The Zookeeper’s Wife, by Diane Ackerman

The Zookeeper's Wife

The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the story of Jan and Antonina Żabriński, the married couple owner-operators of a zoo in prewar Warsaw, who then spent several years hiding Jews from the Nazis during the war. (Yes, there’s some effort—as you can infer from the title—to make this the story of the wife specifically, but for the most part it’s really about both of them, and their young son Ryś.)

The book is nonfiction. It begins with a description of day-to-day life at the zoo, when Hitler and the Nazis are more of a theoretical future threat.

Though the zoo is not tiny, and has elephants and plenty of large, traditional, wild animal-type zoo animals, there is a real informality to it. The animals are treated almost more like house pets than zoo animals, with many of them from badgers to pigs indeed having the run of the family’s large house that is on the property. At any given time it sounds like there are ten to twelve animals who hang around primarily in the house—reptiles, rodents, small mammals, birds, whatever—hopping up on the table to get food and such. (My question is wouldn’t they be constantly pissing and shitting all over? These don’t sound like species that can be housetrained, not all of them anyway, so I’ll bet that house did indeed smell like a zoo.)

The Żabrińskis, especially Antonina, are described as having an extraordinary way with animals. Apparently she was practically telepathic in her ability to understand and communicate with animals, and to influence them. Indeed, it’s a skill, an instinct, she had to fall back on later in panicky situations dealing with enemy soldiers and such. She may well have saved her family’s lives on multiple occasions by empathizing with some simpleton or brute holding a gun on them, knowing just how to push his buttons to get him to settle down and not go into rage or sadism mode.

When the Nazis come, the Żabrińskis initially attempt to keep their zoo in operation, or at least keep and care for the animals until such time as it can realistically be reopened, but that proves impossible. Some of the animals are stolen by Germans who run zoos in Germany—sometimes people the Żabrińskis knew personally before the war as colleagues whom they interacted with at international zoo conferences and such—and others are shot for sport. Then the invaders use parts of the grounds themselves for various other purposes (pig farm, fur farm). There is also a Nazi gun depot set up next door to the zoo, so there are always plenty of German soldiers in close proximity (not that they’d be very far away otherwise, since the zoo is in occupied Warsaw).

There are still a few animals left, now treated more than ever as house pets. The bulk of the employees are gone, but the family remains for the duration of the war—with occasional exceptions—at the zoo.

They then become active in the Polish Resistance, hiding ammunition under the animal cages and such. What’s more remarkable is that the zoo—in the heart of Warsaw, with all those Nazi soldiers, SS men, and various government officials near and at times on the grounds and sometimes even entering the house—becomes a key stop in a sort of Polish Underground Railroad for Jews.

Hundreds of Jews stay at least briefly with the family, mostly hiding out on the upper floor or in closets and such during the day when there is a higher risk of visitors, with some stashed in and around the animal cages.

As camouflage, they make sure to have plenty of other people there, people who have some alleged purpose and have the papers to be allowed to be there. They are passed off as Aunt So-and-So from out in the country whose house was destroyed in the bombing, a live-in tutor for Ryś, and so on. That way, if voices are heard coming from the house, someone is glimpsed passing by a window, etc., it’ll seem normal since there are always people coming and going and moving about the house.

Mostly the family manages to skirt along the edge of danger, avoiding for themselves and their Jewish charges death, injury, or imprisonment, but there are some very close calls. In one of the most dramatic scenes, late in the war Nazi soldiers take a couple of children including Rys off behind some trees while the other folks at the zoo are held at gunpoint, and they fire two shots. Of course the implication is that the kids have been executed, which has the effect you’d expect on Antonina and the others. In reality they shot two animals; it was just a sadistic joke.

Throughout The Zookeeper’s Wife are updates about what else is going on in Poland and to a much lesser extent in the war itself. Among the assorted Nazi horrors and oddities, one that I did not know about before reading this book was the attempt through selective breeding to recreate extinct species from Europe and Germany’s past.

Nazi scientists would take whatever current species of animal most resembled the species they wanted to recreate—say, some giant wild bull that appears in ancient cave paintings that they want to be able to hunt like their ancestors did—and then they would breed for the traits they were trying to promote until they had animals as much as possible like the extinct ones. Technically it wouldn’t be the same species as in ancient times, but if the animals were approximately the same size, color, temperament, etc., I suppose that was close enough for their purposes.

When the Nazis’ defeat was pretty much a foregone conclusion, no doubt there were individual Nazis who sought to tone things down in fear of the coming retribution from their victims, but for the most part the Nazis decided to destroy as much as possible and take as many people down with them as they could. If they couldn’t be masters much longer they wanted to go out in a bloodthirsty blaze of glory. As much death and destruction as Poland had suffered the first few years of the war, it only got worse at the end as the Nazis retreated.

It didn’t help that the Soviets held back on their final advance to Germany, content to let the Germans and the resisters of other countries slaughter each other so that all of the Soviets’ neighbors would be as weakened as possible. (Not that the Soviets were the only ones playing that game. The Soviets had long been furious at the dawdling of their supposed Western allies to go all out against the Nazis, as they, accurately, inferred that the purpose of the delay was to let the Nazis and Soviets destroy each other.) When the Nazis were beaten and starting to withdraw from Poland, the Polish Underground, thinking they now would be fighting alongside the Soviet Army, shifted from the occasional harassing bombing or sabotage to openly rising up for full-on war. To the Poles’ dismay, the Soviets did not choose this same time to push the Nazis out of Poland, and the Nazis, weakened as they were, still had more than sufficient will and resources to pretty much obliterate the rebelling Poles.

Again, a lot of the worst suffering of the war occurred during the “all over but the shouting” phase.

One thing that kind of gave me pause about this book is the treatment of the Poles as heroic underdogs bravely defying and fighting the evil invaders. Not that the author denies that there were Poles who behaved less than heroically, but certainly the overwhelming emphasis is on Poles like the Żabrińskis who were innocents who wanted nothing more than to live in peace, and who when war and the Holocaust came responded by courageously siding with the Jews.

My impression from other sources is that when the Nazis conquered a country they invariably found plenty of people eager to collaborate and to help them rid the country of the Jews that they’d always hated almost as much as the Nazis did anyway, that the proportion of the population inclined toward tolerance of if not active cooperation with the Nazis and the Holocaust differed considerably from country to country, and that Poland was toward the more despicable end of that range though probably not the worst.

Think of the extraordinary documentary Shoah as being the mirror image of The Zookeeper’s Wife on this issue. Shoah does not deny that there were Poles who behaved heroically in opposition to the Nazis, nor that non-Jewish Poles suffered enormously during the war, but its emphasis is on condemning the widespread Polish anti-Semitism and cooperation with the Holocaust. Many Poles of course have denounced Shoah as tendentious anti-Polish propaganda, so I’m not saying that you can find out all you need to know about Poland and the Nazis from that one source. But I suspect that someone whose impression of the Polish response to Nazism came solely from The Zookeeper’s Wife would be at least as skewed in the pro-Polish direction as someone whose impression of the Polish response to Nazism came solely from Shoah would be in the anti-Polish direction.

Ackerman seems to be a very good writer, but she’s not the kind of writer who fits me best as a reader. I feel more inclined to recommend her work to others than to seek out more of her work myself.

I was going to describe her style as “florid,” but that’s a term usually used with derogatory connotations that I don’t intend. She’s the kind of writer—and for the vast majority of readers this would be all to the good—who doesn’t just tell you what happened, but uses a high quantity of articulate description to facilitate your being able to feel like you’re there to experience it all yourself. She puts every bit as much into “setting the scene” as she does into the actual playing out of the scene. She’ll tell you what people were wearing, what sounds the animals were making, what the weather was like, what the artillery smoke in the air smelled like, how the wind sounded as it blew through the trees, etc.

The problem is, 90% of that stuff is lost on me because that’s not how my mind works. And this is true of my own writing as well, as people have pointed out to me. When I think about, or later write or tell about, some event, some encounter, some conversation, I’m all about the human dynamics of it. I’ll analyze the psychology, the social implications, the political implications, the moral implications, etc. I’ll critique the ideas the people expressed, the ways their emotion overcame their reason, the fallacies they committed, the ways what they said on this occasion conflicted with or helped to clarify things they’d previously said, etc. But don’t ask me anything (unless it clearly is relevant to these psychological, sociological, and moral analyses) about the style of the furniture in the room, the color of their eyes, whether the one guy had a moustache, the traffic sounds outside, the smells in their kitchen, whether there were hardwood floors where they were, etc., etc., because virtually none of that would I have taken sufficient notice of to remember.

That descriptive stuff rarely interests me in life, and so when I encounter it in my reading my most common reaction is for my eyes to glaze over. The more of it there is, the more impatience I develop as I wait for something to happen that I can sink my teeth into.

Even as a little kid, if I heard the story of Jack and the Beanstalk it may have gotten me started thinking about cleverness and stupidity, bravery and cowardice, temperance and greed, etc., but five minutes after I heard it I couldn’t have told you if Jack had long or short hair, what shade of green the beanstalk was, how high the beanstalk went up into the sky, what kind of boots the giant wore, and so on, because I didn’t care about the physical context like that. I’ve always been more about logic, ideas, values, etc., not sense-data (again, except as it relates to these things).

But that certainly doesn’t make this style of writing bad. To the contrary, as I will reiterate, objectively it almost certainly makes a book like The Zookeeper’s Wife better. But subjectively this writing style makes it a little less enjoyable a read for me.

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