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The Zookeeper's Wife

A War Story

by Diane Ackerman

The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2007, 288 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2008, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lucia Silva

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J. Arnold

Copiously Researched
The beauty in Diane Ackerman's The Zookeeper's Wife lies in her attention to detail. She tells the story of Jan and Antonia Zabinski, the director of the Warsaw Zoo and his wife, during the Polish Occupation during WWII, with beautiful prose that stimulates all the reader's senses. The reader experiences the sensations of the two protagonists as they fight in the Underground and use the zoo as a station for the passage of Jewish citizens escaping the Nazis. Ackerman recreates a story of heroism into a story of human nature, particularly in Antonia. Antonia - as the lioness that guards the family villa and its 300 or so Guests - must face off with German soldiers and SS agents while feeding the household (pets included) and always facing the fear of being discovered. Using Antonia's diaries, her children books, Jan's interviews, face-to-face interviews with survivors, and other sources, Ackerman weaves a beautiful story. The story of WWII and the Holocaust is often the background for literature - fiction and nonfiction - but this book stands out as a testament to the beauty of people like Antonia and Jan.
Power Reviewer Cloggie Downunder

A fascinating true story.
“One of the most remarkable things about Antonina was her determination to include play, animals, wonder, curiosity, marvel, and a wide blaze of innocence in a household where all dodged the ambient dangers, horrors, and uncertainties. That takes a special stripe of bravery rarely valued in wartime”

The Zookeeper’s Wife is the eleventh book by American author, Diane Ackerman. It is non-fiction, but often reads like a novel, a plain narrative with spurts of lush descriptive prose, for example: “In a country under a death sentence, with seasonal cues like morning light or drifting constellations hidden behind shutters, time changed shape, lost some of its elasticity, and Antonina wrote that her days grew even more ephemeral and ‘brittle, like soap bubbles breaking’”

It tells the story of Antonina Zabinska and her husband, Director of the Warsaw Zoo, Jan Zabinski. When Poland is occupied by the Nazis in 1939, the animals that aren’t killed during bombing raids are stolen by Berlin zookeepers, and Jan and Antonina need something else to keep them busy. As the zoo cycles through different legitimate incarnations (pig farm, fur farm), the one business that is soon a constant, very much behind the scenes, is the concealment of Jews trying to escape the Ghetto and Nazi persecution.

After initial descriptions of the time before occupation, the bulk of the story tells of the Guests that passed through the Zabinski’s Villa, both human and animal, with all their quirks, traits and oddities. Sometimes the text does get a bit bogged down in details (insect collections, sculpture, extinct species and back breeding), but the ingenuity of these brave people is amazing, and their generosity is truly uplifting. As an officer in the Home Army, and very active in the Resistance, Jan is often absent an it is up to Antonina to keep things running smoothly, and facilitate the passage of some three hundred people to safety.

“In prewar days, the villa had harboured more exotic animals, including a pair of baby otters, but the Zabinksis continued their tradition of people and animals coexisting under one roof, over and over welcoming stray animals into their lives and an already stressed household. Zookeepers by disposition, not fate, even in wartime with food scarce, they needed to remain among animals for life to feel true…”

Ackerman’s extensive research is apparent on every page, as well as in the 21 pages of notes on the chapters, the 7-page bibliography and the comprehensive index. She portrays Jan as cool under pressure, demanding and critical, while Antonina comes across as clever and intuitive, but they are hard to connect with, perhaps because Ackerman had to base her tale on diaries and notes. It will be interesting to see what Hollywood does with this tale. A fascinating true story.
A Bookshelf Monstrosity

Zookeeper's Wife
Ackerman pulls from Antonina Zabinski's extensive memoirs of her experiences in World War II Poland and from her own research on the topic to tell the story of the hundreds of Jews that passed through this particular stop on the Polish Underground. Although this book is highly informative and at times extremely touching, I found it hard to feel fully engaged. I don't really know why this is; I'm extremely interested in the Holocaust and I'd read some great reviews on the book. Initially, I thought maybe I had hit some sort of wall and have read too many books on the subject, but then remembered that I had just recently read and loved a new book on one of the most famous figures in Holocaust history, Anne Frank. I felt that the book was slightly rambling and didn't really stay on topic as I expected it to. Ackerman's research certainly shines through, although at times her attention to detail is perhaps too great. I struggled to finish this one.
This Book Is Not Good

Do Not Read This Book
I'm going to be a freshman in high school and I had to read this book for the summer. I HATE this book. All my friends have to read it too and they all hate it. My friends mom read it and she didn't like it either. So I do not recommend this book to anyone. I have to make myself read it. It is not enjoyable so out of a ten I give it a .5.
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