As a somewhat lapsed member of a friend’s book discussion group, I vowed this summer to make more of an effort to participate and made a commitment to myself to find more time for reading. For July, they chose The Zookeeper’s Wife, a work of non-fiction by Diane Ackerman, so I checked out my copy and started reading.
The book is the true story of Jan and Antonina Zabiniski, directors of the Warsaw Zoo in the 1930s. Based on Antonina’s diaries and photographs, and Ackerman’s own research, the book documents their life at the zoo both before and during the invasion of Poland by Germany. When the zoo is heavily damaged by bombings, the remaining animals are shipped off to Germany or killed. Ackerman’s words are both disturbing and poetic as she describes the chaos:
…terrified howler monkeys and orangutans dashed caterwauling into the trees and bushes, snakes slithered loose, and crocodiles pushed onto their toes and trotted at speed. Bullets ripped open the aviary nets and parrots spiraled upward like Aztec gods and plummeted straight down, other tropicals hid in the shrubs and trees or tried to fly with singed wings…The monkeys and birds, screeching infernally, created an otherworldly chorus backed by a crackling timpani of bullets and bomb blasts. Echoing around the zoo, the tumult surely sounded like ten thousand Furies scratching up from hell to unhinge the world.
The Zabinskis decide to remain at the zoo and use it to help others. Described in heartbreaking detail, this is Jan and Antonina’s story of love, kindness, and survival, as they provide shelter for three hundred Jews as well as members of the Polish Underground in the zoo, all the while attempting to salvage a childhood for their young son.
In a starred review, Booklist writes, “Ackerman has written many stellar works, including A Natural History of the Senses (1990) and An Alchemy of Mind (2004), but this is the book she was born to write.”