The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman was my choice in the relative category of Annie’s What’s In a Name - 2 challenge. It may explain my doctorate in psychology in what seems like a past life, but I’ve always been attracted to stories everyday people who aided others in World War II Germany. Or perhaps it’s because I wonder whether, deep down, I would have the courage and resolve to act similarly in the same situation.
The zookeeper’s wife of the title was Antonina Zabinski, wife of Jan, the director of the Warsaw Zoo. The Zabinskis were Polish Christians but managed to save over three hundred people, most Jewish, during the course of the war. The zoo was closed as a result of the way (the Germans looted some of the animals when they took control of Warsaw), but the empty cages housed some of the refugees, who were code-named after animals. Other refugees hid in the zookeeper’s villa. Antonina tended to all, stretching her family’s meager rations to feed everyone, playing musical codes on the piano to send refugees into hiding places, and worrying over her young son’s increasing involvement in the family’s activities.
Just as compelling as the story of the family’s humanitarian efforts is, the story of the family’s pet animals is enchanting. A badger kiddie toilets and knocking on a door to be let into the house. Elephants filling a moat with dirt to create mud so that they could wade across. A carnivorous pet rabbit. The book had much to offer on several levels. At the same time, Ackerman explores how the Nazi interest in creating a perfect race of humans corresponded to their interest in creating pure strains of certain animals, the reason that many of the animals in the Warsaw Zoo were moved to German zoos.
I would highly recommend The Zookeeper’s Wife to anyone with an interest in the human side of World War II. Ackerman has a very nice writing style, and the book is, in between periods of gleeful marvel at the animal stories or of reflection on the human condition, quite easy to read.