Title: The Zookeeper’s Wife
Author: Diane Ackerman
Rating Out of 5: 5 (I will read this again and again and again)
My Bookshelves: Book to Film, Memoirs, Non-fiction, War
Dates read: 23rd September – 3rd November 2019
5th sentence, 74th page: If Jan were dressing beside the terrace door, Antonina wouldn’t have spotted him.
When Germany invades Poland, Luftwaffe bombers devastate Warsaw and the city’s zoo along with it. With most of their animals killed, or stolen away to Berlin, zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski begin smuggling Jews into the empty cages.
As the war escalates Jan becomes increasingly involved in the anti-Nazi resistance. Ammunition is buried in the elephant enclosure and explosives stored in the animal hospital. Plans are prepared for what will become the Warsaw uprising. Through the ever-present fear of discovery, Antonina must keep her unusual household afloat, caring for both its human and animal inhabitants – otters, a badger, hyena pups, lynxes – as Europe crumbles around them.
Written with the narrative drive and emotional punch of a novel, The Zookeeper’s Wife is a remarkable true story. It shows us the human and personal impact of war – of life in Warsaw Ghetto, of fighting in the anti-Nazi resistance. But more than anything it is a story of decency and sacrifice triumphing over terror and oppression. Jan and Antonina saved over 300 people from the death camps of the Holocaust.
This novel is intense, stunning and completely unforgettable. Most of the time I find memoirs relatively easy to put down, but that really wasn’t the case with this one. I looked forward to crawling into bed every night to read a few chapters before turning of the light and laying my head down. There was just something about the writing, the story and the fun tangents throughout that drew me in from the very beginning.
This year I seem to be on a bit of a memoir kick. I’m enjoying memoirs and biographies about WWII in particular. This was a completely different aspect of WWII though. One that I hadn’t really considered – what Poland went through throughout and before the war. The way in which Ackerman writes about this helps to expand my knowledge – she doesn’t just talk about Antonina and her family, but also the people and occurrences around them. It’s a rabbit hole of information that is impossible to forget.
Now that I’ve read this book, I would be fascinated to see how it was dealt with in the world of movies. Sometimes this happens in such a wonderful, natural way… but in others, not so much. I might just have to hunt out a copy to see if it meets the very high expectations that this book has given more…
Most of the memoirs I have read are filled with emotion and personal anecdotes. This one reads a lot more like a historical text. There’s some very dry facts interspersed throughout. Yet, these are balanced by foreshadowing, and the emotion comes from the plight of the people, not from the words. Likewise, Antonina’s comments and diary quotes are scattered throughout to help bring everyone even closer to life. Completely unforgettable and definitely a book I’m going to pick up again and again!
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