Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman

Book Description:
A true story—as powerful as Schindler's List—in which the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo saved hundreds of people from Nazi hands.

When Germany invaded Poland, Stuka bombers devastated Warsaw—and the city's zoo along with it. With most of their animals dead, zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski began smuggling Jews into empty cages. Another dozen "guests" hid inside the Zabinskis' villa, emerging after dark for dinner, socializing, and, during rare moments of calm, piano concerts. Jan, active in the Polish resistance, kept ammunition buried in the elephant enclosure and stashed explosives in the animal hospital. Meanwhile, Antonina kept her unusual household afloat, caring for both its human and its animal inhabitants—otters, a badger, hyena pups, lynxes.

With her exuberant prose and exquisite sensitivity to the natural world, Diane Ackerman engages us viscerally in the lives of the zoo animals, their keepers, and their hidden visitors. She shows us how Antonina refused to give in to the penetrating fear of discovery, keeping alive an atmosphere of play and innocence even as Europe crumbled around her.

I can't remember where I heard about this book, probably on some list, but I decided to read it for it sounded good to me, and I'm interested in reading about WII experiences. The book was pretty good, but it was no Schindler's List, although similar as far as helping the Jews during WWII. I found the writing a bit awkward, based on Antonina Zabiniski's memoirs. The narration would switch back and forth to what Antonina was thinking, to what she might have been thinking, and I found that a bit distracting. I had to keep reminding myself that it was non-fiction, for the narration sometimes made it sound like it was fiction and then would flip flop to non-fiction. It wasn't that bad, but a bit annoying. Still, it was a moving story about courage and goodness in the face of the horror of the Nazis and the occupation of Warsaw during WWII.

It's obviously well researched, the story itself is one of bravery and determination of the many people that lived in Warsaw and the Jewish Ghetto during the German occupation and how this wonderful couple who owned a zoo helped the Polish Underground to rescue hundreds of Jews from the Ghetto who would have ultimately faced death in the camps without their help. Parts of it were touching and frightening, especially one devastating scene towards the end with German soldiers coming to the zoo and threatening to shoot them, but often I found the book a bit dry and unemotional, even though everything about the book should have felt emotional. I think it was just too much like a well researched historical paper, rather than an emotional rendition of the events that happened to these people.

Not only was the story about the Zabiniski's, but it also gave you the background on a lot of the people they rescued, who lived with them temporarily. The zoo was like a weigh station for those being spirited out of Warsaw. There was a woman sculptress, a man who was a dentist and collected beetles (I could have done without the lengthy three page description of his entire collection), his wife and various other people that they helped.

I enjoyed reading about the various animals at the zoo, many who had personalities of their own. Badger and this big rabbit that would steal all the food, a cute little piglet that their little boy, Ryc, would play with as a pet (it was heartbreaking when the Germans took it away from him all of a sudden with no warning). It was also interesting to read about some of the Germans who came to Warsaw, Lutz Heck in particular, who ran a zoo in Germany and offered to help take some of the animals from their zoo to Germany for safe keeping during the war. He was a liar, and most likely never had any intention of returning them, but he was very interested in genetics and bringing back some extinct species of prehistoric horses and cattle (the Nazis wanted to have the cattle for hunting purposes). At one point it was sickening reading about how the Germans soldiers would go hunting for pleasure in their zoo, shooting the poor animals for the fun of it.

I'm glad I read this book, but it was a bit of a chore because of the way it was written. I think it's an important story to be told about the danger and willingness of this couple to save so many people, but the author just didn't capture me. I was not at the edge of my seat over this book, and the book description makes it sound much more exciting that it was. But, it's a non-fiction, well researched book that tells a moving true story of good people during a terrible time in the history of Poland.


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