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 many animals been killed by the bombings, but some have also been shot in cold blood. Antonina cannot safely stay at the zoo and takes Ryś to a series of hiding places in the city. There she meets kindhearted, generous individuals who are willing to share whatever they have with those in need of shelter and other essentials.
When the Germans officially move in, Jan’s determination to participate in the Underground Polish Resistance Movement increases, and he and Antonina find themselves in a situation far more dangerous than their former lives as zookeepers. However, they do receive help from unlikely sources such as Lutz Heck, a German zoologist who is especially interested in preserving or recreating Germany’s “natural” bloodlines, including animals who were once native to Germany. Heck approaches the Żabińskis about sending their more exotic animals who had survived the Blitzkrieg to Berlin to be “on loan” and in safety until the end of the war. While Jan and Antonina do not trust Heck, they both agree that having him as an ally will help them in their mission to save people and animals. Unfortunately, not long after their meeting with Heck, the Warsaw Zoo is closed with Heck claiming that he simply did not have the power to prevent the closing. Not to be discouraged from becoming more involved in the Resistance Movement, savvy Jan creates a ploy to put the zoo to use in a seemingly benign manner—he offers to turn it into a pig farm to feed the many German troops stationed in Warsaw. While Jan’s idea...
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