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

Title: Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story
Author: Diane Ackerman
Year published: 2008
Category: Adult nonfiction
Pages: 384 pages
Rating: 3.75 out of 5

Location: (my 2024 Google Reading map): Poland

SummaryA true story in which the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo saved hundreds of people from Nazi hands.

Jan and Antonina Zabinski were Polish Christian zookeepers horrified by Nazi racism, who managed to save over three hundred people. Yet their story has fallen between the seams of history. Drawing on Antonina’s diary and other historical sources, best-selling naturalist Diane Ackerman vividly re-creates Antonina’s life as “the zookeeper’s wife,” responsible for her own family, the zoo animals, and their “Guests”―Resistance activists and refugee Jews, many of whom Jan had smuggled from the Warsaw Ghetto. Ironically, the empty zoo cages helped to hide scores of doomed people, who were code-named after the animals whose names they occupied. Others hid in the nooks and crannies of the house itself.

Jan led a cell of saboteurs, and the Zabinskis’ young son risked his life carrying food to the Guests, while also tending an eccentric array of creatures in the house. With hidden people having animal names, and pet animals having human names, it’s small wonder the zoo’s codename became “The House Under a Crazy Star.”

Yet there is more to this story than a colorful cast. With her exquisite sensitivity to the natural world, Diane Ackerman explores the role of nature in both kindness and savagery, and she unravels the fascinating and disturbing obsession at the core of Nazism: both a worship of nature and its violation, as humans sought to control the genome of the entire planet.

Review: This book has been on my radar for over a decade and I got my book group to agree to read it for the summer. Yay! I took it with me to Ireland and it was a good one to absorb me on flights. I didn't realize it was nonfiction!

I so wanted to love this book. I've been meaning to read it for so long and I remember hearing such good things about it. I feel like I should qualify my thoughts. The story is a good and important one. Jan and Antonina did such dangerous, brave, and important work during the war. They saved hundreds of lives using their zoo to smuggle Jews out of Warsaw. They were clever, used the system well, working with people in the Warsaw ghetto, and the wider underground system.

I am not completely sure why this story didn't suck me in completely. It is based on Antonina's memoirs, diaries, photos, etc. It is accurate and full of detail. I just can't quite figure out why I wasn't enamored with it. I didn't feel nervous as Gestapo or German soldiers arrived at the zoo or when new "guests" arrived to stay until they were able to move on. I think I didn't feel the emotion of it all and that's perhaps why this felt a bit flat for me.

Challenges for which this counts: 
  • Alphabet (Title)--Z
  • Literary Escapes--Poland
  • Nonfiction--Pets

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