I had thought "The Zookeeper's Wife", by Diane Ackerman, was a novel, but it is actually it is the true story of how the proprietors of the Warsaw, Poland zoo saved many Jewish people during WWII, when Poland was occupied by the Nazis.
I am not sure why Ackerman titled her book "The Zookeeper's Wife" when Antonia and Jan Zabinski played equally important roles in rescuing people. Jan, in fact, was the one who often physically walked Jews out of the Warsaw Ghetto. Oftentimes sheer bravado enabled him to smuggle a person out right before the eyes of Nazi officials. Antonia, for her part, was the motherly figure who held together the extended family of herself, Jan, their son Rhys, staff members and "guests and relatives". She not only hid, sheltered and fed them, but also kept everyone's spirits high.
Too, Antonia had extreme empathy with animals and seemed to be able to interact with them without fear and communicate with them in their "language". She was what one might today be called a horse whisperer, though she was "conversant" with all animals. This talent carried over to her interaction with humans as well. This stood her in good stead in a confrontation with the Germans. Hiding Jews at the zoo was especially fraught with danger because a group of Germans was headquartered on the zoo grounds. When a building near their HQ catches fire, Antonia is questioned, but despite her great fear, she is able to easily converse with the German officers, earn their admiration and trust, and allay their suspicions.
The book begins with an idyllic portrayal of the zoo before the war. Her description of all the animals awakening to another day is especially lyrical. This was one of my favorite parts of the book, as are all the scenes where we see the family interact with the animals they take in as house guests, ranging from dogs to a rabbit to otters to a badger.
The zoo was heavily damaged near the beginning of the war, and most of the animals were either killed or escaped. Most of those remaining were taken away to German zoos. After that, it was humans who lived in the cages and outbuildings until it was time for them (days, weeks or months later) to move on to another stop in their Underground journey to freedom.
Despite lovely scenes like the ones mentioned above, "The Zookeeper's Wife" is a very uneven book. I was most seriously annoyed with what I consider to be too much extraneous information. I can only think that Ackerman's forays into other subjects were included for one of three reasons:
1. She had done too much research and she didn't want it to go to waste.
2. The zookeepers' story alone was not enough so she padded it so as to make a full-length book.
3. As a scientist and naturalist, she could not bear to not share her findings.
Especially irksome to me was the extensive coverage of research by the Germans to recreate extinct species of the region, such as the auroch and the tarpan. Ackerman goes to great lengths to equate these experiments with the Nazis' efforts to create a pure Aryan race.
Even her explanation of why civilians during the war had no access to penicillin goes on for paragraphs when she could have simply stated, "no penicillin was available".
I did enjoy her asides on other subjects, such as how the Warsaw Poles helped the Jews assimilate into their Christian (Catholic) culture. They taught them prayers, kept them abreast on such mundane things as the price of tram tickets, showed women new hairstyles to help them blend in (no bangs or frizz), taught them how to cook various pork recipes. Just as there were no atheists in foxholes, there was no adherence to Jewish dietary rules in wartime.
More compelling, pertinent and sad, were her statistics on how many Polish Jews were crammed into the Warsaw Ghetto, how many were hiding throughout the city, how many were killed during the ghetto uprising and how many died during the six years of the war. And a final, more uplifting statistic - how many Jews the Zabinskis saved: about 300.
While "The Zookeeper's Wife" is seriously flawed, it should be read by anyone who needs a reminder of what the Jewish people endured, the list of freedoms they lost bit by bit, the atrocities that were perpetuated against them, and finally, the brave, staunch and truly heroic Poles who helped them.