Even before this book appeared, the Zabinskis were not forgotten. Zoologist Jan Zabinski and his wife Antonina hid and protected hundreds of refugee Jews on the grounds of the Warsaw zoo during the Second World War. Among the survivors, and now among their descendants, the names of these remarkable individuals are surely still spoken with gratitude and reverence. The majority of "radically compassionate acts," as Diane Ackerman calls them, especially in wartime, remain largely private, known mostly to those directly affected.
- The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story, by Diane Ackerman, Norton, 368 pages, $31
But thanks to Ackerman, the story of the Zabinskis may be about to enter the pantheon of celebrated Holocaust narratives. A naturalist admired for her sensual, wonder-filled explorations of the workings of nature - among her many titles is the 1991 bestseller A Natural History of the Senses - the U.S. author wasn't looking for any variety of Holocaust tale when she travelled to Poland, home of her maternal ancestors. She was there to research a breed of horses.
Ackerman's discovery of the diaries of Antonina Zabinski redirected her energies. It also provided her a compelling narrative perspective. The Zookeeper's Wife re-ceates Antonina's life as both a co-conspirator in an audacious act of defiance and a singular individual. Her ability to "slip out of her human skin," noted in her diaries and in books she wrote for children, allowed her to enter the minds of animals, intuit their health and desires for communication with others.
Before the war, this made her an excellent co-keeper of the lynxes, cubs, fawns, muskrats and badgers in the zoo. No surprise, Diane Ackerman was drawn to her sensibility, in particular to her capacity for communion with the natural world. That said, The Zookeeper's Wife is careful to put forth only those thoughts and remarks that can be sourced to the diaries, and to interviews Zabinski gave later in her life. Though it reads more extravagantly than most fictions, and features a cast worthy of a novel, the book is meticulously researched and documented. All this is true.
The narrative opens in the years preceding the German invasion of Poland. Under the Zabinskis, the Warsaw zoo represented a rethink of the zoological concept. "Here lived the wild," Ackerman writes of the couple's grand vision for the sprawling grounds along the Vistula River, "that fierce beautiful monster, caged and befriended." For Antonina, such a facility could serve as a simulacrum for Europe's imaginative heritage of fairy tales, with their woodland settings and talking animals. Children could have their story fantasies sparked. Adults could use the experience to revisit "the cherished haunts of childhood."
Nazi warplanes over Warsaw on Sept. 1, 1939, suspended this sweet vision of civilization. The grounds were heavily bombed. Some animals escaped and roamed the city, until shot by soldiers. Others survived. Once the Germans occupied Warsaw, survival of the damaged facility itself, and of the zookeeper and his family, was doubtful.
In one of several improbable twists, the Zabinskis were "saved" by the intervention of a Nazi named Lutz Heck.
Heck, a big-game hunter who also happened to be director of the Berlin zoo, decided to bring Aryan racial purity to nature itself by attempting to resurrect extinct German species - the aurochs, the tarpan horse - using the Warsaw facility as incubator. Under his protection, the zoo remained open. Heck's actual viciousness toward animals, as opposed to his lofty, abstract views of them, served to alert Antonina to the underlying lunacy and depravity of the Nazi ideology. "How many humans will die like this in the coming months?" she wondered.
Meanwhile, Jan Zubinski, a Catholic Pole raised in a Jewish milieu, had become a leader of the resistance. His cell of saboteurs began smuggling people out of the ghetto and guiding them to a fragile sanctuary inside the zoo grounds. There they were housed until they could be safely transferred, or else were hidden by the zookeepers for the duration, sometimes inside their own home. The House Under a Crazy Star was the apt code name for the operation.
The Zubinski "ark" teemed with animals and humans, often sharing the same cages and passageways, and to ensure the safety and reasonable comfort of all involved required courage, intelligence and a lot of luck. Certain moments in The Zookeeper's Wife are as tense as anything in a thriller. Others, such as a scene where pediatrician Janusz Korczak refuses to abandon the children under his care, keeping them company even to Treblinka, are heartbreaking.
But Ackerman isn't content to simply thrill, or break hearts, with this remarkable book. A quiet philosophical argument underlines the story. Antonina Zubinski's insistence on demonstrating the unity of the living world through her actions is held up as a spiritual antidote to the disunified barbarism of the human animal, "demonstrated" so terribly by the Nazis. That the most savage of beasts is so often us does not make savagery unavoidable. "If any creature is in danger," Jan Zabinski explained, "you save it, human or animal."
Contributing reviewer Charles Foran's most recent novel is Carolan's Farewell.