The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman is a book I picked off a display at the library marked “Books To Be Made Into Movies in 2017.”  I’m not a big movie watcher and thus would’ve probably avoided the shelf altogether, but the subtitle of the book caught my eye:  A War Story.  It turns out the war is World War II, which is one of my biblio-interests, so I took it home.  This piece of very literary nonfiction is the story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, directors of the Warsaw Zoo at the outbreak of World War II.  It chronicles the story of their life with animals, and then as the Nazis take over Poland, their involvement in the Polish Underground.  Woven into the story is all sorts of information about various and sundry Polish, animal, and World War II-related minutiae.

At the hub of this great wheel is the zoo, and at the heart of the zoo is Antonina.  Ackerman uses personal accounts and Antonina’s own diaries/memoirs to reconstruct what life was like in their home and its most interesting environs.  Antonina had the remarkable ability to almost get inside the animals’ heads and communicate with them somehow (or perhaps empathize and understand them would be more accurate).  She loved them and took them into her home, when necessary:  sick and orphaned animals had the perfect surrogate mother in her. This empathy found its object in people as the occupation of Poland progressed into annihilation.

The thing that makes this book very memorable, aside from its subject matter, is Ackerman’s writing.  It positively sings.  I marked so many passages to share here that I’m having a hard time picking just a few exemplary ones.

Basic concerns for zoos both antique and modern include keeping the animals healthy, sane, safe, and above all contained.  Zoos have always faced ingenious escape artists, leggy lightning bolts like klipspringers, which can leap right over a man’s head and land on a rock ledge the size of a quarter.  Powerful and stocky with an arched back, these nervous little antelopes only weigh forty pounds, but they’re agile and jump on the tips of their vertical hooves like ballet dancers performing on their toenails.  Startle them and they will bounce around the enclosure and possibly leap the fence, and, like all antelopes, they pronk.  Legend has it that, in 1919, a Burmese man invented the closest human equivalent to pronking–a hopping stick for his daughter, Pogo, to use crossing puddles on her way to school.  (30)

And this, about an insect collection:

An insect collection is a silent oasis in the noisy clamor of the world, isolating phenomena so that they can be seen undistractedly.  In that sense, what is being collected are not the bugs themselves but the deep attention of the collector.  That is also a rarity, a sort of gallery that ripples through the mind and whose real holdings are the perpetuation of wonder in a maelstrom of social and political distractions.  “Collection” is a good word for what happens, because one becomes collected for a spell, gathering up one’s curiosity the way rainwater collects.  Every glass-faced box holds a sample of a unique collector’s high regard, and that’s partly why people relish studying them, even if they know all the bug parts by heart.  (152)

And this about the Zabinskis’ involvement in the Underground:

Officially, as spoken truths, Antonina knew few of Jan’s activities; he rarely told Antonina about them, and she rarely asked him to confirm what she suspected.  She found it essential not to know too much about his warcraft, comrades, or plans.  Otherwise, worry about pollute her mood all day and interfere with her equally vital responsibilities.  Because many people relied on her for their sustenance and sanity, she “played a sort of hide-and-seek game” with herself, she noted, pretending not to know, as Jan’s shadow life floated around the edges of her awareness.  “When people are constantly on the brink of life and death, it’s better to know as little as possible,” she told herself.  But, without meaning to exactly, one still tends to conjure up scary scenarios, their pathos or salvation, as if one could endure a trauma before it occurred, in small manageable doses, as a sort of inoculation.  Are there homeopathic degrees of anguish?  With sleights of mind, Antonina half fooled herself enough to endure years of horror and upheaval, but there’s a difference between not knowing and choosing not to know what one knows but would rather not face.  Both she and Jan continued to keep a small dose of cyanide with them at all times.  (262)

As much as I positively love Ackerman’s style, diction, and tone, I found it distracting from the story itself.  I don’t really mean that I didn’t enjoy the book because it is so well written (ha!); what I mean is that I would’ve comprehended the information contained in the book if it had been written in a straightforward style.  Instead, I focused on the beauty of the language and imagery and got lost in that.  I found myself re-reading a lot in order to grasp the information.  Also, I found the detached tone a little distracting for a piece of nonfiction that seems like a novel.  I guess I feel like the book has something of an identity crisis.

After that negative paragraph, I need to say this:  I would absolutely recommend the book, and I will consider watching the movie when it is released.  The biggest thing I took away from it is that there’s a whole lot more about World War II that I don’t know and some I have never even heard of.  I want to know more about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Poland in general, the Nazi program/plan for the resurrection of three species of animals (the aurochen, the European bison, and the tarpan), and Henryk Goldszmit (pen name:  Janusz Korczak), a pediatrician and writer who chose to stay with the children in the Warsaw Ghetto even when he could’ve escaped, to name just a few things.  I’d also be interested to reading more of Diane Ackerman’s beautiful prose.  Highly Recommended.  (Norton, 2007)

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  1. I had no idea this book was set in WW2. I identify with your comment “there’s a whole lot more about World War II that I don’t know and some I have never even heard of.” There are so many untold stories. Nice review.

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