Zookeeper's Wife

A review of The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman

The Zookeeper's Wife tells an unusual story of life in Poland during World War II.  Only this one includes both people and animals.  It is the story of the zookeeping Zabinski family, which includes Jan and his wife Antonina, and their son Rys (short for Ryszard, the Polish word for lynx). 

The Warsaw Zoo was very innovative and respected in pre-war days; the family lived on site and the animals were a big part of their lives.  Much of that changed with the arrival of the Nazis (they hunted some of the animals for sport).  And during the war it was also a pig and fur farm, giving the Zabinski's a front for war resistance activities.

While important, the zoo is only a small part of the book.  The Zabinski's were active members of the resistance and they sheltered more than 300 Jews and resisters in the empty cages, or disguised them as workers on the grounds.  And at the center of the story is Antonina's life and skill at juggling home, family, zoo work, and the war. 

Diane Ackerman supplies a lot of information about the Warsaw ghetto, the lives of individual Jews, and the resistance movement.  She says that as much as 12% of the Polish population was involved in the resistance.  And Many ordinary people put their own lives in danger to help Jews however they could, from forging false papers to running an underground to safer countries.

Ackerman has clearly done her research, using Antonina's diaries and other records, including interviews of survivors.  She is a lyrical and articulate writer and I enjoyed listening to this book, read expertly by Suzanne Toren (downloadable from Overdrive or available as a book on CD).