In The Zookeeper’s Wife, naturalist writer Diane Ackerman seamlessly weaves together the memoirs, recollections, stories, and interviews with Jan and Antonina Żabiński to provide her readers with a meticulous account of the Żabińskis’ “radically compassionate” efforts to save Warsaw’s Jews from Nazi extermination. Ackerman begins with a description of the Żabińskis’ unique lifestyle tending to the animals of Warsaw’s zoo in 1935. Jan, the son of a Polish railroad engineer, exhibits his father’s muscular build but hones his interest in zoology to earn the position of Warsaw’s zookeeper. Antonina grew up under more harrowing circumstances. Her father and stepmother were shot as intelligentsia members during the Russian Revolution. At the time, Antonina was only a young girl and went to live with her aunt in Warsaw. Well-educated and articulate, Antonina takes a position as an archivist at Warsaw’s College of Agriculture where she meets Jan. In 1931, the pair marries and begins their work at the zoo. A year later Antonina gives birth to their son Ryszard, whom they call Ryś (“lynx” in Polish). Their nickname choice proves to be ironic because the Żabińskis later use animal names to refer to the “guests” who hide at the zoo.
By the time summer arrives in 1939, the Żabińskis’ goal of transforming the zoo into a collection of natural habitats for their unique residents has almost been accomplished. Antonina uses her maternal instinct as well as her sixth sense to nurse sick or abandoned animals, and the Żabińskis’ house resembles a circus more than a human home. During the summer, Antonina establishes the tradition of taking Ryś to their cottage in the country. For some weekends, she travels back to Warsaw to spend time with Jan, who keeps her abreast of the rising turmoil between Germany and the rest of Europe.
On September 1, 1939, the first day of school for Polish children, Antonina and the rest of Warsaw awaken to the sound of planes and bombs. The Blitzkrieg has occurred, and the Żabińskis, like many other Poles, are puzzled. Many of them had assumed that Poland possessed the military strength to defend itself and that their allies would immediately come to their aid. When Jan and Antonina discover that this is not the case, they flee to the countryside until they deem it safe to return. When they travel back to the zoo, they are horrified to see that not only have...
(The entire section is 1771 words.)
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