Ah, The Zookeeper’s Wife… I have truly mixed emotions about this book by Diane Ackerman; I am deeply affected by this true story of a couple named Jan and Antonina Zabinski who risked their lives, their family, their livelihood as zookeepers, everything they had worked for and towards to save as many lives as possible during the Nazi occupation of Poland, and yet I am not altogether impressed with this book in its entirety.
I appreciate Ackerman’s dedication to accuracy and authenticity as she gives many details about the Zabinski family’s role in this time in history. She weaves the pieces together to translate an interesting real life story into book form, however there were many times as I read that I had to go back and read a particular section a few times to understand how it fit in with the preceding and subsequent sections. I often felt that transitions were weak and this left me as the reader feeling as though I were riding with someone learning to drive a vehicle with manual transmission.
As far as research and study go, Ackerman is top-notch. In the “Details” section in the back of the book, she elaborates on many phrases, names, and places that she obviously spent much time investigating and I found this very useful information, information that makes the book come alive even more, and gives her more credibility in my eyes. Her bibliography is impressive and a list of sources that must contain a plethora of knowledge worth delving into.
Jan was an active part of the Polish “Underground” resistance and smuggled necessities into the Warsaw ghetto, helped many escape from the ghetto, and both he and Antonina were profoundly involved in hiding Jews and others under cover at the zoo in animal cages, buildings which were part of the zoo, and even in their own home in closets and out of sight places. They made many contacts within the resistance to help those in hiding become “new” people with forged documents of all sorts, taught them how to act and appear Aryan, and Antonina even helped with cosmetic changes such as hair coloring to help the Jews blend in better. The Zabinski’s were involved in saving an astonishing number of over 300 people during the Occupation of Warsaw.
I would recommend The Zookeeper’s Wife to anyone interested in a unique story of courage and decency in an indecent era and I consider it a worthy read despite the lack of flow I sometimes sensed. It will cause a person to contemplate uprightness and character while encouraging an inward look at one’s self, motivations, purpose, and guiding principles.