The Zookeeper’s Wife – Book Review

One of the most remarkable things about Antonina was her determination to include play, animals, wonder, curiosity, marvel, and a wide blaze of innocence in a household where all dodged the ambient dangers, horrors, and uncertainties. That takes a special stripe of bravery rarely valued in wartime. -From The Zookeeper’s Wife, page 166-

Diane Ackerman is a poet and naturalist who has written a moving, true account of heroism. Set in Warsaw during WWII, The Zookeeper’s Wife is the story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski who managed the Warsaw Zoo and took advantage of the Nazi’s obsession with genetic engineering (to bring extinct animals back to life) to hide Jews within the walls and cages of the zoo during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Their story spans the years from 1939, with the invasion of the Nazis into Warsaw, through 1945 when Poland was liberated. Ackerman describes the terror of the initial invasion through Antonina’s eyes with a poet’s flair:

On the rare occasions she ventured out, she entered a film-like war, with yellow smoke, pyramids of rubble, jagged stone cliffs where buildings once stood, wind-chased letters and medicine vials, wounded people, and dead horses with oddly angled legs. But nothing more unreal than this: hovering overhead, what looked at first like snow but didn’t move like snowflakes, something delicately rising and falling without landing. Eerier than a blizzard, a bizarre soft cloud of down feathers from the city’s pillows and comforters gently swirled above the buildings. -From The Zookeeper’s Wife, page 59-

The Zookeeper’s Wife is large in scope, exposing the ingenuity and daring of the Polish Underground and Resistance movements in which Jan was deeply involved, and extending to the individual acts of bravery which happened daily within the confines of the Warsaw ghetto. One of the more touching stories which Ackerman brings to her readers is that of Janusz Korczak – a pediatrician and writer – who dedicated himself to the orphans living within the Ghetto. When faced with the choice to escape to safety, Zorczak instead boarded a train to Treblinka and certain death in order to provide comfort to the nearly 200 children being deported.

Anticipating their calamity and fright when deportation day came (August 6, 1942), he joined them aboard the train bound for Treblinka, because, he said, he knew his presence would calm them – “You do not leave a sick child in the night, and you do not leave children at a time like this.” -From The Zookeeper’s Wife, page 185-

Ackerman’s gift is in showing the beauty and courage of people faced with unspeakable horror. She weaves the story of the zoo animals into the daily challenges faced by the individuals who hid among them. The healing power of animals is evident, as is the amazing relationship which Antonina had with them.

This book was difficult to read at times – the cruelty of the Nazis, the devastation of the zoo and most of its animals, the personal stories which unfold. It is almost unbearable to contemplate – and yet, written with sensitivity and skill, the book also exposes the goodness which came from one of the most horrible times in our history.


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    • Erin on May 13, 2008 at 16:19

    This book is in my TBR pile. I think I will move it to the top! Thanks for the review.

    • Wendy on May 13, 2008 at 19:29

    Erin, I hope you enjoy the book – I’ll look forward to reading your review 🙂

  1. This has been on my TBR list since Jenclair at reviewed it last year. Your review makes me glad I’ve got this in line for my Z title in the A-Z challenge.

  2. You’ve convinced me. I’m putting this one on my TBR right way! I seem to be on a huge Holocaust reading kick at the moment. I can’t get enough.

  3. This is going on my list to nominate at my face-to-face book group. Sounds like it’d be a fascinating book to discuss.

    • Wendy on May 15, 2008 at 07:36

    Suzi: Thank you for the link to Jen Claire’s review – I hope you’ll find this a satisfying read as I did.

    Natasha: If you are into Holocaust reading, you shouldn’t miss this one.

    Les: I actually read this for a book discussion group – and yes, I thought it was a good choice for discussion.

  4. I’ve read a few reviews of this book and have finally added it to my wishlist – though it’s not released in paperback here until September.

  5. Thanks for stopping by! It really is a fascinating book, and I’ve added a link to your review at the bottom of my review.

    • Wendy on May 15, 2008 at 17:11

    Mrs. S.: I actually bought the hard cover because I had a coupon for 40% off – otherwise, I usually wait for the soft cover versions of books too!

    Jenclair: Thanks for adding the link to my review 🙂

    • Teddy on May 17, 2008 at 17:00

    Thnaks for another wonderful review. This one is already on my TBR.

    • Wendy on May 18, 2008 at 14:22

    Teddy: You’re welcome! Looking forward to reading your review!

    • Tara on May 26, 2008 at 17:16

    I *almost* started this the other night! I enjoyed your review very much and this is near the top of my stack(s). Thanks also for visiting me – I’m enjoying reading through your blog.

    • Wendy on May 26, 2008 at 18:36

    Tara: Thanks for visiting *me*! Glad you are enjoying browsing. I’ll look forward to reading your thoughts on this one when you’ve read it.

  6. very nice review! i just finished the book and posted my thoughts. it really was a great book!

    • Wendy on December 31, 2008 at 08:06

    Glad to see you enjoyed it, Alison!

    • Duvets on January 15, 2010 at 11:47

    It’s always amazing to hear of these stories, and I really appreciate the authors who put forth the effort to bring these stories forth. This is what writing is all about.

    • Wendy on January 27, 2010 at 11:03

    Duvets: I couldn’t agree more – I love books like this.

    • Ernestina on September 15, 2011 at 09:35

    i have not read this book yet but im about to read it for an AP class and the reviews sounds great i hope it is as good as everyone makes it sounds
    i will put my commets after i read it

    • Wendy on September 16, 2011 at 15:19

    Ernestina: I’ll look forward to your thoughts on the book.

    • Kayla on October 20, 2011 at 07:19

    I just finished this book for a school report and did not enjo it at all. The only reason I finished it is I have to do a report on it. NOT A GOOD READ!!!

    • Wendy on October 20, 2011 at 07:20

    I’m sorry you did not enjoy the book, Kayla. Obviously (from my review), I thought differently. What specifically did you not like about it?

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