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Diane Ackerman – The Zookeeper’s Wife

April 27, 2008

58. The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman (2007)

Length: 368 pages

Genre: Non-Fiction

Started: 27 April 2008
Finished: 28 April 2008

Summary: Jan Zabinski was the director of the Warsaw Zoo prior to World War II. When the Germans bombed Warsaw, much of their zoo was destroyed, and many of their animals killed. Yet, Jan and his wife Antonina struggled against Nazi occupation, using their house and the Zoo grounds as temporary shelter for over three hundred Jews smuggled out of the Warsaw ghetto, while trying to keep their family – both human and animal – and their sanity together throughout the ravages and hardships of war.

Review: World War II and the Holocaust are important topics, without a doubt, and books need to be written about them. And while every person who lived through that time has their own unique story, and while everyone’s story is important, I think we’ve come to a point where if you want to write another WWII movie/book/documentary/play/whatever, you really have to have a truly unique justification as to why this particular story is worth telling. And, while the Zabinskis’ story is interesting in its own way, Ackerman never really managed to sell me on why she felt that these people more than any other deserved to have a book written about them. Part of that, I think, is from the writing style: I was expecting more of a biography, more of a narrative thread, but instead this book is made up of short little vignettes, extensive quoting from Antonina’s diaries, and frequent tangents about the Guests and life in Warsaw. While these tangents certainly added to the background picture, they were incomplete – she admits that she left out a lot of details about life in Warsaw because they’re available elsewhere – and had a tendency of swamping out the foreground – that of life at the zoo. That’s symptomatic of the two main problems I had with this book: first, that there are already books about Warsaw during WWII out there, and second, that the only real distinguishing feature I can see between this one and those others is that the title character of this one really likes animals. The zoo doesn’t even play a particularly large part in the story, other than providing more hiding locations for Jews and resistance fighters, but people were hiding Jews and Resistance fighters in weird places all over the continent. I don’t deny that the Zabinskis were brave and heroic people, with distinct and interesting personalities, but I was just never convinced that they were any more brave and heroic and unique than anyone else in the city. I did learn some things I hadn’t known – particularly about the Nazi program extending to pure-blood German lineages of plants and other animals, as well as people – but as a biography, it’s a little dry and unconvincing. 3 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: If you can get past the writing style, there are some interesting nuggets in there, but if you’re looking for narrative non-fiction or a traditional biography, I’d look elsewhere.

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First Line: At dawn in an outlying district of Warsaw, sunlight swarmed around the trunks of blooming linden trees and crept up the white walls of a 1930s stucco and glass villa where the zoo director and his wife slept in a bed crafted from white birch, a pale wood used in canoes, tongue depressors, and Windsor chairs.


  • p. 63: “In her memoirs, she wrote that she heard him speak, but his words floated away from her; it was as if her brain, already choked by the day’s horrors, had issued a non serviam and refused to absorb any more.” – In literature, the Latin phrase non serviam was spoken by Satan as he refused to serve God. It translates into “I will not serve.”
  • p. 97: ““a very bright, light amaranth sunset was predicting wind for the next day,” she wrote later.” – A deep reddish purple to dark or grayish, purplish red.
  • p. 134: “Harmless when stored sparately, the hypergolic chemicals combine in a special gland to concoct a potion volatile as nerve gas.” – igniting spontaneously upon contact with a complementary substance.
  • p. 170: “Antonina wrote in her diary of Gross’s rapture, how the animals absorbed her until she lost herself in their quiddities for hours, oblivious to zoogoers who stood quietly watching.” – the quality that makes a thing what it is; the essential nature of a thing.
  • p. 258: “But now that the zoo fell under the Warsaw Parks and Gardens Department, Jan answered to a bureaucrat who envisioned one continuous pullulation of green, with every woodlet, hedge, or obelisk echoing the others, according to his design.” – a rapid and abundant increase, with implications of buds, sprouts, offshoots, and swarms.
  • p. 301: “Flocks of crows circled the sky before landing in the snow-covered fields, on one of those claggy warm January mornings when dark tree branches glisten through fog and just breathing feels like inhaling cotton.” – wet, muddy, adhesive; said of a roof in a mine to which coal clings.

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