The Zookeeper’s Wife
Diane Ackerman (Adult Non-Fiction)
Jan and Antonina Żabiński were Christian zookeepers horrified by Nazi racism, who capitalized on the Nazis’ obsession with rare animals in order to save over three hundred doomed people. Their story has fallen between the seams of history, as radically compassionate acts sometimes do. But in wartime Poland, when even handing a thirsty Jew a cup of water was punishable by death, their heroism stands out as all the more startling.
The Zookeeper’s Wife takes place in Poland from the summer of 1935 to January 1945 with an Aftermath provided by the author. Ackerman’s exhaustive and extensive research on the Żabińskis was compiled through letters, interviews, diary entries, articles, memoirs, testimonies, Antonina’s autobiographical children’s books, and numerous other sources. It should be noted that The Zookeeper’s Wife is not historical fiction or anywhere close to it. Those disappointed in the story’s disjointedness need only remember that this is an in-depth non-fiction about Poland, its population, and the ravages endured during World War II. Ackerman’s research is comprehensive and immersive and her book should not be compared to a reader’s preconceived expectations—or worse—the movie version.
With that said, the book does go off on numerous tangents. In addition to the Żabiński’s story, Ackerman delves into such topics as weaning, Greek mythology, the Ice Age, the migration patterns of birds, animal psychology, and Polish folklore. Needless to say, the author covers the gamut in subject matter. If this were a road trip, the Żabińskis would be the main freeway. Every time they come in contact with a new individual—German, Russian, Polish, or Jewish—our story veers off on a side road where we learn about that person’s background, history, hobbies, talents, etc. Our journey experiences many of these off-road adventures which may thoroughly exhaust some readers while intriguing others. If you go into this book with realistic and accurate expectations, you’ll discover how the roads of a pair of Christian zookeepers, a German zoologist with an obsession of reviving extinct species, an ill-fated zoo, and a primeval forest in northeastern Poland all converge to save countless lives—both animal and human.
Jan Żabiński once said, “I don’t understand all the fuss. If any creature is in danger, you save it, human or animal.” This is the heart of The Zookeeper’s Wife and represents a sentiment that we should never find ourselves keeping hidden away or caged.
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