Review

The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story

by Diane Ackerman

Antonina had a way with animals. She identified with them and understood how their instincts worked. So who better to live in a large urban zoo and help her husband manage it than this unassuming, young Polish mother?

In early September 1939 the routine of daily life in Warsaw was horribly and quickly destroyed by the German war machine. Much of the city was physically ruined, and the zoo and its many inhabitants and employees were caught in the horror of war. Many of the zoo's buildings, shelters, cages and habitats were destroyed or badly damaged. Most of the vast collection of exotic animals died in the bombings. Still, some escaped, while others were brutally shot in their cages by Nazi soldiers. This premier zoo abruptly became a tattered shadow of its former self.

Dr. Jan Zabinski, the zookeeper, and his wife Antonina provided a temporary hiding place for many Jews. Some were friends, but most were total strangers. Not only did the Zabinskis provide a safe haven for Resistance activists and persecuted Jews, they actually hid some refugees in plain sight. Their "Guests," who had Aryan features, were given jobs at the zoo. The Zabinskis worked tirelessly with the Underground. Every day they lived with fear, dread and uncertainty, and even carried a cyanide tablet with them, just in case.

Jan joined the Resistance, hiding explosives in the elephant quarters and holding various jobs that allowed him to enter the Ghetto on work-related matters. He smuggled food and information to his friends in the Ghetto and made several useful contacts. Much of Jan's work for the Underground kept him away from home, so it fell to Antonina to look after their young son, the remaining menagerie and the Guests. Somehow she managed to feed and shelter everyone who sought her help, a huge undertaking that required quick thinking and the ability to size up whether or not a person could be trusted. She kept her wits about her and learned to lie credibly to the German officials and soldiers who often stopped by. Against all odds, she even managed to provide some calm and a bit of normality in the frightening and dangerous world they now inhabited.

In July 1942 the Nazis began "liquidating" the Warsaw Ghetto. In just two months 265,000 Jews were shipped from the Ghetto to the death camp Treblinka. Only 55,000 remained in the Ghetto, which then became a labor camp run by the SS. A new type of Underground emerged. Zagota, a rescue group, provided much-needed cash and thousands of precious fake documents to the Zabinskis. Approximately one-twelfth of the entire population of Warsaw and its suburbs helped many Jews escape. 

The war and cruel occupation raged on. In June 1943 Antonina gave birth to a daughter --- a blessing and a ray of hope amidst so much cruelty, death and terror. Jan joined the Home Army and was summoned to battle on August 1, 1944. Early in the Warsaw Uprising he was shot through the neck. The hospital where he was recuperating was captured by the Germans, and he was sent to a POW camp. During his long absence, Antonina looked after their two young children and her sickly, elderly mother-in-law.

Antonina's story is testimony that fear can be overcome by courage and that good can triumph over evil. The spirit of one dedicated, Christian Polish woman and her love of animals and mankind shine through the pages of this intriguing book.

Reviewed by Carole Turner on January 24, 2011

The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story
by Diane Ackerman

  • Publication Date: September 17, 2008
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • ISBN-10: 039333306X
  • ISBN-13: 9780393333060