“I don’t understand all the fuss. If any creature is in danger, you save it, human or animal.”

zookeeperswifeThe Brown Baggers met at Central on July 19th to discuss The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman. This is the true story of how the Zabinski family in Poland survived WWII, and helped save the lives of over 300 Jews by hiding them in the Warsaw Zoo. Ackerman read through the unpublished diary of Antonina Zabinski to uncover the story.

The Warsaw Zoo was modern for its time, with enclosures that aimed to mimic the animal’s natural habitats. Jan Zabinski was the director of the zoo, but his wife Antonina spent much of her time caring for the sick and orphaned animals. Most of the zoo’s animals and structures were destroyed in the bombings and siege of the city. The Germans closed the zoo when they occupied Poland, but they allowed the Zabinskis to live in the villa and to convert the zoo into a pig farm, then a fur farm.

The Zabinskis became active with the Polish underground resistance and secretly sheltered Jews in various parts of the zoo, as well as their own house, throughout the war. Antonina continued to care for animals, even allowing her young son to keep some as pets in the house throughout the war. Jan fought in the Warsaw uprising and was interred in a POW camp toward the end of the war. The Zabinski family survived the war and the zoo reopened in 1949, with Jan as the director.

The Brown Baggers liked the book. Many mentioned that they enjoyed the author’s writing style and how the book blended two stories – those of the animals of the zoo with the horrors of WWII. However, some did not find all of the naturalist details that were included necessary. They felt like it distracted from the plot line of the story and they would rather have learned more about the members of the resistance and their activities. Many also mentioned the parallels with how the Nazis treated the zoo animals and how they treated humans. While all of the details of the zoo may have been too much for some readers, others felt the animal stories lightened up the otherwise heavy subjects of the book.

Everybody agreed that Antonina’s actions were heroic and they were relieved she was the focus of the story, instead of her husband. They enjoyed the passages from her diary which were included in the text, but they were amazed she had managed to hide her diary from the Germans. Curious readers wondered just where she might have hidden it. Antonina was a pivotal character in their part of the resistance, but readers weren’t sure if her motivation was altruistic or submissive (to her husband). Most readers cited her orphan experience as a child as the possible explanation for her extreme empathy and connection to animals and humans.

Readers enjoyed the piano playing and secondary characters like Magdalena, the sculptor. They wondered if the title wasn’t a little misleading on purpose to drive intrigue. Warsaw Zoo or The Zookeeper, they said, wouldn’t quite have the same ring. They expressed admiration for those participating in the resistance and their resilience during such prolonged tense living conditions. Readers were awed at the myriad ways they found to fight back. Many did not know of the extent of organized resistance in Poland during the war.

Readers felt this story was very close to home given the Nazi violence that occured in Charlottesville last August. It also provided deeper insight into Nazi history (in this case, shedding light on the meaning of “blood and soil”, which was chanted during the events of August 11&12).

The book has been made into a film. Readers who had seen it said it left out many details and exaggerated some of the storylines for cinematic affect. Critics of the book complained that the author rushed the ending but readers felt it was well wrapped up and were glad to learn how everyone turned out.

The Brown Baggers will meet again on Thursday, August 16th at 12pm to discuss The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See.

About the Zoo
About the forest
Heck horses and cattle, and more info on the Nazi breeding programs
About the Warsaw uprising:

  • Article from American Public Media
  • Information from the Warsaw Rising Museum
  • Article from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

LA Times Interview with the author
Book review from the New York Times
Book review from the Washington Post

Books and authors (and films) mentioned:
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer
Ken Follett
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly
Last Hope Island by Lynne Olson
Mila 8 by Leon Uris
The Pianist (film)
Schindler’s List (film)

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