Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Zookeeper's Wife, by Diane Ackerman

Jan Zabinski was the zookeeper at the Warsaw zoo.  He and his wife Antonina lived on the grounds of the zoo.  When the Nazis occupied Warsaw, the Zabinskis, like many Poles, refused to sit by while their neighbors were forced into the ghetto or dragged off to work camps.  Diana Ackerman's book The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story, tells of the bravery of the Zabinskis and some of their countrymen in harboring and assisting Jews during the occupation.

The Zookeeper's Wife is a great account of Warsaw during the Nazi occupation.  In contrast to Austria, where the Nazi's were welcome and the Germans had more kinship with the Austrians, the Poles tended to be less welcoming.  The Nazis purged many Poles with money and/or an education.  If you need more reason to hate the Nazi ideology and governance, you will find plenty in The Zookeeper's Wife to keep you occupied (pun intended).

I was surprised by the seemingly low-key manner in which the Zabinskis harbored their Jewish guests.  They had some close calls, but for the most part it was a matter of hiding in plain sight.  It's hard for me to fathom the constant stress of war time while defying the occupying force, who seemed to have eyes and ears everywhere.  The stamina and wit of these heroic families is remarkable.  Ackerman sprinkles plenty of anecdotes about life among the surviving zoo animals to remind the reader that life goes on, even when surrounded by so much death and oppression.

The Zabinskis' level-headed approach is reflected in Ackerman's descriptive yet even-toned prose.  I felt right at home with this remarkable family, while humbly admiring their quiet dedication to the survival of their friends and neighbors.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book based on a true story

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