For those who have not yet heard of this book, it’s the true story of the wife of the Warsaw Zoo’s keeper during WWII. Most of the zoo's animals were killed during the bombing but with the help of the Polish Underground, the zoo became a haven for more than 300 Jews escaping the Nazis. Wait! Don’t stop reading here just because you can’t take any more Holocaust books! This book is amazing!
Although this book is about WWII, Jewish people, and the Holocaust, the focus is NOT on the people being saved (or what they were being saved from) but rather on the everyday life of one family doing the saving.
Antonina (the zookeeper’s wife) is one of those rare people who seem to have a 6th sense when it comes to animals. She understands them implicitly and they seem to understand her as well. In fact, her view of the whole world is influenced by her connection to nature.
Jan, her husband, is heavily involved with the Polish Underground. He is forever bringing people to the zoo to hide out, leaving Antonina to feed and hide them in addition to caring for her own family and they myriad unusual pets.
Rys, their young son, struggles to keep the life and death secrets of the people in hiding. He’s just a child but he is growing up so quickly and he wants to be a part of the fight against the Germans.
Author Diane Ackerman is a poet and a naturalist, a combination which gives this book a unique style. The research she did is apparent on every page and it makes for a fascinating read. This is a non-fiction book so don’t expect a historical fiction novel here.* This book is chock full of fascinating facts. Some seemed obvious once I read them, others I’d never have guessed.
Here are some of the things that really caught my attention as I read:
- In 1939 as Warsaw was being bombed, life was continuing on as usual around the world; Glenn Miller’s music was on the radio, the jukebox was a new invention, The Wizard of Oz played at the theaters, and people lived oblivious to events in Poland. Yes, I knew this, but the way Ackerman wrote about it made it so much more real.
- When the zoo was bombed many of the animals escaped into the city and surrounding countryside. First off, imagine the scene from the movie Jumanji when all the animals are running through the city – that’s what came to my mind! It wasn’t exactly like that but there WERE exotic animals running through the streets of Warsaw. Whatever happened to the ones who made it into the woods? It reminded me of Life of Pi where Pi talks about the many zoo animals that have escaped and still live “in the wild”.
- Antonina described the war as “a sort of hibernation of the spirit, when ideas, knowledge, science, enthusiasm for work, understanding, and love – all accumulate inside, [where] nobody can take them away from us.” Wow – that is powerful and so true.
- The Boy and Girls Scouts, banned by the Nazis, were heavily involved in the Polish Underground. During the Warsaw uprising, Boy Scouts risked their lives to run a temporary, free postal service that hand-delivered letters.
- The Nazi's fascination with purity extended to the animal world as well. They wanted to bring back several extinct species that they admired and also to rid the world of "lesser species" of plants and animals.
- Most of us know that 30-40% of the world’s Jewish population died during WWII, but I did not know that 80-90% of the world’s Orthodox Jews were killed during this time.
- Remember reading about Irena Sendler’s recent death? This wonderfully courageous woman was hidden at the zoo for a while. She was friends with Jan and Antonina before her stay there, and afterward as well.
- The zookeepers – and others – thought of their home as an ark, filled with precious cargo adrift in a dangerous sea.
- There is a process whereby you can reverse a circumcision. It was done as long ago as the Roman era (non-surgically!) and was done again during WWII to save many Jewish men. When I told my husband about it, he was cringing at the mere thought of the pain.
I really and truly loved this book. It kept my attention, taught me any things, and was an enjoyable read, much like another WWII book I read a few months back. I highly recommend this book.
* One reviewer I read said she’d have preferred this book if I were written in novel form. She wanted the author to intuit more, to give more flow to the story. I can’t disagree more! I loved the format of this book. So often when reading historical fiction I’m left to wonder “Did that really happen?” but there is none of that here. The author is up front about her sources and clearly describes what she knows to be true. I loved that about this book!
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The Inside Cover