The Zookeeper's Wife

The Zookeeper’s Wife

By Diane Ackerman

This is the true story of Jan and Antonia Zabinski who ran the Warsaw Zoo and managed to save over three hundred people from Nazis during WWII. This Polish couple hid people in animal enclosures and worked tirelessly to save innocent lives (animal and human) and fight for what was right- all the while trying to survive and raise children.

This is a remarkable story, one of epic heroism and selflessness, but also of everyday humanism. We are generally led to believe that stories of people risking their lives to save/hide their Jewish (or other endangered peoples) neighbors and friends are few and far between. This book offers incredible stories and historical truths about how many people took part in resisting the Final Solution. I consider myself someone with a pretty decent amount of knowledge regarding the Holocaust, but I have to admit that I really had no idea.

The depth and extent of Ackerman’s research is incredible. Absolutely incredible. She left no stone unturned and painted an image of wartime Poland that I never would have expected or have ever seen before. The Zabinkski’s and their remarkable zoo come to life. The story becomes poignant and tangible. I felt like I knew Antonia and could see her home with my own eyes- but to realize that her story had been there my whole life, to know that I had been ignorant of such a beautiful example of what human beings are capable of when faced with nightmarish cruelty, was almost heartbreaking.

If I had to nitpick- which we all know I tend to do- I would say that, in the beginning, it was a little confusing to figure out whether or not the book was fiction or history. Ackerman interweaves historical accounts (and details from interviews with survivors and witnesses) with creative storytelling. For a while, I struggled with “Is this all supposed to be true? How would she know about this conversation or this private moment?”

But, I got over myself and looked at the story as a whole. This is a war story, yes, but the creative-filling-in-of-gaps makes for a more complete view of Antonia and what daily life was actually life in a city completely under Nazi power.

Read this book. It is a beautiful story about humanity during the Holocaust and will teach you more about WWII history and human dignity and grace than most other books combined.

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