The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
During World War II, few cities were as horrific to live in as Warsaw. Seized by the Nazis in 1939, abandoned by their allies, Poland saw its capital turn overnight from a vibrant, cultural city of mixed population—30 percent were of Jewish descent—into a nightmare of German occupation. Yes, Paris and Amsterdam were occupied; London was blitzed. But Warsaw bled like no other. Its very spirit was crushed, its Jewish population herded into the ghetto, packed seven to a room. Nazi soldiers massacred their children, humiliated their elders, and eventually shipped hundreds of thousands to labor and concentration camps. These days, according to a recent Wikipedia article, Jews number about 1,000 in all of Poland, having been nearly eradicated from that country.
But horror of this magnitude produces heroism of equal magnitude, and herein lies the story of Antonina and Jan Zabinski, zookeepers who used their gutted enclosures to hide more than 300 Jews and helped transport them to safe havens outside of Warsaw. An active member of the Underground, Jan helped arrange for false identification papers, smuggled people out of the ghetto, and performed various acts of sabotage against the German occupiers. Meanwhile, Antonina maintained her household of revolving “Guests” and worked to keep up the spirits of her young son, who saw friends both animal and human fall victim to Hitler’s siege.
Diane Ackerman has done a remarkable job of recreating Antonina’s world from her memoirs, interviews, and other research. Each chapter details a pocket of this strange life, from brave characters to unusual friendships. From the terrifying initial capture of Warsaw to the horrors of the ghetto and at last the retreat of the German army, this story follows lives so closely that the reader feels she is looking over Antonina’s shoulder as she anxiously awaits her husband’s return each day. With taut, suspenseful, yet lyrical prose, Ackerman brings their situation to life even more vividly than the eight pages of photographs included.
As in Tatiana de Rosnay’s novel Sarah's Key, readers of The Zookeeper’s Wife know how the story ends. In fact, the story is so familiar to some of us that we forget these were real people, leading real day to day lives without knowing when, or if, the end was coming. These were people who risked their lives—their son—every day because they couldn’t see living any other way. One method of coping was to carry cyanide capsules always in their pockets. Death was that close.
While this tale will be difficult for those of us who have grown complacent and comfortable, it is vital to remember that we always have alternatives to permitting the impermissible. These stories remind us that even when the worst of humanity triumphs, the best of humanity is always waiting underneath, quietly simmering, not to be denied. By one estimate, some 20,000 Jews hid outside the ghetto in the city of Warsaw. Without the network of grocers, forgers, saboteurs, housekeepers, teachers, beauty salon owners, and others, those 20,000 people would have joined the rest of Jewish Warsaw at Treblinka. These are stories meant to uplift, but more than that, they should shame us into action. None of us is too weak to stand up to tyranny.