The Zookeeper’s Wife

This morning, I finished The Zookeeper’s Wife, a book by nature writer Diane Ackerman. The book itself was actually an accidental read. My mother had purchased it at the bookstore, and was trying to figure out what book to read next when I suddenly picked it up and started reading it.

The work takes place during World War 2 in Warsaw, Poland. It is based on Ackerman’s research of two main characters, Jan and Antonina that run the Warsaw Zoo and use it as a front to save Jews during the war. The context is powerful, and therefore could either be an extremely depressing or uplifting read – as most Holocaust books are.

I have been to Warsaw, and have walked the streets where many nations have made their stand. I have sat inside the Ghetto walls and looked at the many cement buildings that have many stories to tell. It was the dead of February when I was in Poland, and that added all the more to the feeling of gloom. Ackerman conveys a different feel about everything related to Warsaw, which is the one thing I appreciated the most about the book.

She portrays it as a thriving city full of culture, stories, and history – NOT some forgotten communist haunt, and a place where many Poles turned against their fellow Jew. Many did, I’m sure – and nearly two thirds of the Warsaw population died in the war. However, her concentration on the human nature and salvation of many of these people makes it an uplifting read.

It also reads more like a memoir than a historical account, which I absolutely loved and attributed to Ackerman’s thoughtful research of the subject. Antonina was a complex woman who felt very deeply for the fate of the animals in her zoo. Many were killed in 1939, when the Germans first invaded Poland. She describes with horror the killing of elephants, wild cats, and many other exotic and well-cared-for animals.

BUT Ackerman proudly makes Antonina into a complex character that sees the pain of animals, and doesn’t equate it to that of human suffering. The author plays with the idea of who the animal really is, and what they have endured. Are the Germans animals, because of how they treated their fellow man? Are the Jews animals, because they were hunted? Or are we all really animals, vulnerable and looking for someone like Antonina to take care of us?

Her tone is impeccably descriptive, and at the same time not dense. The New York Times book review in 2007 described it difficult for the reader to switch back and forth between the atmosphere of the zoo and of the war story. I however found this to be precisely the point. The zoo and the saving of 300 or more Jews was something separate from the terror erupting outside, and I believe Ackerman made her point well.

This was  a surprising read that left me more curious about many of the other untold stories that exist from 1939-1945.

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