One of my book groups is reading Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story, and I found it an engrossing read, although I do wonder how much we will find to say about it. We’ll say things like, “wow, that was a great story” and “wasn’t it well-written?” and “can you believe how brave those people were?” and I’m not sure where we will go from there. Maybe I’m wrong, we’ll see, but this book seems to find its power in narrative rather than in ideas, and ideas give you more to say in a discussion.
Anyway, it is a very powerful narrative. The book tells the story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, the zookeeper and the zookeeper’s wife of the title, who are in charge of the Warsaw zoo during World War II. They survive the initial attack on Warsaw by the Germans and then witness the atrocities committed against the Jews in the city, first the imprisonment of the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto and then their transportation to the death camps to be murdered. Jan quickly becomes involved in the Polish resistance movement, taking risks whenever he can to undermine the German forces and to help save people’s lives. Antonina manages their home, which she turns into a underground way station for escaping Jews and other people whose lives were at risk. They often had crowds of people in their home, hiding during the day and moving around only at night. Jan would smuggle people out of the ghetto and bring them to Antonina, who would then hide them and make sure the Germans who frequently patrolled the area never knew they were there. Jan and Antonina — and many other people Ackerman describes — put their lives at risk countless times to help others.
Ackerman herself stays well in the background through most of the book, discussing herself directly only briefly toward the end to describe meeting some of the people involved in the story. Rather than intruding herself into the narrative, she keeps the focus on her subjects, letting them take center stage. This is a wise move, as the story needs no embellishment or authorial commentary and can stand very powerfully on its own.
In addition to telling the story of Jan and Antonina, Ackerman also describes the history of European zoos and the debates that were waged at the time, about, for example, whether animals should be expected to adapt to their new zoo environment as best as they can or whether zookeepers should try to create habitats as close to their natural ones as possible. Ackerman also recounts the fascinating history of Nazi ideas about animals, in particular their attempts to recover extinct breeds of animals that they believed best represented Aryan culture. By back-breeding — mating animals who held traits characteristic of extinct breeds in order eventually to recover those breeds — Nazis hoped to create an animal culture that mirrored their ideal human one. They wanted pure-bred animals, particularly ones like wild horses and bison that demonstrated traits they valued — wildness, ferocity, and courage. Just as they hoped to strip the world of human diversity, so they were devoted to a natural world that reflected their beliefs about racial and genetic purity. It’s an ugly, not to mention unscientific, picture. German scientists took advantage of their access to the Warsaw zoo to help advance their projects, and Jan and Antonina had to see many of their animals killed or carted off to Germany. The story of human suffering the book tells is intensely moving, but animal suffering has its place too, and Ackerman’s descriptions of terrified, confused animals who didn’t understand what was happening to them were hard to read.
Ackerman’s writing is beautiful; it doesn’t draw undue attention to itself, but it does capture the landscapes and people and emotions of the story wonderfully well. I have been planning on reading Ackerman’s Natural History of the Senses at some point, and The Zookeeper’s Wife is confirmation that I should do so as soon as possible.
11 responses to “The Zookeeper’s Wife”
I enjoyed this one. Jan and Antonia exemplified a kind of quiet courage in the face of the Nazi occupation. I found the Nazi plundering of the zoo animals (and their purpose) a new aspect to consider and thought the descriptions of the Polish Resistance fascinating.
My favorite Ackerman is the Moon by Whale Light.
How interesting! I can see what you mean about the difficulty of discussing it. You could do with a comparison volume, like Schindler’s List. Or, one possibility is to discuss the origins of Hitler’s eugenics in America. There’s an interesting (if a little sensationalised) article about it here:
Hope the discussion turns out to be a good one, in any case.
I am considering suggesting this to my f2f group, so I’ll be interested in hearing how your discussion goes.
An interesting story though I see what you mean about there not being much to discuss. I’ve had book group meetings like you describe. Hope the group surprises you!
I have this book in the queue to read in January. I love Ackerman’s writing and this one sounds like a great story. Hope you can find some points to discuss though — I’ve had those meetings where everyone says, wasn’t it wonderful… hmm, let’s eat.
One of my favorite non-fiction books of all time is Diane Ackerman’s The Moon by Whalelight and I think I’ve read all her New Yorker essays (many of which went into the Whalelight book and A Natural history of the senses) so I’ve had this new book on my list…glad to hear you enjoyed it.
I really like Diane Ackerman–I’ve read a few of her books, including The Natural History of the Senses, which I wouldn’t mind rereading! I plan on getting this one with Christmas money (or hopefully will get a gift card). I know what you mean by reading a good book and finding it compelling, but not necessarily having a lot to say about it–when I was in a book group we had that problem on occasion. This is when having an author come or someone with similar experiences to help flesh things out. Good luck with the discussion!
Jenclair — I’m glad to get the additional Ackerman recommendation! Yes, the information about Nazis and animals was all new to me too, and I found it fascinating, and disturbing.
Litlove — thanks so much for the link! That will provide some useful fodder for discussion if things get a little slow 🙂
JoAnn — I’ll be sure to post on it. We’re supposed to meet on Friday, although there’s a chance stormy weather will get in the way.
Stefanie — well, the good thing about a book group is that you don’t really know what will happen, so the group could very well surprise me. It would be great if it did!
Melanie — I hope you like the book when you get there! It’s hard to know the right book to pick sometimes … this one may end up being fine, and I may be completely wrong. I hope so!
Verbivore — that’s the second recommendation for The Moon by Whalelight, so I’ll have to check it out! I can see that Ackerman is someone I might want to read a lot of. I do like interesting nonfiction so much.
Danielle — I’m glad to hear you enjoyed A Natural History of the Senses — it sounds like such a fabulous idea for a book! I really haven’t heard a negative word about Ackerman, so I’m looking forward to reading more.
It is so difficult to know what to expect from a book discussion, even when you’ve met with the same people for a long time. While there are some books that you know certain members will balk at reading, it is much more difficult to predict what the conversation will be.
I thought the A Brief History of the Senses was one of the best books I read in the early ’90s. I’ve thought recently about reading it again.
Correction, A Natural History of the Senses, duh!
This has been on my radar for a while now. I need to make the time to read it. Thanks for the review.