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Sonoma County Gazette
ZooKeepers Wife

Book Review: The Zookeeper's Wife

Apr 22, 2017
by Diane McCurdy, Film and Book Reviews


The Holocaust has been examined from myriad points of view.  So why not from a non-human aspect or at least a consideration of how desperately animals suffered along with their human counterparts. The book, The Zookeeper's Wife, could be called “The Holocaust Lite” because although it deals with one of the most gruesome and despicable atrocities in history, it never becomes graphic, maudlin, or overly sentimental.  Animals die, people die, terrible things happen, nature and the human spirit recover, life goes on.

Diane Ackerman's best seller is technically not a novel.  It is listed as non-fiction because this  true story is based mostly on the diary of the main character, Antonina Zabinski,  along with extensive interviews and archival material.  Antonina was truly an animal whisperer. She has a special affinity to relate to non-humans.  As the wife of Jan Zabinski, the curator of the Prestigious Warsaw Zoo she treated her charges like her children. Perhaps because of her ability to soothe and also to  predict the wiles of savage beasts, she and Jan were able to hoodwink the Nazi's and through subterfuge and heroism save the lives of  300 Jews.  The zoo was bombed and shelled and the most exotic and expensive animals were trucked off to Berlin.  What stock that was remaining was taken out by Nazi's during a New Year's Eve night of drunken revelry.  In her journal Antonina sees this event as a foreshadowing of the many humans that would subsequently perish.  The Zabinski's talk the occupying powers into letting them start a pig farm on the extensive grounds that had been their zoo.  Jan and his staff had permission to pass into the Warsaw ghetto where they city's Jews had been gathered and impounded to pick up food scraps to feed the hogs.  In this manner they were able to smuggle out people and hide them in animal enclosures and tunnels most of whom were then hustled off to safe houses. Antonina was tall and fair, and Hitler's head zoologist acknowledged and appreciated her Aryan attractiveness which allowed the Zabinski's some leeway in their dangerous endeavors.

Ackerman is a nature writer and her sensory and visual descriptions of the natural world are lovely.  But her digressions are oftentimes distracting.  For example, one character has an impressive and apparently important collection of beetles. Thereupon the author will discourse on something like the life cycle of the insects.  As a warning for the appearance of a military inspector,  Antonina would begin  playing a certain selection on the piano.  Then the author fills us out on the whole portfolio of the composer of the piece.

Even though Jan Zabinski was an officer in the Polish army and a professor  in Warsaw's secret university, it is Antonina who is the heart of this story.  While The Zookeeper's Wife does not gloss over brutality, it gives a feminine patina to the triumph of grace.


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