The Zookeeper's Wife

Somewhere between doing and not doing, everyone’s conscience finds it’s own level…
Diane Ackerman

From what a friend told me about Diane Ackerman’s, The Zookeeper’s Wife, I thought it was a novel. But no, as I began reading it, I soon realized it was a non-fiction account of wartime Poland and particularly the effort of the two zookeepers of the Warsaw Zoo, Antonina and Jan Zabinski , to save hundreds of people, including several hundred Jews.

There were 380,000 Jews who lived in Warsaw at the start of World War II. A fraction survived the Holocaust, among them were the 300 that Antonina and Jan managed to smuggle, hide, and keep alive at the zoo until the war ended. They were hidden amongst the rubble of the zoo that was virtually destroyed by the Nazis, in underground tunnels, and in the villa that was the Zabinski’s home on the zoo’s grounds.

I knew about the Nazi effort to exterminate the Polish Jews and the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto. After reading Ackerman’s account, I knew a great deal more. For example, that anti-Semitism was rampant in twentieth century Warsaw, a city of 1.3 million people, a third of whom were Jews.

“I ask nothing of the Jews except that they disappear.” German Governor Frank

And that there was a well organized resistance movement in Poland that was larger and in many respects more effective than the better-known French Resistance.

With courage and ingenuity, the Polish Resistance would sabotage German equipment, derail trains, blow up bridges, print over 1,100 periodicals, make radio broadcasts, teach in covert high schools and colleges…, aid Jews in hiding, supply arms, make bombs, assassinate Gestapo agents, rescue prisoners, stage secret plays, publish books, lead feats of civil resistance, hold its own law courts, and run couriers to and from the London-based government-in-exile.

Lastly, that the spirited rebellion in the Warsaw Ghetto collapsed after 30 days of ferocious street to street fighting with much of the Ghetto in rubble after the Nazi’s massive effort to destroy both the Ghetto and the city of Warsaw itself.

The uprising is the Ghetto was the largest single revolt by the Jews during World War II and also the first mass uprising in German occupied Europe.

The origin of The Zookeeper’s Wife also interests me. While Ackerman is a naturalist, it was her Polish grandparents who first drew her to this story and from them she learned a great deal about living in Poland then. She also chanced upon the memoir Antonia had written, had it translated, and began interviewing those who knew her and had managed to survive the war. Her research into books and documents in Polish, Hebrew and Yiddish was extensive and she has skillfully brought it to the pages of the book, a book that I keep thinking is a novel, and even though it isn’t, still reads like one.

At the end Ackerman raises a question that continues to be at the center of every book I read about the Holocaust. Namely, what led some people to come to the aid of Jews at the risk of their life and the life of everyone in their family? She offers the same reasons most rescuers give when asked this question.

They say they could not turn away from a person fleeing the Nazis, that it was the right thing to do. Ackerman writes, Rescuers tended to be decisive, fast thinking, risk taking, independent, adventurous, openhearted, rebellious and unusually flexible—able to switch plans, abandon habits, or change ingrained routines at a moment’s notice.

However, most people didn’t want to get involved and we have no account of those Poles or the citizens of any other country who did not put their lives at risk to save Jewish individuals fleeing the Nazis. The difference between the rescuers and non-rescuers is a topic worthy of any serious investigator of the Holocaust and altruistic behavior in general.