"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
On a winter's day with the wind howling outside and the weather forecast for more snow and possible icy conditions, there is nothing better than curling up with a good book. Deciding to take a break from my usual diet of mysteries and thrillers, several weeks ago I picked up The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman on the recommendation of a friend, a school librarian. I didn't realize at the time that it was non-fiction, so I've been reading it at a slower pace, but finished it just in time for this month's meeting of the Book Review Club.
The Zookeeper's Wife takes place during World War II and is the story of Antonina Zabinski, wife of the zookeeper of the Warsaw Zoo, who, like a "horse whisperer," seems to have a mystical way of communicating with animals. This ability to calm wild animals serves her well later in the war during a few dangerous confrontations with the Nazis and later with a band of marauding Russian soldiers.
|The Zoo in 1938. (Image from Wikipedia)|
Their peaceful existence, where it wasn't unusual to find a pet badger or lynx roaming the halls of the villa, is shattered when the Nazis invade Poland in 1939. The Nazis were fond of big game hunting and were also obsessed with creating a "pure" Aryan environment, including re-creating some extinct species. Under their rule, the zoo soon loses most of its animals. Over the course of the war, it is used for different purposes depending on the whim of its captors, including a vegetable farm and a fur farm.
Antonina's husband Jan becomes a member of the Polish Underground, and one of his main activities is spiriting Jews out of the Warsaw ghetto to safety. Soon the zoo becomes a hiding place for many of them, who hide in the various cages and buildings once occupied by pheasants or peacocks or in the villa itself. It falls upon Antonina to provide enough food and warmth for all the "guests" while Jan is busy with the Underground's activities. To maintain secrecy, Antonina even refers to them by animal names so that eventually the code name for the zoo becomes "The House Under a Crazy Star." Three hundred people lived for a time in the Warsaw Zoo during the course of the war, escaping certain death at the hands of the Nazis.
|Historic district in Warsaw today. The city was rebuilt after 80% of the buildings were destroyed in the war. |
(Image from Wikipedia)
While I believe it is very important to remember the Holocaust, I usually don't read books about this time in history because it tears at my heart to read of these atrocities. However, Ackerman doesn't dwell on the horrors, but presents these events in the context of the everyday existence of the residents of Warsaw. There is inspiration in some of the stories, and the Zoo's villa is at times filled with laughter and music as Antonina and the guests share some peaceful moments. There is even a touch of humor in the picture of Antonina pounding on the piano a loud rendition of Offenbach's "Go, Go to Crete" as a signal to her guests that danger is imminent and they must retreat to underground tunnels or cages to hide.
The Zookeeper's Wife is not so much a story of the tragedies in Warsaw during WWII as it is a story of survival and the triumph of the human spirit over despair. Antonina Zabinski was an ordinary housewife in her husband Jan's words, yet she was determined "to be true to herself, to follow her heart, even though it meant enduring a lot of sacrifice." Like her husband, she believed "if you can save somebody's life, it's your duty to try." Though they faced countless dangers, the Zabinskis put on an air of outer calm and never questioned their purpose; they were true heroes.
True courage is not the brutal force of vulgar heroes, but the firm resolve of virtue and reason.
~Alfred North Whitehead
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Disclaimer: Once again, no compensation was received for this review, and I checked the book out from my local library.