In The Zookeeper’s Wife (W.W. Norton, $23.95), Diane Ackerman reveals the savage world created by Nazi Germany — a world that promoted conservation and animal rights while justifying the murder of 11 million people. Under the Third Reich’s pseudoscientific ideology, purebred animals were exalted as “noble, mythic, almost angelic.” Those humans deemed genetically impure, however — primarily Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, Catholics — were stripped of all value and sentenced to death. It is against this unnervingly paradoxical backdrop that Ackerman sets the true story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski.
Before the war, the Zabinskis were zookeepers in Warsaw. They lived according to the shifting seasons and the zoo’s own cacophonous but predictable rhythm. Everything changed after Germany’s invasion of Poland, when their insulated world was exposed to the dangers of occupation. Their zoo was devastated by Germany’s bombs, and many of their Jewish friends were forced to relocate to the ghetto. Outraged by the Third Reich’s brutality, the Zabinskis (who were active members of the Polish Resistance) began risking their lives to smuggle Jews to safety. They capitalized on the leverage granted to them as zookeepers — zoos dovetailed with the Third Reich’s obsession with exotic animals — hiding transient Jews in spare rooms, sheds, and even deserted animal cages.
With her husband gone most days on subversive missions, the great responsibility of deflecting attention from the zoo and maintaining a sense of comfort for her guests fell to Antonina Zabinski. Ackerman describes her as deeply compassionate with a “precise and very special gift of observing and understanding animals.” As the war raged, Antonia’s world crumbled around her. Still, through her gift of intuition, coupled with fierce determination, she managed to nurture her unusual family. “I have to admit that the atmosphere in our house was quite pleasant,” Antonia confessed in her diary, “sometimes even almost happy.”
Ackerman is known for her nature writing, particularly A Natural History of the Senses and An Alchemy of Mind ; she culled much of her research for The Zookeeper’s Wife from the copious diaries kept by Antonina Zabinski, who shared Ackerman’s ability for melding the lyrical and scientific. Through the diary excerpts, readers grasp the personal, but universal emotional arc of a war-ravaged life.
Ultimately, the triumph of The Zookeeper’s Wife is that Ackerman reveals a freshly powerful story of the Holocaust. The Zabinskis sit with Oskar Schindler and other compassionate Gentiles heralded for putting justice before their own security. But Antonina’s situation is set apart by her living amongst creatures as exotic as the squealing gibbon and familiar as her own child. Her connection with and unconditional respect for the natural world set her in stark opposition to the Nazi’s ardent, but limited love for purebreds. Antonina Zabinski lived the idea of what it means to love one’s fellow beings — not for narcissism or gain, but for the inherent gifts they bring to the world.
Leah Koenig is a writer, blogger and editor living in Brooklyn, NY. She is the Editor-in-Chief of the award-winning blog The Jew and the Carrot (www.jcarrot. org), and a regular contributor to Lilith’s blog (lilith.org). You can read more of her work at www.leahkoenig.com.