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The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story

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Book Overview

This description may be from another edition of this product. Amazon Significant Seven, September 2007: On the heels of Alan Weisman's The World Without Us I picked up Diane Ackerman's The Zookeeper?s Wife. Both books take you to Poland's forest primeval, the...

Customer Reviews

6 ratings

A bit on the boring side

I ordered this book in "like new" condition but the copy I received has a pretty torn up dust jacket. I was hoping this book would be a page turner but it was a bit on the boring side. I wish the narrative had a better flow. I can't help but wonder if this story would have been better if written by a different author. Too bad, I was really excited about this one but at some point I was just trying to get through it.

A Unique Story of Survival in WWII

At the start of the 1930s, the zoo in Warsaw was a haven within the city. Jan Zabinski was the zookeeper, and he had charge of lions, elephants, and all the standard animals found in a zoo. He tried to keep the animals humanely, in enclosures that were as close as possible to their natural habitats. He wrote scholarly books about the animals and his profession. He lived in a villa within the grounds of the zoo, with his wife Antonia, who had a special capacity for dealing with animals, sensing their needs, and paying them special attention when they required it. She also was the one to do tours for special visitors since she had a capacity to deal easily with humans as well as animals. Their young son Rys also took part in exercising or feeding the zoo's population. It was idyllic, and of course it was not to stay that way. In _The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story_ (Norton), poet, novelist, and science writer Diane Ackerman has told a great human story of how the zoo and the Zabinski family played their roles once the Nazis came. The Zabinskis were honored after World War II for their contributions in saving 300 Jews, but Jan said, "I don't understand all the fuss. If any creature is in danger, you save it, human or animal." It sounds just a matter of humane common sense, but this couple deserved the recognition, and deserve this sensitive and exciting account of what they would not have called heroism. The Warsaw zoo was one of the best in Europe, but became a casualty of the war. Ackerman's description of the effects of the bombs on the zoo is startling, because we are, sadly, used to hearing about the physical effects of war on humans, but not on exotic animals. The exotic animals were shipped to the Berlin zoo (where eventually the ravages of war would come to them as well). The remaining creatures became targets for drunken SS buddies. It was all heartbreaking for the Zabinskis. Jan was active in the clandestine Polish army, and realized that even in its dilapidated state, the zoo might have something to offer the resistance. He arranged for the facilities to be turned into a pig farm, and then a fur farm, supposedly supporting the Nazi effort, but all the while undercutting it. With the bustle of a farming operation, the Zabinskis were able to hide Jews in the cages, in sheds, and in the tunnels beneath them. Antonina did all she could to keep the former zoo cheerful, and to keep it a zoo. The elephants and tigers were gone, but there was a housebroken badger, a rabbit, a hamster, and more. There are many scenes of sweetness between the animals and the humans who love them, but the larger subject prevents any cloying sentiment. Any humor here (and there are some funny parts to the story) is overwhelmed by other details; for instance, Jan and Antonina kept cyanide capsules on their persons at all times, and did have times they thought they were going to have to use them. No such extremity occurred. With the war over, the

Remaining Human In An Inhuman World

"How do you retain a spirit of affection and humor in a crazed, homicidal, unpredictable society?" That is the question Antonina Zabinski -- and her muse, Diane Ackerman -- poise through this unforgettable book. Jan and Antonina Zbinski were Polish Christian zookeepers who managed to save over three hundred Jews by hiding them in clear sight -- in the empty zoo cages. The premise would stretch credibility, except it's true, and annotated in Antonina's memoirs. The obvious question from this novel is: who are the animals? We meet a number of animals here -- the badger who, when confronted with the German bombing, knocks on the door of a neighbor for salvation; the young hare who is a carnivore and a comic; the elephant baby Tuzinka, the 12th elephant born in captivity. These loving animals populate the lives of the Zabinskis and their "Guests" -- resistance activists and refugee Jews. They, along with their "hosts" and other just people such as Janusz Korczak, who accompanied 200 pure and innocent children to their death at Treblinka, are among those who restore one's sense of humanity. Then there are the others -- the Germans who are committed to destroying not only the lives but the ecology of the Poles whom they conquer. (Germans were rationed over 2,600 calories; Poles around 680; and Jews an astounding 184). Among the more fascinating -- if you can call it that -- conclusions that Ackerman reaches is that the Germans were breeding animals in order to form their own "master race" of extinct and superior animal beings. This book broke my heart, mended it again, and also gave me a window into an area that -- to my knowledge -- has not been adequately explored: the worship and violation of nature by the Nazis as they sought to control the planet's genome. Just when I thought I knew about the savagery of that period of history, I find that there is more to know. It is one more reason for the world to say, "Never again!"

The Mermaid and the Shield

The age-old symbol of Warsaw is a mermaid wielding a sword. The zookeeper's wife in this book is Antonina Zabinski, an ardent animal lover who seems to have a special connection with animals and who is the wife of the keeper of the Warsaw Zoo when Poland is invaded at the start of World War II. As the war progresses, Antonina becomes a defender of Jews trapped in Warsaw (and effectively doomed to an almost certain death by slow starvation, or otherwise, by the Nazis) by helping to hide and save approximately 300 of them on the grounds of the vast Warsaw Zoo. In effect, Antonina can be seen as a mermaid with a shield defending Jews in Warsaw from the Nazi onslaught. The book, however, is not just about Antonina. It is also about her husband, Jan, the keeper of the Warsaw Zoo, who fights for Poland at the beginning of the war but is captured and amazingly released, due to the efforts of a German zookeeper. After his release, Jan fights on as an officer in the underground Polish Army and rescues several hundred Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto who find sanctuary on the grounds of the Warsaw Zoo, which the Nazis allow to remain functioning on a limited basis (supposedly because of their love of nature and animals, although some of the gruesome events protrayed in this book tend to discount that supposition) and permit the Zabinski family to continue to live on the grounds of the zoo. The book is also set against the larger backdrop of the Warsaw Holocaust and continues to the end of the war and shortly thereafter as the Soviets reopen the zoo in 1949 (Jan, however, resigns two years later under the pall of Stalinism). The author calls her work one of "narrative nonfiction" which apparently means narrative storytelling imbued with facts (e.g., Antonina, who died in 1971, left behind a diary of her wartime experiences) to relate actual events. The book is a wonderful story of courage, faith (the Zabinskis' were Christians), and determination by both Jan and Antonina in the face of horror.

A new story from World War II

This book recounts one of those odd, quirky episodes in history which illuminate a variety of circumstances and events in a whole new light. When Warsaw fell at the beginning of the Second World War, the city had one of the better-known zoos in Europe. The zookeeper, Jan Zabinski, his wife Antonina, and their son Rys, lived on the grounds in an official residence. Jan served briefly in the army during the fighting, and was captured. He almost immediately had a stroke of luck, though: he met an old friend, a German zookeeper serving in the German army, and the friend escorted Zabinski back to his zoo. Over the next five years, until the zoo was liberated along with the rest of Warsaw towards the end of the year, the Zabinskis used their positions as zookeeper and wife, and local celebrities, to conceal several hundred Jews and other refugees from the Nazis, some of them hiding in the now disused animal cages on the grounds of the zoo (many of the animals were killed by soldiers, or starved to death). Jan Zabinski was involved in partisan activities, and concealed munitions and other supplies in places he didn't think anyone would look. At the start of the war, it turned out that the Nazis were interested in the zoo for two primary reasons: one, they wanted to "move to safekeeping" any rare animals it had--the safekeeping of course being in a German zoo; and two, they were obsessed with resurrecting extinct species of animal that they thought "wild" and "untamed" and "pure". Because of these obsessions, they let the zoo continue to operate at a lower level much longer than they otherwise would have, and the Zabinskis were able to rescue hundreds of lives as a result. The author does a reasonably good job of recounting the situation that the war put the Zabinskis in, and she has skill with words and sentences. It is a bit odd for a historian at this level (the book is obviously meant for a general audience) to discuss sources and what people intended for posterity to think with her readers. This leads to some unusual syntax and paragraphs, to say the least, but I found it for the most part interesting and enjoyable. The author pulls no punches, either, though she doesn't draw parallels: the Nazis were the most militant environmentalists and animal rights advocates the world has ever seen. Believe it or not, Hitler outlawed most vivisection and animal testing. They used Jews instead. On one occasion in Ackerman's book, a German scientist is punished for inadequately anesthetizing a worm before conducting an experiment on it. I enjoyed this book a great deal, and think the general reader will find it fascinating

'Why do we humanize animals and animalize humans?'

There are many stories that continue to come out of the WW II experience, stories of courage, love and survival in the face of near hopeless situations inflicted upon the globe by Nazi Germany, and, thankfully, biographies of heroes whose moral convictions were stronger than the destructive forces of Hitler's cadre. THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE is yet another unknown story, a true tale of survival of the human spirit pitted against what seemed to be the end of the world in Poland. Yet this book is not 'just another war story'. As presented by the astute investigator and gifted writer Diane Ackerman, whose many books include 'A Natural History of the Senses', 'An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain', 'The Moon by Whale Light - and Other Adventures Among Bats, Penguins', Crocodilians and Whales', 'A Natural History of Love', 'Deep Play', 'Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden', 'The Rarest of the Rare: Vanishing Animals, Timeless Worlds', and anthologies of poems such as 'I Praise My Destroyer: Poems' and 'Jaguar of Sweet Laughter: New and Selected Poems', this is a magical tale about a couple in Warsaw whose roles as zookeepers allowed their shared appreciation for animal life and ways of adapting to devise ingenious ways to protect many of the Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto from mass execution. Jan and Antonina Zabinski were Polish Christian keepers of the Zoo when the Germans under Hitler's scheme of world domination and purification of Europe for the chosen race of Aryans began. Ackerman quietly builds her setting by concentrating on the special gifts of these two remarkable people in caring for the animals of the zoo: her descriptions of the various members of the menagerie are at once comical and insightful. When Hitler's move into Poland began the Zabinskis, long friends with the many Jews who lived around them, devised clever ways to turn the zoo and their own villa into a safe haven for the increasingly threatened annihilation of their friends who happened to be Jewish. Throughout the horrors of the German destruction of the city and the attempts of the Warsaw Uprising, led in part by Jan Zabinski, the couple maintained an atmosphere of calm and grace for the some 300 Jews in their hiding. Using the Zoo as a shield to deflect occupying German interest in animal studies as a part of their theory of purification, and as a means to gather food in the Jewish Ghetto for the 'animals', they were able to feed their 'guests' and provide papers and documents to aid the escape of the Jews who chose to flee Poland. And after the war the Zabinskis continued to refurbish the zoo and offer sanctity to those Jews whose lives had been so devastated during the crush of Warsaw. Ackerman is a master craftsman and her depth of scientific knowledge about the animal kingdom makes her ability to relate this story of 'The Zookeeper's Wife' match the inordinate amount of research about her subjects to create an important document ab
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