Review of The Zookeeper's Wife

Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 10/4/07


  I have to say that I was pleasantly pleased after having read Diane Ackerman’s latest non-fiction book, The Zookeeper’s Wife. This is my first time reading anything of hers, and I was also surprised to find that she has talent as a poet. I say ‘surprised’ because more often than not, those who claim to have written poetry really don’t succeed at it very much at all, but Ackerman, who has a nature bent to her work, possesses both literary quality and a good sense of historical and scientific background, which makes this book work. The story is about a Polish married couple named Jan and Antonia Zabinski who also run the zoo in Warsaw. Set during World War II, what we get is not just a war story of Jews hiding in the zoo from the Nazis, but also we are shown how the animals were affected during this period.

  The book, whose focus is on Antonia (wife to Jan—the zookeeper) works to not only take care of the animals, but also hide Jews in the animal cages. Creating a safe underground with secret passages and code words to avoid any suspicion, the people who are in hiding receive animal names, and we are shown how the couple managed to pull it off: shopping in small quantities to not attract attention, and speaking in disguised terms like, ‘go feed the lions’ (which really refers to the 300 people they managed to smuggle in and keep hidden). Taken primarily from Antonia’s diaries, readers are also shown glimpses into their marriage: a husband who often is critical of his wife, yet surprises her with praise, informing others how he thinks highly of her abilities. Yet as a man he is dutiful and protecting. Likewise, Antonia is forced not to let her fears dominate. Despite the couple’s knowledge that any Poles discovered hiding Jews would result in death, they push through their anxieties and tend to the matters at hand. We also learn how Jan and Antonia helped the people during this time by obtaining false documents, and how they helped their guests “look Aryan” though dying their hair blonde or showing them how to speak and move in certain ways as a means for not attracting attention. (In one funny scene Antonia is attempting to dye a family’s dark hair with peroxide—all which turns red afterwards).

  The Zookeeper’s wife takes on a new angle about the war: through Ackerman’s prose, she vividly describes the aftermaths of the bombs, the frightened animals dying, and most memorably, the metal cages screeching as they are pulled apart—having melted and grown distorted from the heat, followed by silence. The thought of that would be an eerie scene for a film. Consider this excerpt from chapter six:

            Glass and metal shards mutilated skin, feathers, hooves, and scales indiscriminately as wounded zebras ran, ribboned with blood, terrified howler monkeys and orangutans dashed caterwauling into the trees and bushes, snakes slithered loose, and crocodiles pushed onto their toes and trotted at speed. Bullets ripped open the aviary nets and parrots spiraled upward like Aztec gods and plummeted straight down, other tropicals hid in the shrubs and trees or tried to fly with singed wings. Some animals, hiding in their cages and basins, became engulfed by rolling waves of flame. Two giraffes lay dead on the ground, legs twisted, shockingly horizontal. The clotted air hurt to breathe and stank of burning wood, straw, and flesh. The monkeys and birds, screeching infernally, created an otherworldly chorus backed by a crackling timpani of bullets and bomb blasts. Echoing around the zoo, the tumult surely sounded like ten thousand Furies scratching up from hell to unhinge the world.

  As you can see, Ackerman evokes powerful imagery without mawkishness or sentimentality. It just is. Allowing the readers to cull their own conclusions, one of the reasons this book works is because the speaker is not trying to force emotion. Of course these were sad times. Readers know that and don’t need to be told. She also has memorable images littered throughout her prose, making the book a delight to read. There is also, as one can see from the above excerpt, a natural music to her prose, and that, mixed with the evocative imagery, leaves one with thoughts to ponder afterwards.

  Well-researched, the book is also accompanied not only with a bibliography, but also several pages of photos, where we can see the couple nursing a bird back to life, polar bears in their cages, elephants, hyenas, as well as other animals that dwelled there. With the help of their secret underground passage, Ackerman shows a world that existed in secret, their daily activities, and how they managed to remain out of sight throughout that time, but also the lives—both human and not—who were affected. The Zookeeper’s Wife is a good book to seek out for those interested in World War II Warsaw as well as one in search of that artistic expression of nature, human nature, and zoology. But most of all, Ackerman shows us that connection—how humans, like animals, must adapt to survive. I recall watching a documentary where a Jewish man speaks of his time in a concentration camp, talking of how he was forced to dump bodies into a large, overgrown pit. How can one species wantonly destroy another? One must adapt to survive—and after a while one gets used to it. One must, if it means one more added second to life. We are, after all, animals.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Van Der Galien Gazette website.]


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