I’ve been wanting to read The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman since the movie came out. I’m a big believer of reading books before seeing the movie (because I figure better be disappointed in the movie that takes a few hours out of your life than disappointed in the book that takes much more than that), and I’ve been busy with my other countries, so I’ve yet to watch the movie. But if it’s anything like the book, then it’s going to be amazing.
A Note on History:
Part of Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 was the Siege of Warsaw. The Luftwafe bombed the city starting on September 25, killing massive amounts of people—up to 25,000 civilians—and devastating the city. While Germany did damage to the city (and the country), the Poles would have held out longer if it weren’t for two things: a lack of armaments (thanks to England and France encouraging them not to arm themselves in the months leading up to World War II in an effort to placate Germany) and the snail-like movement of Poland’s allies (thanks again, England and France).
By September 26, major installations inside Warsaw were captured, and by the 27th, Germans were entering the city. The next five years were ones of misery for the Poles.
Antonina and Jan Żabiński are the zookeepers of the Warsaw Zoo. While Jan is the official director, Antonina is a huge help in raising and caring for the animals; she has a natural talent in understanding them and putting them at ease. At any given time a dozen or so orphaned animals live in the villa (or main house) with Antonina, Jan, their son Rys, and the servants. The Żabińskis genuinely love the animals.
When Germany bombed Poland, not just humans died: so did many of the animals. It broke the Żabińskis’ hearts. Germany stole the most valuable of the living animals, and then killed the rest—murdered really; such gratuitous killing for no reason, be it man or animal, is murder—in a shooting spree.
The Żabińskis were unphased, though. They used the zoo grounds for a pig farm for a while, and then as garden plots in which to keep the locals fed.
But what the Germans never found out was that the Żabińskis used the zoo as an underground railroad the entire time, to hide Jews and members of the resistance. They knew the risks, but still they persevered because they were horrified by what the Germans, and even some of the locals, were doing.
This is one of the books that gives me hope for humanity; it’s the reason why reading about World War II inspires instead of depresses. There’s so much good—all around you—if you only look.
This book is based on the diary of Antonina Żabiński, so she takes center stage. As I said earlier, she had a rare talent of communicating with animals. Her husband said about her:
“But, in Punia’s [Antonina’s] case, it’s like that instinct is absent, leaving her unafraid of either two-or four-legged animals. Nor does she convey fear. That combination might persuade people or animals around her not to attack. Especially animals, which are better at telepathy than humans, and can read each other’s brain waves.
“When our Punia radiates a calm and friendly interest in her animals. . .she works as a sort of lighting rod for their fear, absorbs it, neutralizes it. Through her comforting tone of voice, her gentle movements, the safe way her eyes meet them, she imparts a trust in her ability to protect them, heal them, nourish them, and so on.” —The Zookeeper’s Wife
This gift made it possible to soothe people—including violent and angry German soldiers—as well. She knew that her husband, Jan, was part of the local resistance, but she never once asked him to stop regardless of the danger to their son and those living underneath their protection. She was fiercely brave, like a nursing she-cat, and nothing could rest from her grip those that she decided to protect.
Jan kept a lot of his activities in the resistance from his wife to protect them both. He shouldered a massive burden, and he never once collapsed under that weight. He might not always have been kind to his family members, but this speaks more to the pressure of all that he was juggling—garden plots or pig farm or zoo, resistance work, and a factory job to keep them in food—than any personal failing. Despite being called up to the Polish army at the beginning of the war and then being part of the Warsaw Uprising which resulted in his incarceration in an internment camp, he always managed to survive and come home to his family.
Rys was just a child when the Germans descended; he had to grow up fast. His pet pig was stolen and slaughtered. He had to leave behind his best animal friends. He had to see his home destroyed and looted. But still he survived the war with grace. Probably because of his parents.
The majority of the story takes place in the Warsaw Zoo and attached villa, moving mostly sequentially through history as the Żabińskis deal with each new blow from the murder of their animals to the Warsaw Uprising. Only briefly does Antonina and her family (minus Jan) leave Poland, and this is during the uprising and “liberation” (ha!) by the Red Army of Warsaw (August to Oct 2, 1944).
This story and the writing was moving. Antonina was honest in her diaries, modest about her successes, and loving. There are some great insights, beautifully written:
“Why was it, she asked herself, that ‘animals can sometimes subdue their predatory ways in only a few months, while humans, despite centuries of refinement, can quickly grow more savage than any beast.?'”
“I don’t understand all the fuss. If any creature is in danger, you save it, human or animal.”
“The idea of safety had shrunk into particles – one snug moment, then the next. Meanwhile, the brain piped fugues of worry and staged mind-theaters full of tragedies and triumphs, because unfortunately, the fear of death does wonders to focus the mind, inspire creativity, and heightens the senses. Trusting one’s hunches only seems gamble if one has time for seem; otherwise the brain goes on autopilot and trades the elite craft of analysis for the best rapid insights that float up from its danger files and ancient bag of tricks.”
I love how this book combines animal life with that of humans. There are so many similarities, and some things—such as the horrors of war—are easier to view when seen through the film of nature. Plus, this is a unique story where human compassion and love overcomes the worst sort of circumstances, bridging the divide of religion, race, and country.