The Zookeeper’s Wife has been on my To Read list (and physically in my house) for about 4 years. Its place on my bookshelves predates my CBR membership! After a few false starts I finally made my way through this one…
*Trigger Warning if you love animals more than people*
I have read countless books on World War II, both fiction and non fiction, but none of them wrecked me like Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife. Antonina and Jan Zabinski ran the Warsaw Zoo in the 1930s; they had an idyllic life full of unique and cherished pets indoors as well as a collection of prized animals for all of Poland to visit on the zoo grounds. Unfortunately, in 1939, the Nazis came to Warsaw with vengeance and Poles were seen as only marginally better than Jews. The zoo was bombed and dozens of animals were killed or horribly injured which is difficult to read about. Also, the violence towards animals doesn’t end with the removal of most of the animals (to German zoos) shortly after the Warsaw bombing. Nazi violence continues to pop up towards animals throughout German occupation- particularly towards the pets the Zabinski’s son, Rhys, raised throughout the war.
I have five cats and two dogs, which is exponentially less than the menagerie I grew up with, and am an absolute bleeding heart when it comes to anything on 4 legs. I haven’t seen Mufasa die in decades, I’ll never see Marley and Me and I tear up just thinking about Homeward Bound. Because animal suffering ranks higher to me than human suffering the brutal descriptions of all the violence that befell the animals at the Warsaw Zoo was a lot for me to handle. Not that the humans had it particularly easy.
“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”?”
The animals’ fates are, of course, only a percentage of the Zabinski family’s story and I’m glad I pushed through (ok, skimmed) the animal violence to learn more about their contribution to the Poland Underground. The Zabinskis sheltered hundreds of Jewish men, women and children in their zoo from the beginning of the war to the very end. Jan Zabinksi was much more involved in the Underground than his wife; the risks he took were extraordinary. However, Antonina was an equal partner in their efforts to conceal Jews within their property- even with Nazis constantly coming around because they used zoo grounds for various projects.
While Ackerman sometimes goes off on tangents, usually when explaining the past and future of a new zoo Guest, she delivers a cohesive and well researched biography of two remarkable human beings. If you can get past the animal violence and focus only on the Zabinskis’ story then I recommend this for any WWII buff.