Monday, April 24, 2017

The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman

The Zookeeeper's Wife has been on my "want to read" list since its publication in 2007, just 10 years ago! It moved up the list to "currently reading" spurred by a Kindle Deal of the Day ($1.99) and the release of the movie based on it. I am glad that I did wait to read it until we had visited Poland. Having a picture of Warsaw in my mind allowed me to visualize the landmarks that were described and referenced. 

The zookeeper in this nonfiction book is Jan Żabiński and his wife is Antonina. The zoo in Warsaw was well renowned before World War II and Żabiński a well respected curator and as the Nazis moved in, Lutz Heck, the zoologist of the Berlin zoo, started pillaging the Warsaw zoo. He stole valuable animals and what he didn't steal he killed. The discovery of Kasia, a favorite elephant, dead in her enclosure was startling and a shocking beginning to the horrors that would follow. But the Żabińskis had a different plan in mind. Jan was also a professor in the underground and secret Warsaw University. With access to the Warsaw ghetto he was able to smuggle Jews out and hide them in the secret passages, cages, and tunnels of the zoo. Perhaps he was not suspected as carrying out these heroic deeds due to the fact that he was able to turn the zoo into a pig farm.

Once Jan got the "guests" to the zoo, it was then up to Antonina to take care of them. She never considered herself a heroine, but because of her efforts in hiding and feeding them she managed to save over 300 Jewish men, women, and children. She put herself and her children in danger as the Nazis became intent upon arresting those who were suspected of hiding the Jews. One of the clever ruses was when Antonina played an Offenbach tune with the refrain “Go, go, go to Crete” it was code to her “guests” to hide as Germans were around. To complicate matters Antonina was pregnant and required bed rest before giving birth to her daughter Teresa. During the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Jan goes off to fight with the resistance and Antonina takes the children to a small village to avoid the decimation of the city. She desperately tries everything in her power to learn of Jan's fate. And when she does, it is not good. He was shot through the neck, but miraculously recovers.

After the war they reopened the zoo, but under the Communist regime it was just not the same. The theme of kindness, caring, and compassion resonates through this book. It is so hard to imagine what it must have been like to live during this horrific genocide. Even walking the streets of Warsaw today, the destruction is unimaginable. If there is such an entity as an enjoyable book about the Holocaust, this would be one. The spirit of the Żabińskis is so deep and caring that sets a high bar for us all. Would we have been able to accomplish what they did and with the courage that they showed. I am intrigued to read more about the Żabińskis. Ackerman relied on Antonina's diary for a lot of the book. That would be well worth searching out and reading a first hand account. It will be interesting to see how the movie portrays their lives, the Nazis, and the ghetto. I have a feeling  I may be disappointed after reading the book.