This World War II biography is written about Jan and Antonina Zabinksi. Jan was the Warsaw zoo’s zookeeper. Before the war, he and his wife lived in a villa at the zoo and enjoyed a home filled with strange and exotic pets, (besides the animals in the zoo, of course). It wasn’t unusual to see a hawk hopping throughout the house, or a baby lion being nursed. But what was once a beautifully strange and fulfilling way of life turned to a life of survival and secrets, when Germany invaded Warsaw during World War II.
What may have appeared to be the Zabinskis’ love for animals before the war was revealed to be a love for life of all kinds, during the war. Although they lost most of their animals, they held on to what they could, and became active participants in the Warsaw underground. The zoo, amidst war-torn Warsaw, and occasionally visited by Nazi soldiers, was an unlikely location for hiding Jews. But the unoccupied animal enclosures served as convenient hiding spots for Jews making their way through the Polish underground.
What I liked about this book is that, despite the atrocities described and the undertones of war, Ackerman’s writing didn’t leave me as drained as I’ve felt when reading or watching other things about World War II. She focuses on Antonina’s spirit of hope and humanity, which makes reading about some of the more distasteful things more palatable.
There is also an almost whimsical quality about Antonina, from her playing “Go Go Go to Crete” on the piano as a warning to those in the home, to her love for creatures both large and small. While she lives in constant fear and worry, she hides it well from those in the house, and in a way, from whomever is reading the book as well.
It’s an amazing story about even more amazing people during an extraordinary time. For more information about Antonina and Jan, here is a brief interview from her daughter, Teresa, who happens to give the movie, based on this book, an endorsement.
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