The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

The Zookeepers Wife

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.

Rating: 5/5

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The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne (YA)

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas   

John Boyne (Young Adult Fiction)

Bruno slowed down when he saw the dot that became a speck that became a blob that became a figure that became a boy.  Although there was a fence separating them, he knew that you could never be too careful with strangers and it was always best to approach them with caution.  So he continued to walk, and before long they were facing each other.

Bruno may have been just nine years old, but he knew something was wrong when he came home from school and found the family’s maid in his room packing up all of his belongings.  His father had received important military orders and the family was to leave their luxury home in Berlin to go someplace that Bruno had never heard of before.  When Bruno saw his new home, he didn’t like it all.  Theirs was the only house on the road.  And it was much smaller than their other home.  And behind it was a big yard with a spiky fence all around it.  A yard that contained small huts, several soldiers, and many, many men and boys all wearing identical striped pajamas with a matching cap.  It was all very strange.  Yes, Bruno didn’t like this place at all.

Bruno is innocent, naïve, and an unlikely protagonist who neither recognizes nor understands the horrors of the concentration camp located behind his new home.  Through his young and selfish lens, he only sees unfairness when he views the camp for why should there be so many boys on the other side of the fence who have one another to play with while he has no one?  Bruno is absolutely angered by this injustice.  Of course, the reader realizes what the true injustice is, which makes Bruno’s self-centeredness all the more unpalatable.  Boyne doesn’t introduce readers to the boy in the striped pajamas until halfway through the book, which allows readers ample time to become acquainted with Bruno.  During that period, we realize that Bruno’s “faults” are really just him being a small, sheltered, and unworldly boy of nine: he’s thoughtless, scared, self-indulgent, petulant, and irrational.  But Boyne also shows us a Bruno that is kindhearted, inquisitive, and who understands the value of maintaining a secret and the importance of keeping a promise.

I’ve read several books for both juvenile and young adult readers that deal with the Holocaust and concentration camps.  This one is unique in that Boyne shows us the horror through two young boys of the same age, height, and physical features—virtual mirror images of each other.  Bruno is essentially the “before” while Shmuel, the boy in the striped pajamas, is the “after”.  One is German, well fed, idealistic, and blissfully ignorant while the other is Polish, gaunt, hopeless, and worn down by hate, starvation, and fear.  It’s a stark contrast and Boyne is able to successfully illustrate the horrors of war and bigotry without having to delve into graphic detail.  Although this book is recommended for grades 9-12, its implied acts of violence (there is one brief mention of a dog being shot) and death make it suitable for younger readers although a knowledge of World War II would help put the subject matter into context.  The use of repetition and puns also help to successfully reinforce key points and ideas for readers.

Above its grisly subject matter, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a touching story about two lonely boys who find comfort and security through friendship.  American entrepreneur, author, and motivational speaker Emanuel James “Jim” Rohn said, “For every promise, there is a price to pay.”  Bruno had to weigh the value of a promise he made and although he knew very little about politics or geography or just the world in general, he did know that there was value to be placed on life and that you always, always keep a promise…especially to your best friend.

Rating: 5/5

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