The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story
By Diane Ackerman. 368 pp. Norton, 2007. $24.95.
In the early 1930s, Jan and Antonina Zabinski ran the Warsaw Zoo and lived on the premises, tending the animals in the collection and laboring, with love, toward a more humane way of preserving wildlife through natural enclosures. The German military invasion and occupation of Warsaw in 1939 brought the persecution, segregation, and liquidation of Jews; it also brought the relocation of animals from the Zabinskis’ zoo to German facilities, both for the enjoyment of these natural treasures and for genetic experiments attempting to revive ancient and extinct European creatures treasured by the Nazis. The near-total abduction of the Warsaw flock left a set of buildings and the surrounding grounds almost vacant— which made it a very effective hiding place for Jews escaping the monstrous consequences of German imperialism.
From the summer of 1940, when a longtime friend became the zoo’s first “guest,” until August 1944, when Poles battled the fading Nazi military for a nearly decimated Warsaw while the Russians waited, the Zabinskis sheltered some three hundred fugitives: some for only a few days, others for months on end. Jan used the zoo as a base for his resistance operations, and Antonina took care of the legal residents, who included her young son, a tiny menagerie of somewhat exotic companion animals, and a revolving cast of eccentric characters, like a noted female Polish sculptor and a man who came with a cat, two parakeets, and a zest for playing Chopin all through the night.
Unfortunately, the scope and resonance of this amazing story is reduced by the author’s blinkered approach. Ackerman focuses on Antonina—her quotidian efforts to keep her domestic world a nurturing place for her son Rys, her struggles to cope with the constant threat of discovery by German soldiers. Jan’s exploits are as little discussed in this book as they evidently were at the time: Antonina almost never knew what her husband was doing and how it might doom her family. Ackerman does provide some context for events outside the zoo, which she calls the “ark.” Early pages describe how Antonina and Rys moved about to avoid the bloody German conquest. Later comes a string of rich anecdotes about the internment of Jews in the Warsaw ghetto and attempts to resist the Nazis’ murderous actions, which elicit some nice details about Jan’s clever work to spirit individuals out of that deadly quarantine—for example, he exploited a Nazi official’s fascination with the astonishing beetle collection of a Jewish entomologist to grease his way in and out of the ghetto. We also learn about Janina Buchholtz, the bureaucrat whose intentionally messy mound of papers allowed her to forge any number of documents for illegals. Then there’s Dr. Mada Walter’s Institut de Beauté, a beauty parlor and refinishing school, where Jewish women were instructed in ways to look and act more like Aryans.
But as fascinating as these tidbits are, they are at times awkwardly stitched into Antonina’s ongoing personal story. That brings us to a vital flaw of the book: too often, less-than-graceful construction muddles its chronology. Some chapters are timestamped with a year, which helps, although one timestamp seems to be wrong. But to compound the problem, details arrive in haphazard fashion or not at all. There is not a single clear description of the zoo’s physical plant at the onset of the war: the number of buildings, the size of the grounds, or even its precise location. Very strangely, near the end of the book, when Ackerman reveals what has happened to the other people she’s chronicled, she doesn’t finalize the fate of the Zabinskis. So we know that Jan quit the zoo over frustration with Soviet interference, and that both of them wrote books, but not how or when they died. And there is no better description of the zoo today. These sorts of omissions are puzzling and disappointing.
As author of the bestselling A Natural History of the Senses, Ackerman has shown a talent for description of the natural world. In fact, her over-tight focus on Antonina directly evolves from that perspective: her book tells the story of a woman intimately attuned to the animals under her care, whose diary excerpts, cited by Ackerman, are vividly evocative of nature. In that context it makes sense that there is such strong emphasis on plants and animals and the changing of the seasons, but a little more writerly discipline would have stopped Ackerman from pushing the larger historical frames quite so far into her margins. Witness this description of the prewar zoo as it awakened: “Each morning, when zoo dawn arrived, a starling gushed a medley of stolen songs, distant wrens cranked up a few arpeggios, and cuckoos called monotonously like clocks stuck on the hour. Suddenly the gibbons began whooping bugle calls so crazy loud that the wolves and hunting dogs started howling, the hyenas gibbering, the lions roaring, the ravens croaking, the peacocks screeching, the rhino snorting, the foxes yelping, the hippos braying. Next the gibbons shifted into duets….” When this cacophony of description first erupts on page 20, it seems like a pleasant stylistic touch, but as it recurs over the following three hundred pages, the overripe prose becomes distracting and irritating. Thankfully, though, in the end Ackerman’s compulsive wordiness never drowns out the truly compelling saga of the Zabinskis.
Originally published in the March 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.