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Wide Angle Radio (Episode Four)

The Zookeeper's Wife: A Review

zookeepers This is a story that has waited over 60 years to be told.  Drawing on personal diaries, journals and other historical sources, Diane Ackerman's The Zookeeper's Wife recreates the story of Polish Christian zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski's efforts to save over 300 people during the Nazi invasion and occupation of Warsaw.  She ably forms a narrative around this courageous couple, melding it with background historical material to create a captivating story.

Antonina and Jan operated the Warsaw zoo.  When the animals were moved by the Nazis, or killed in the bombings, the Zabinskis, who lived in a modernist-looking villa on the premises, began hiding Jews in empty cages, in their villa, and in underground rooms, often naming the refugees for the animals whose cages they occupied.  While her husband was more active in the Resistance, sabotaging Nazi installations and smuggling food to refugees, Antonina looked after the guests with aplomb, narrowly averting detection by her calm demeanor in tense situations and her seeming ability to bring out the best in those she dealt with, whether a Nazi officer who walked through her residence or a Polish policeman.  By Ackerman's account, she had the same calming manner with people as she did with animals.  And she needed to.  Not only did her villa house six to ten refugees on any one occasion, it also held several animals as well, the antics of which provided humor in an otherwise dark time.

I found the telling of this story engaging.  It's not written as a biography but as if it is historical fiction.  Conversations are recounted.  Feelings and emotion are ascribed to Antonina (around whom the story focuses).  And yet, as the author recounts in the Author's Note, she made every attempt never to ascribe feelings to the Zabinskis that they do not document in their memoirs.  The result is an accurate account of one family's compassion and courage in horrific circumstances.  They simply did the right thing.

One thing that puzzled me, however, was that while the Zabinskis were noted to be Christians, there was little to no discussion of what, if any, bearing this had upon the decision they made to assist the Jews, or how their faith helped them persevere in such difficult times.  Either it was not a significant factor in their motivation, or else the author chose to overlook it.  It is also possible that Antonina kept her religion to herself, as Jan himself was an atheist.  So, as much as her diary gives, it may also hold back.

That shortcoming aside, I recommend the book.  It's an interesting bit of history, and Antonina is quite an inspiration for what selfless love of neighbor looks like.

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