When Germany invaded Poland, bombers devastated Warsaw--and the city's zoo along with it. With most of their animals dead, zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski began smuggling Jews into the empty cages. Another dozen "guests" hid inside the Zabinskis' villa, emerging after dark for dinner, socializing and, during rare moments of calm, piano concerts. Jan, active in the Polish resistance, kept ammunition buried in the elephant enclosure and stashed explosives in the animal hospital. Meanwhile, Antonina kept her unusual household afloat, caring for both its human and its animal inhabitants and refusing to give in to the penetrating fear of discovery, even as Europe crumbled around her.
Jan fought against the Nazis during the Blitzkreig while Antonina held the homefront and feared for her son, Rysz, and for the animals left in her care. And of course, once the Nazis won, the fears increased. The animals not killed outright in the bombings suffered two fates: either be shipped to Berlin to the zoo there or be shot during a Nazi Christmas hunting party. And while the zoo ceased to be a zoo by any definition, the Zabinskis were allowed to continue living there through its other incarnations, giving them the means to smuggle more than 300 Jews out of the Warsaw ghetto, saving them from certain death in the camps. Jan worked throughout the war, helping the Polish Underground, smuggling human beings, and helping with low levels of sabotage. Antonina was more confined in the role she could play, especially during a difficult pregnancy, but without her calm head and quick thinking as the matriarch to a zoo-full of hidden people, all could have been lost.
The Zabinski's story is one that shows the heroism of the common people. It proves that more people than we sometimes suspect avoided the moral depravity that war brings in its wake. And it is a compelling and wonderful story of truly good people. So why was the book itself just the slightest bit dull? Ackerman makes many digressions from her main story, telling of the history that brought Poland to this pass, stories of acquaintances of the Zabinskis who really have almost nothing to do with the purported story here, and other bits that caused the story to drag instead of leap along. She detailed long lists of people or insects or animals that served no purpose in the narrative and she occasionally waxed overly lyrical about pieces of the natural world (a tendency I put down to her love of gardening and natural history as evidenced by her other book topics).
The book was strongest when she concentrated on the terrors that the Zabinskis faced, small and large, and when she allowed Antonina's journal to speak for her. There was little beyond superficial information about what sort of man Jan was, leaving the impression that he was a silent, rather cold person while she rounded out Antonina well, thanks to descriptions from those who had known her and to her own writings. But her attention to Antonina faltered at times and it was at those times that it became easy to put the book down and pursue other stories. This is a story that should have been riveting. It deserves to be told. But it plodded more than it ever should have.
So, the premise is amazing, right? This couple saved the lives of over THREE HUNDRED people during the Holocaust! But you'd never know it, reading this book.
This story that is so amazing is buried deep under a MOUNTAIN of details. If you ever get your hands on a time machine and you would like a map for when you vacation in this area/time of Poland, the first chapter will let you know where everything in that town is. Extensive researching is great for writing a historical novel to get the feel of it just right. But you should NOT put ALL of that research into the book. I really could not care less exactly what type of beetles some random guy had in his collection. That's not why I'm reading this book.
It's offensive, really. This story is so fascinating and inspirational and so important to tell, but it's so bogged down by irrelevant details that I was intensely bored throughout the entire book and I only remember them helping even a handful of people. The book really doesn't do the story justice.
Furthermore, Antonia herself is a zookeeper, so calling her "the zookeeper's wife" is kind of insulting.
I'm hoping the movie is better.
I read a review of this when it first came out, and it looked fascinating -- the zookeeper of the Warsaw Zoo and his wife were very involved in the Polish underground during the occupation, and their resistance activities included hiding Jewish people in the zoo. Unfortunately, the book doesn't really add any other coolness to what I told you right there -- that's the whole story. It's based on the diaries of the zookeeper's wife, and the author also included some more general stories of the Warsaw ghetto. I see what she was aiming for, sort of a collection of anecdotal slices about the ghetto, tied together by Mrs. Zookeeper's journals, but it ended up being too random. I was also hoping there would be more information about the zoo itself, but I guess that was just a hook; by that time the animals were gone: some relocated and others sadly meeting bad ends during the initial bombing.
Also, do you remember in Amadeus when the Emperor says something like "it's nice, but it has too many notes" about Mozart's music, and Tom Hulce as Mozart (wasn't he supposed to have more of a career after that?) gets this look on his face like "ignoramus says what?" and the audience gets to snicker knowing that only a complete Philistine would think that Mozart used too many notes? Well, my reaction to this book was like that -- there were too many words. I felt bludgeoned by adjectives, as if the author was using the thesaurus to make her term paper longer the night before it was due to meet the minimum number of pages.
Grade: C, a sad C.
Recommended: If you are very familiar with Warsaw you would get some enjoyment from that aspect at least. In general, I think this is one of those unfortunate things where the real story strikes you as compelling so you want the book to be better than average ... but at the end of the day, it's more dimwitted than anything else.
If you read books like these (should or should we not), if you know who Janusz Korczak was, a powerful if only passing character in this book, how can you define humanity?
Should I or should not ask?
It begins with vivid description of the bucolic life in the zoo, its animals, their sounds, and the details of the operation. The love of the zookeepers family for the animals is touching at this point in the story. The wife nurses all manner of animals, exotic and pedestrian, to health, becoming important elements of the zoo life. The birth of elephants (the twelfth in captivity), lynxes, rhinos, Przywalski horses, big cats, and so on paints the picture of loving, caring people whose life centers around protecting and preserving the creatures of nature.
When the Nazis arrived, zoo officials from Berlin carted off the most exotic animals and dispersed most of the others to German zoos after a private hunt on the zoo grounds. The wife had a premonition that this brutality was what was in store for Warsaw. Bombing of Warsaw then destroyed much of what remained. The Nazi official responsible for the Berlin Zoo was determined to re-create extinct species, such as the legendary bull aurochs, even has his cohorts were exterminating human beings. Ancient animals were venerated to saintly status, as noble people were ground under foot.
The zookeeper became active in the underground , as his wife devised intricate strategies to shelter Jews as they were able to extricated from the Warsaw ghetto across the river. Amazingly, this process worked throughout the war.
The poignancy of the story is emotionally overwhelming. The non-Jewish zookeeper and his family (wife and son) put their lives on the line on a daily basis for the Jews in a far more dangerous and devoted manner that their life of caring for the animals of the zoo. They nurtured friendship and community with those passing through their hands.
The son is raised in those years loving animals that Germans would shoot for sport or eat. He lived in a largely self-imposed shelter of his own out of fear that he would breath a word that would result in a Nazi reprisal to his family and all whom they protected.
The reader is drawn into this life. Ackerman tells this story with simple humility, without directly examining the emotions of the characters that she brings to life, as the zookeepers did their four and two-legged wards. As readers, we are left to ponder their emotions. How would each of us react under such circumstances? If we were the zookeeper, risking the lives of his family and fighting with the underground? Or the wife, who respected her husband’s mission and did her best to care for each new inhabitant of the zoo. Or the young son who wanted to fight with the underground, but understood that he would put his family and their wards at risk with even the slightest wayward word. Or the Jews who found respite in the zoo grounds. Or the Nazi soldiers who were ordered to murder these innocent people and animals.
This is a wonderful story, written with just a light touch to allow all of these emotions to rise to the surface for each of us to find our own truths in the lives of heroes under stress.
A great and meaningful read.
Pros: The Zabinskis' true story of hiding Jews in their zoo in Poland is one of selflessness and bravery and the world should know about it. The author did a lot of research and included some very interesting information about the motives behind the Nazis' genocide, the sabotage attempts by the Underground, and how the Zabinskis managed to hide Jews with German soldiers only yards away. It was a personal look into a couple's very important part in history.
Cons: The author bogged the story down with many (in my opinion) unimportant details. For example, she describes in detail the beetles collected by one of the Zabinskis' friends for 3 pages! Conversly, I would have enjoyed more detail explaining how the Underground worked and their acts of sabotage. The author also wrote with such poetic prose that at times it got in the way of understanding what I had just read. The flexible use of time was also confusing. Time frames jumped back and forth depending on whose story the author was telling.
Overall I found the book interesting and important, but difficult and time consuming to read.
Life as viewed by a mother raising a young child during a very dangerous time provides the combination of the human element and war to provide the suspense to make it a gripping story. And the situation becomes even more tense when she gives birth to a baby daughter just a few weeks before the Russians approach Warsaw. And we all know enough history to realize that the Russians didn't exactly bring peace and freedom. The Russian Army's advance stopped 10 miles outside of Warsaw and let the Nazis and Polish resistance fight it out. This resulted in the decimation of Polish resistance (85% of the buildings in Warsaw were destroyed). Did the family at the zoo survive this final show down? You'll need to read the book to learn how it ends.
Early in the book we learn that Antonina possessed the gift of calming animals (a la horse whisperer). Numerous times later in the story, when she found herself in the presence of hostile German or Russian solders, she was able to use this same gift to calm their evil intentions. Perhaps there was a bit of luck involved, but it's clear that a less controlled response in those same situations would have resulted in violence to her and her family. Her husband also had a cool and quick wit that got him out of some close calls. But, I was particularly impressed with Antonina's apparent God given ability to look into the souls of others and will them to relax and be calm. It's an amazing story.
During the first half of the book I thought I'd rate the book at three stars. It has a slow beginning. As I got closer to the end I decided perhaps I'd give it four. Now that I've finished I've decided to give it five.
This book was set up interesting enough though. A fictional story based on a real life family who hid Jews in their zoo. The author obviously took a lot of time doing research about the family, the zoo and the time period.
I didn't finish this book. It was taking too much time and it wasn't keeping me interested enough to try and forge on.
I barely made it to the end.