Monday, October 27, 2008

The Zookeeper's Wife

I usually don't like to double-post, but I just finished this book and want to write about it while it's still fresh in my memory. "The Zookeeper's Wife," written by Diane Ackerman, caught my eye last summer while I was paging through a magazine at the lake. It was on the must-read list, but I sort of forgot about until I noticed it on a table in Barnes & Noble a few weeks ago. Ackerman tells the story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, a Polish couple that resided in Warsaw, Poland during World War II. They were not Jewish so were not subjected to the treatment that sector of the population experienced. While Poland was occupied, the Zabinski's worked with the Underground Uprising and are credited for saving over 300 people. From the beginning of the war, until Liberation in 1945, they housed many Jews in their villa and various cages and sheds on the zoo grounds. For the latter part of the war, Jan joined his fellow countrymen in the fight against the Germans, so Antonina managed their underground operations on her own.

This book was a departure from the subject matter that Ackerman typically writes about. She has penned numerous essay and books on nature and human nature. Since she is not a historian, the book flowed a little differently and focused on different aspects of the Nazi ideals; she spoke about the Nazi obsession with racial purity. This obsession with purity also extended to flora and fauna and Ackerman tied these Nazi ideals into the story.

The book was very interesting, but difficult to read at the same time. It definitely made me reflect back on the two Concentration Camps that I visited while in Germany, Sachsenhausen and Dachau. As depressing as it was to tour these Concentration Camps, it was an important part of my trip. Sections of the book reminded me of stories that the tour guides told. When we toured Dachau, we watched a video and heard stories about how the people that lived around Dachau ignored what was happening and went on living their lives. The same behavior was described in this book; as a birthday present for Hitler, Heinrich Himmler liquidated the Jews still living in the Ghetto in Warsaw. The Jews put up more of a fight that Himmler had anticipated; after a month of fighting, the Germans decided to torch everything - buildings, bunkers, sewers, and all the people in them. While all this happened, life in Warsaw continued. As Ackerman reports, "life flowed on as usual, as yesterday, as always. People enjoyed themselves. They saw the smoke from the fires by day and flames by night. Country girls visiting the capital rode on the roundabout, looking over the flames of the ghetto, laughing, catching leaves of ash that floated their way, as a loud carnival tune played." It's so haunting to read about this. The smell of burning flesh had to have been in the air, but those unaffected turned their heads and continued to live their lives.

Although the book impacted me, it wasn't as good as I thought it would be. I thought it would focus more on the stories of the 300+ people that the Zabinski's saved, or that it would give more details as to how they pulled this off. While there were anecdotes throughout the book, I didn't feel that they were as central to the book as they should have been. Ackerman told the story of the 6 years of Occupation in just over 300 pages, so obviously there was a need to give a highlighted view of those 6 years. 300 pages does not give the author enough time to develop the story like she could have. It would be interesting to read the same story written by a different person. After reading the book, I still don't feel like I know Antonina as well as I could have. Despite my criticism, I still think it is worth checking out.

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