The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story
Diane Ackerman

Diane Ackerman has skilfully woven Antonina Zabinska’s writings about her time at the Warsaw Zoo before and during World War II into a book that both terrifies and delights.

Antonina, her zookeeper husband Jan, and their son Ryszard, lived in a villa on the zoo grounds.

“Each morning, when zoo dawn arrived, a starling gushed a medley of stolen songs, distant wrens cranked up a few arpeggios, and the cuckoos called monotonously like clocks stuck on the hour.

“Suddenly the gibbons began whooping bugle calls so crazy loud that the wolves and hunting dogs started howling, the hyenas gibbering, the lions roaring, the ravens croaking, the peacocks screeching, the rhino snorting, the foxes yelping, the hippos braying. Next the gibbons shifted into duets, with the males adding soft squealing sounds between their whoops and the females bellowing streams of long notes in their ‘great call.’ The zoo hosted several mated pairs and gibbon couples yodel formal songs complete with overture, codas, interludes, duets and solos.”

Warsaw’s first zoo came into being in 1927. Jan Zabinski had the good fortune to be named director two years later. The Warsaw Zoo was selected to host the 1940 International Association of Zoo Directors’ annual meeting.

On Sept. 1, the hum of German bombers ripped apart life as the Zabinskis had known it. The zoo stood on the banks of a river with a number of bridges that became military targets. A Luftwaffe attack destroyed the polar bears’ mountain, freeing terrified bears. When Polish soldiers found the panicky, blood-stained bears, they shot them, and then proceeded to kill other dangerous animals who might escape – lions, tigers and a male elephant.

When her husband is sent to the front, Antonina is left to work with a few keepers to care for the animals. Sympathetic restaurant owners and housewives shared leftovers and vegetable and fruit peelings to help the remaining animals stay alive.

The occupation government decided that Warsaw no longer needed a zoo. Lutz Heck, a colleague and director of the Berlin Zoo, visited them, promising protection in Berlin’s zoo to some of their animals and leniency for the rest.

Heck was obsessed with resurrecting three pure-blooded, extinct species: Neolithic horses (forest tarpans), aurochsen (the wild forbearers of European cattle) and the European or forest bison.

He believed he could selectively breed existing animals to create ones that more closely resembled the extinct ones that caught his fancy. The animals he chose all thrived in Poland –some in the Warsaw Zoo.

Not trusting Heck’s promises, the Zabinskis understood their zoo was lost. They offered a proposal: using the remaining buildings to house a pig farm. They hoped the German need to feed soldiers would make the idea acceptable. Even more, they hoped the arrangement would be approved because the Germans needed food for soldiers, but it would also give cover to resistance work and allow them to aid friends and acquaintances in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Having the farm allowed Jan to go regularly into the Ghetto to collect scraps for the pigs. It also allowed him to carry notes and small packets of food.

Jan had an affinity for Jewish people. His atheist father had sent him to the only school in Warsaw that didn’t require studying religion. About 80 percent of the students there were Jewish.

The shell of the zoo provided a place for Jews in hiding and on the move to rest. Ones who could blend in with Poles received false papers and moved onward. Others spent years at the zoo. Some of these guests stayed in the villa where the Zabinskis lived; others stayed in the empty cages where animals had once been. A flow of legal guests – uncles, aunts, cousins and friends – came often and randomly, helping to camouflage the hidden ones. In all, they were able to save more than 300 doomed people.

This book contains heart-wrenching scenes of inexplicable cruelty to animals. But it also soars on wings of great courage and kindness.

© Jeannette M. Hartman, 2010

  From Issue:12.01
Reviewed by: Jeannette M. Hartman
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