of the Berlin Zoo and a big-game hunter. Heck admires the Zabinskis and is a bit sweet on willowy Antonina, a perfect embodiment of Aryan femininity. A fervent Nazi, Heck intends to bring racial purity to nature itself by resurrecting three legendary extinct German species: the aurochs, a mythologized bull; the Neolithic horse, or tarpan; and the forest bison, which just happens to be a specialty of Jan's.
With Heck's protection, the Zabinskis stay put. But they pay the devil's price. Although Heck extols the nobility of animals (how incisively and damningly Ackerman dissects the Nazis' perverted view of nature), his treatment of the Zabinskis' beloved "animal republic" is depraved and grotesque. Shocked and appalled by the bloodbath, Antonina wonders, "How many humans will die like this in the coming months?" No sane and decent man or woman could ever have imagined.
Jan (whose Polish Underground code name was Francis, for Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals) grew up in Jewish neighborhoods and attended Jewish schools, and consequently he feels "a moral indebtedness to the Jews." A maestro of subterfuge, he lays his life on the line day after day to help the Jews imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto. Back at the zoo, Antonina makes the "guests" as comfortable as possible. While most of the more than 300 Jews the Zabinskis shelter stay only until safe passage can be arranged, others live at the zoo for years, hiding in plain sight. Ackerman observes, "who better than zookeepers to devise fitting camouflage?" Bursting with people and animals, the Zabinskis' villa "pulsed like a beehive." Ackerman also describes the villa as an ark, and she likens the constant need for defensive strategy and "all the planes of existence and resistance" in the villa to a "three-dimensional chess game."
Cool-headed, with nerves of steel, Jan undertakes missions as suspenseful as the plot of any top-notch thriller. Antonina, exhibiting equal grace under pressure, and even more vulnerable after the birth of their daughter, survives more than her share of terrifying encounters with Nazis. Her battles of wits eerily echo scenes in "Suite Fran'aise," a recently discovered, superlative novel of Nazi France by Ir'ne N'mirovsky, a valiant Russian-Jewish refugee who died at Auschwitz.
What makes this particular chapter in the electrifying history of resistance against the Nazis uniquely resonant? The Zabinskis' determination to make their underground realm convivial. To be sure, they were ever vigilant. But, Ackerman writes, "keeping the body alive at the expense of spirit wasn't Antonina's way. Jan believed in tactics and subterfuge, and Antonina in living as joyously as possible." The Zabinskis also "needed to remain among animals for life to feel true." Their animal companions -- an eccentric rabbit, gluttonous hamster, high-strung birds and a playful muskrat, to name a few -- provide comic relief and unconditional affection as Antonina labors in the garden and kitchen to nurture her large, endangered patchwork family.
Ackerman matches her animated accounts of life at the zoo with tense forays into the ghetto and discerning profiles of exceptional individuals. The renowned entomologist Dr. Szymon Tenenbaum, for example, whose glorious collection of a half-million insect species, thanks to Jan's ingenuity, helps save many of Tenenbaum's fellow Jews. The Hasidic rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira tends to his neighbors' bodies and souls by setting up soup kitchens and encouraging Jews to meditate on the "beauty of nature." And famed pediatrician Henryk Goldszmit (whose pen name was Janusz Korczak) refuses safe passage out of the ghetto to stay with children under his care, ultimately accompanying them to Treblinka.
It is no stretch to say that this is the book Ackerman was meant to write. Ever since "A Natural History of the Senses," she has been building a galaxy of incandescent works that celebrate the unity and wonder of the living world. But every rapturous hour she has spent communing with plants and animals, every insight gleaned into human nature, every moment under the spell of language is a steppingstone that led her to Poland, the home of her maternal grandparents, and to the incomparable heroes Jan and Antonina Zabinski. The result of her tenacious research, keen interpretation and her own "transmigration of sensibility" is a shining book beyond category. Ripe for cinematic interpretation, "The Zookeeper's Wife" is a book to read and reread and give to others.
Compassion and reverence for life persisted during the shadow time of the Nazis, and sustain those struggling today to survive war and genocide in besieged cities, refugee camps and secret havens. What hidden stories of courage and succor are yet to be told? Will we ever be able to answer Antonina's question: Why is it that "animals can sometimes subdue their predatory ways in only a few months, while humans, despite centuries of refinement, can quickly grow more savage than any beast?" *
Donna Seaman is an editor for Booklist and host of the radio program "Open Books" in Chicago ( www.openbooksradio.org ). Her author interviews are collected in "Writers on the Air."
The Zookeeper's WifeBy Diane Ackerman. Illustrated. 368 pages. $24.95. W. W. Norton & Company.
There were 380,000 Jews in Warsaw on the eve of World War II. Most did not survive the Holocaust. The director of the Warsaw Zoo and his wife were responsible for saving about 300. Why then write about them? Can 300 mean anything when hundreds of thousands died? Certainly any such act of wartime courage is worth recording, but Jan and Antonina Zabinski's work was distinctive. The Nazis dehumanized the Jews; the Zabinskis hid them in animal cages. The Nazis behaved like beasts; the zookeepers, who were experienced with dangerous animals, threw them off the scent with subterfuge and lies. The Zabinskis' effort was not just merciful, it was human in the deepest sense of the word.
In her poignant new book, Diane Ackerman, the noted nature writer, focuses on Antonina, the "zookeeper's wife" of the title. But her husband, Jan, lived the more dramatic life. He was a lieutenant in the clandestine Polish Army and a professor in Warsaw's secret university. He smuggled Jews out of the Warsaw Ghetto to the zoo. But once there it was up to Antonina to safeguard them: to find them room and food, to keep their spirits up, and most of all to hide them from the Nazis.
"The Zookeeper's Wife" proceeds chronologically, starting before the war, when the Warsaw Zoo was as esteemed as any in Europe. Soon the Nazis destroyed the zoo with bombs and guns. Led by the criminal zoologist Lutz Heck, they carted off the best animals for their own collections. Then Heck and the SS held a shooting festival on New Year's Eve, 1939, to finish the job. Their brutality at the zoo foretold their brutality in the war, as Antonina intuited in her diary, which Ackerman draws on heavily for her book. "How many humans will die like this in the coming months?" Antonina asks herself, watching the Nazi shooting spree.
Soon after they captured Warsaw, the Nazis turned their attention to its Jews, first rounding them up into the ghetto, then shipping them to extermination camps. While the Nazis depopulated the ghetto, the Zabinskis repopulated the zoo - this time with humans. The Nazis had allowed Jan to turn the zoo into a pig farm. So Jan and his staff had reason to enter the ghetto to pick up unused scraps to feed the animals. They brought in tref - nonkosher food - and smuggled out people. More contacts ensued; more pretexts to go into the ghetto; more Jews safeguarded. The Zabinskis hid Jews in sheds, enclosures and even the lion house. Those who had papers or Gentile looks were passed via the underground to other parts of Poland. The rest stayed.
Antonina's own looks helped allay suspicion. Fair and tall, she looked "like a Valkyrie at rest," Ackerman writes. She also had a unique gift, "a nearly shamanistic empathy when it came to animals." Antonina "loved to slip out of her human skin for a while and spy on the world through each animal's eyes." Ackerman's chronicling of this "slippage of the self" forms the freshest part of this book. For Antonina, animal and human formed a continuum. Each of her "guests" was given an animal code name. The distinguished sculptor Magdalena Gross, for instance, was called "starling" because Antonina "pictured her 'flying from nest to nest' to avoid capture." To cheer up her residents, Antonina stocked her "animal republic" with a rabbit named Wicek and a chicken named Jacob and a pet badger who uses Antonina's son's potty. "This house is totally crazy," one mystified resident complains. "You use animal names for people and people's names for animals!"
To fend off cuteness - Herriot's Heroes - Ackerman returns often to the carnage outside the zoo's gates: the routine murder of children, Himmler's determination to destroy every stone in the ghetto as a birthday present for the F'hrer, the firebombing of entire cities. In 1943, the Allies turned the tide and began driving the Nazis back. The Polish Army rose up in rebellion as the Russian Army, fox-like, waited for the Germans and the Poles to fight to the death. Then they moved in. The zoo reopened in 1949 - with some of its old animals but without its old vigor, and with Stalinism casting a new pall over the grounds. Two years later, Jan resigned as director.
At her lowest moment during the war, Antonina wonders whether the horrible period she was enduring wasn't "a sort of hibernation of the spirit, when ideas, knowledge, science, enthusiasm for work, understanding and love - all accumulate inside" where "nobody can take them from us." Her dream of a Warsaw spring - and a reborn zoo - would come true after the fall of Communism, though she wouldn't live to see it; she died in 1971. Nature is patient, people and animals fundamentally decent, and the writer, as she always does, outlives the killer - that is the message of "The Zookeeper's Wife."
This is an absorbing book, diminished sometimes by the choppy way Ackerman
balances Antonina's account with the larger story of the Warsaw Holocaust. For
me, the more interesting story is Antonina's. She was not, as her husband once
called her, "a housewife," but the alpha female in a unique menagerie. I would
gladly read another book, perhaps a novel, based again on Antonina's writings.
She was special, and as the remaining members of her generation die off, a voice
like hers should not be allowed to fade into the silence.