Friday, December 08, 2023

Nonfiction Review: The Zookeeper's Wife

Way back in 2007 when The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman was first released, I heard scores of rave reviews, so I added it to my want-to-read list (a very long list). Fast-forward to 2022 when I was visiting Little Free Libraries in my town--supposed to be just dropping off--and I spotted the book and snatched it up. I finally read it last month for Nonfiction November. Wow, what a stunning book! It was definitely worth the wait.

The book opens in 1935 in Poland, describing the beautiful world of the Warsaw Zoo, run by husband and wife Jan and Antonina Zabinski. Their zoo was filled with unique and fascinating animals in realistic habitats, with a large collection of exotic birds, reptiles and amphibians, animals from around the world, and animals unique to their region, like the European bison (I never knew there was such a thing!) and Przywalski horses. Their large, modern house on the premises was filled with a strange menagerie of baby or injured animals being nursed back to health, many of whom became family pets, beloved by their young son, Ryszard. It was a peaceful, harmonious, lovely place. Then in 1939, they woke one morning to the sounds of German warplanes, followed by weeks of bombs directly hitting the city--and the zoo--and soon, the Nazis marching in to invade in September 1939. The Nazis walled off a Jewish ghetto and began their process of restricting, then later ending their lives. The animals still left in the zoo, those not killed or run off by the bombing, were taken by a colleague of theirs, a German zookeeper they had previously been friends with and with whom they enjoyed discussing zoology during annual professional meetings. He assured them he was talking their most valuable animals back to Germany "to keep them safe." With few animals left, and Jan involved in the underground resistance, they used their connection with the German zookeeper, up high in the Nazi organization, to repurpose the zoo several times during the war, as a placed to raise animals for fur for the German armies and other uses. With Germans coming and going freely from their zoo and home, they also brazenly used their property to hide and save hundreds of Jews during the war, putting their own lives at risk.

This remarkable true story is told in a very effective way. The author used many primary sources, including Antonina's own diaries kept throughout the war, and the effect is to make you feel like you are right in the middle of what is happening. It is horrifying, shocking, and inspiring as the Zabinskis and their "guests" struggle with starvation, despair, and satisfying basic needs while never losing hope. They not only kept all those people safe but created a temporary home for them, filled with art, music, and conversation, all right under the noses of the Nazis. My husband was teasing me as I read this book because I kept reaching for my iPad while reading the book, to look up all kinds of fascinating details: animals I'd never heard of, sculptures and artwork created by their guests, real photos and videos of the Nazi invasion and all that came after it. To me, that is the best kind of nonfiction book: the kind that is fascinating and helps you learn a lot but also makes you want to know even more. Both the subject matter here and the way the story is told make for an engrossing, captivating book, which also includes photos. I'm so glad to have finally read it.

368 pages (but the text ends on page 323, with lots of extra details at the end), W.W. Norton & Company

Blackstone Audio

I just discovered this book was adapted into a movie that we definitely want to watch!

This book fits in the following 2023 Reading Challenges:


Mount TBR Challenge

Monthly Motif - Around or Out of this World - Poland

Alphabet Soup Challenge - I got a Z!

Nonfiction Reader Challenge - Science (zoology)

Diversity Challenge

Travel the World in Books - Poland


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  1. I think I had this one on my list when it first came out and then somehow didn't get around to reading it. You've reminded me of how good it sounds and so I am putting back on my TBR list. Thank you!

    1. I'm glad I finally got to read it!

  2. A second comment. I used to read The Faithful Elephants by Yukio Tsuchiya to my students in 10th grade World History. It's a children's book and I think you'd appreciate it.