Pages – The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story

In The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story, Diane Ackerman presents us with the fascinating and true story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, zookeepers at Warsaw’s zoo during the Second World War. Working from memoirs, interviews, and photographs, Ackerman develops an exquisitely detailed literary portrait of a Polish Christian family who put themselves at risk to save Jewish lives.

The Zabinskis care for the remnants of the Warsaw zoo’s animal collection, hide Jews and members of the Polish underground, while they themselves sometimes only narrowly escape the arbitrary violence of their Nazi overlords. The reader is especially drawn to Antonina, the zookeeper’s wife of the title, whose great empathy for all creatures gives her deep insights into the psychology of both animals and humans.

The story opens dream-like, on a summer morning in 1935, as daylight breaks upon the zoo. Dappled light and the sounds of exotic animals provide an atmosphere that recalls the Garden of Eden. But too soon, this paradise is swept away. Poland, squeezed between Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union, is inevitably thrust into war, and even after its defeat, danger is always close by.

Just as Ackerman can deftly conjure a scene of supreme beauty, she can also show us horror, and nothing portrays the senselessness of war like the bombing of a zoo. Caged animals, many foreign, exotic, and perhaps already endangered as a species, are helplessly swept into the indiscriminate destruction of modern warfare. Enclosed by bars, glass, behind barriers of earth or water, they do not even have the slightest chance of seeking cover from the explosives and incendiaries that rain down upon them.

Ackerman presents a hellish vision: ?Glass and metal shards mutilated skin, feathers, hooves, and scales indiscriminately as wounded zebras ran, ribboned with blood, terrified howler monkeys and orangutans dashed caterwauling into the trees and bushes . . .?

Though they are zoo keepers, Jan and Antonina Zabinski also care about the human victims of the Nazi invasion. With Poland’s defeat, the Jews are gathered in ghettos, and their fate is sealed. We learn about the passages leading out of the ghetto, the bunkers, safe houses, and forgers who help to protect Jewish Poles. Eventually, the Zabinskis also become part of this elaborate network.

While the Zabinskis try to save the lives of Jews, and Jan works with the Polish underground, they are forced to deal with Nazi officials and careerists such as Lutz Heck, the director of the Berlin Zoo. Through a process of back breeding, Heck hopes to use Polish animals for his plans to ?resurrect? the extinct ancestors of Europe’s present day bison, tarpans, and aurochsen. He also covets other prize animals, and the Zabinskis have no choice but to allow Heck to ship their zoo’s stock to Germany. The elephant is sent to Königsberg, camels to Hanover, hippos to Nuremberg, Przywalski horses to Munich, and the ?lynxes, zebras, and bison? to Heck’s zoo in Berlin.

His relationship with Heck, however, makes it possible for Jan to carry out clandestine work. Heck allows Jan to start a pig farm, giving Jan a legitimate excuse to move about the occupied city. Ostensibly collecting scraps to feed the animals, he can maintain his contacts with the Polish underground, and plan acts of sabotage against the Germans.

Over the course of the war, the Zabinskis also save hundreds of lives, and all of these ?guests? are given animal names. Magdalena Gross, a famous and internationally known sculptor, came under the protective wings of the Zabinskis. Though she was Jewish, Gross refused to obey the Nazi order to move into the Warsaw ghetto. Thereafter, ?flying from nest to nest,? moving from one safe house to another, she is given the name ?Starling.?

For some guests it becomes necessary to hide their non-Aryan features. When Antonina uses peroxide to lighten the hair colour of the Kenigswein family, leaving them with hair the reddish colour of European squirrels, they become known as the ?Squirrels.?

Ackerman displays a great breadth of knowledge to fill out the story, drawing upon the disciplines of history, biology, ecology, zoology, genetics, entomology, art, and even Nazi philosophy. Surprisingly, however, she characterizes the Nazis as ?ardent animal lovers.? As support for this conclusion, she reports that ?a leading biologist was once punished for not giving worms enough anaesthesia during an experiment.? Though Ackerman provides extensive citations elsewhere, she oddly offers no reference for this particular incident. (I did email the author about this oversight, but received no response.)

It seems rather likely that she was referring to a dissection performed by the zoologist Karl von Frisch. The incident is noted in Boria Sax’s book Animals in the Third Reich, though Sax indicates that the Nazis were in reality rather ?erratic? in their enforcement of animal protection laws.

Monica Libell, in Morality Beyond Humanity: Schopenhauer, Grysanowski, and Schweitzer on Animal Ethics, provides an assessment of animal protection in the Third Reich which starkly contrasts with Ackerman’s assertion. Some laws, like the one regarding the slaughter of animals, were simply anti-Jewish, attacking kosher practices rather than reflecting a desire to treat animals humanely. Furthermore, Germany’s independent anti-vivisection movement was outlawed and brought under state control in 1935. The Nazis then produced their own?rather flexible?definition of vivisection. Moreover, ownership of pets was discouraged, while the use of animals for research in Germany continued throughout the Nazi period.

Both Sax and Libell indicate that Nazi training sometimes involved deliberate cruelty to animals in order to teach recruits to suppress humane instincts. Libell, for example, reports that recruits were forced to strangle dogs with which they had spent months training.

The stark dichotomy of mass murderers as protectors of animals does provide a fascinating story device, but the reality is actually much more disturbing. According to Libell, the Nazis had an interest in propagating some wild animals (those which displayed Nazi ideals of strength or power, for example), but Nazi philosophy saw the world in terms of a purely Darwinistic struggle, rejecting any humane impulses, and ruthlessly destroying anything that they perceived as weak.

In effect, the Nazis did not have an overriding animal rights agenda. And, as Ackerman herself writes, Heck uses the remaining zoo animals as game for his New Year’s hunting party. So much for the Nazi love of animals.

In spite of my problem with Ackerman’s statement concerning animal protection under the Nazis, she really has written a truly wonderful book, a harrowing and gripping story full of remarkable personalities. She weaves history, personal stories, and science into a seamless narrative. The Zookeeper’s Wife is suspenseful story, told with fantastic descriptive ability that adds colour and texture to every scene.

The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story is published by W.W. Norton & Company.

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