jan and antonia

Ackerman brings her lyrical virtuoso and keen naturalist’s eye to this tale of bravery, compassion and beauty amidst the most horrifying of circumstances.  Set against the backdrop of WWII, The Zookeeper’s Wife opens in Warsaw during the summer of 1935.  War has yet to erupt across the continent and Jan and Antonina Zabinski are the blissful caretakers of the world renowned Warsaw Zoo.  As daylight first streams through the glass windows of the villa, Antonina rises to a gaggle of exotic animal calls: a starling gushing a “medley of stolen songs,” distant wrens “cranking up a few arpeggios,” and cuckoos calling “monotonously like clocks struck on the hour.”  These rambunctious melodies form the soundtrack of her life until, in the fall of 1939, Antonina hears the foreboding hum of “tens, maybe even hundreds” of planes over head.  In an evocative passage that testifies to her poetic powers, Ackerman imagines the day German bombers destroy the zoo:

“On that clear day, the sky broke open and whistling fire hurtled down, cages exploded, moats rained upward, iron bars squealed as they wrenched apart.  Wooden buildings collapsed, sucked down by heat.  Glass and metal shards mutilated the skin, feathers, hooves, and scales indiscriminately as wounded zebras ran, ribboned with blood, terrified howler monkeys and orangutans dashed caterwauling into the trees and bushes, snakes slithered loose, and crocodiles pushed onto their toes and trotted at speed…The clotted air hurt to breathe and stank of burning wood, straw and flesh.  The monkeys and birds, screeching infernally, created an otherworldly chorus backed by a crackling timpani of bullets and bomb blasts.  Echoing around the zoo, the tumult surely sounded like ten thousand Furies scratching up from hell to unhinge the world.”

After the attack, a terrible silence descended on Warsaw Zoo.  When Poland surrendered to Germany a month later, Hitler swiftly began his campaign of terror, squashing all opposition to Nazi rule and ordering Jews into overcrowded, disease-ridden ghettos before implementing his plans for mass murder.

The Zookeeper’s Wife traces the true life story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, an ordinary couple who, despite the constant threat of exposure and death, risked their lives to save over 300 Jews.  Known as the “house under the crazy star,” Warsaw Zoo became a frequent rest stop along the route to freedom for those fleeing Hitler’s death camps.  Closets.  Cabinets.  Lion’s cages.  These were just a few places where the Zabinskis would stow away Jews.

Throughout the book, the Zabinskis’ profound adoration for nature, in all its chaotic idiosyncrasy and stunning messiness, starkly contrasts the Nazi obsession with sterility, perfection and order.  In a horrifying scene, Lutz Heck, a German zoologist and high-ranking SS official, hosts a New Year’s shooting party at the zoo.  “Drunk and full of hilarity,” Heck and his fellow rowdy SS officers kill the caged, helpless animals for no other reason but their own fun.  Antonina and her young son, Rys, could hear the blasts of gun shots through the shutters. “This is beyond politics or war,” Antonina wrote in her diary, “this is sheer gratuitous slaughter.”  While the Nazis demonstrated a disturbing willingness to systematically massacre millions, Jan and Antonina safeguarded life at all costs, even when it meant capture or death for themselves.

Ackerman beautifully juxtaposes the brutality and senselessness of WWII with the daring and valor of those brave enough to revolt against Nazi power.  Jan, in many ways, led a more adventurous life than his wife: he taught biology classes at secret universities, smuggled Jews across the ghetto to the Aryan side of the city, belonged to the Underground Army, and took part in elaborate, top secret conspiracies to sabotage the German war effort (including bombing trains and even poisoning pork sandwiches headed for the SS dining hall) .  

But The Zookeeper’s Wife really belongs to the namesake of its title.  By focusing her attention on Antonina rather than her risk-loving, activist husband, Ackerman invites us to consider the myriad ways in which normal people can impact history.  Though we often imagine history as the grand narrative of a few great men, Leo Tolstoy believed history could more accurately be described as the combined effect of the many small actions of ordinary people: “an infinitely large number of infinitesimally small actions.”  Though the Zabinskis’ remarkable story has-until now-largely fallen through the cracks of the WWII chronicle, The Zookeeper’s Wife reminds us that ordinary people are capable of extraordinary kindness, even in the face of terror.

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