The Zookeeper's Wife : A War Story
by Diane Ackerman
This book was given to my husband as a Christmas gift, but I snagged it from him, started reading it, and could not put it down. It is one of those rare history books that is as readable and captivating as a fictional novel . Diane Ackerman, a respected naturalist, spends a fair amount of time initially discussing zoo-keeping strategies, and " oh, by the way", segues into a fascinating tale of WWII bravery and espionage. The Warsaw zoo in the 1930's was a haven for many nearly extinct species of eastern European fauna under the leadership and care of it's keepers, Jan and Antonina Zabinski . As Hitler rises to power and Germany rolls into Poland, it becomes clear to them that the animals are not the only ones in danger. At first the Zabinski's are engrossed in trying to survive and keep as many of their animals safe as they can in a world of bombing and constant food shortages. Did you know that one of the Nazi's many schemes involved collecting rare species of animals from northern Europe - not only were they into the concept of an Aryan master race, but also wanted a master zoo of rare and exotic animal species to go with it ?
After Warsaw is occupied and the Jewish population is ensnared in the ghetto, Jan joins the resistance movement and begins smuggling as many Jewish friends and former colleagues out of the ghetto as he can. This secret trickle of escapees eventually turns into a rushing torrent of refugees, removed in bold almost crazy sleights of hand before the Nazi's very eyes. En route, the Jewish escapees find a brief safe heaven in the zoo, in the former cages of the rare animals they have now replaced , until they can be smuggled out of the city and disappear into the countryside. Some of the techniques Jan uses to do this are brilliant and mind-boggling. This is an engrossing tale that makes the daily lives of those who experienced the horrors of the Nazi regime come alive in a way not seen since "Schindler's List".