By Diane Ackerman
The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the true story of Jan Zabinski and his wife Antonina, who operated the Warsaw Zoo in the years prior to and during World War II. By using the zoo as a haven for fleeing Jews during the Holocaust, Jan and Antonina helped to save the lives of approximately 300 people. Unfortunately, the Nazis stole many of the most valuable animals from the Zoo when they invaded Poland, and killed the remaining animals in a brutal shooting spree on New Year’s Eve, 1939.During the war, Jan, a secret member of the Polish Resistance, smuggled Jews out of the ghettos of Warsaw and hid them in sheds, enclosures, and cages at the Zoo until he could safely move them to other parts of Poland. His wife, Antonina, was responsible for caring for the “guests” during their time in the zoo. She gave each of them an animal code name. In 1943, the Allies began driving the Nazis out of the city, and the Polish Army rose up in rebellion. Although the city would soon again be occupied, this time by Russians, the Warsaw Zoo reopened in 1949. Jan stayed on as director until 1951.
The Zookeeper’s Wife was a fascinating view of World War II, and focused on a story that none of our readers had ever heard prior to this book. Fortitude and Charity (particularly agape) provided a foundation for many of our discussions. We talked a great deal about the risks that ordinary citizens took to save the lives of strangers during the Holocaust. The passages about the Nazis experiments with animals, and their desire to resurrect extinct species, led to discussions about genetic research and experimentation, as well as the Prudence necessary to handle the consequences of some lines of scientific research.
The Zookeeper’s Wife was a great complement to the other Holocaust texts we read in this group because it provided a different viewpoint of the war by detailing the extraordinary courage of two individuals who saved many lives. This book is ideal for Heavy readers, because of the level of detail and complexity of the language.