This is my transition book, the book I begin appropriately in Warsaw, which is where the events take place, and finish through the haze and weird sleeping patterns of jetlag, as I try to remember that I’m back at Potato Point. It tells in fascinating detail a story I heard glimmerings of a few years ago as I researched my second home. The book was recommended in an email from J’s cousin, an engineer who lives in Brisbane. Such are the winding connections of the modern world.
“The zookeeper’s wife” by Diane Ackerman is the story of the Warsaw Zoo during WW2, where Antonia Żabińska and her husband Jan gave refuge to 300 Jews who escaped from the Ghetto, hiding them in the villa and in the animal cages. It’s based on Antonina’s journal and many other intriguing sources. It captures life under the Nazis in a detail I haven’t encountered before, what another historian I’m reading calls “whispers from the past” that break through the generic retelling of events.
There are so many threads to the story: life under bombardment and constant threat of discovery and execution; the child who has to be silent about what’s going on at home as he attends a secret school; the comings and goings of the Guests as they move into the zoo and then out again to other “safe” places; the agony of waiting for Jan to come home from his work with the underground; the loss of zoo animals to bombing, hunting, and appropriation by German zookeepers; fascinating details about the animals and their domestication to life in the house; and an account of attempts to back-breed to recover extinct animals and to set up hunting lodges in the primeval forest at Białowieża.
It’s Antonina who maintains life in the villa. Her courage in confrontations with Germans is astonishing; her fear for her son is palpable; and her knowledge of animals encyclopaedic and empathetic.
The day I left Warsaw the film of the book premiered there. I was eager to see it until I realised it was shot, not in Praga where the zoo is, but in Prague and the Czech Republic. The trailer looks a bit too animal-cute and romantic for my sense of the book. An article on culture.pl confirms this feeling.
The New York Times review is worth reading.