Books: The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story

I saw The Zookeeper’s Wife a few times on the library shelf and the title intrigued me. I took a look, and considered checking it out, but somehow the prospect of reading about a Polish couple (Jan and Antonina Zabinski) who hid Jews from the Nazis during WWII didn’t sound like very relaxing reading. No matter how inspiring the story, it was bound to be full of the horror of war and especially the horror of what the Nazis did to the Jews.

Then I discovered the existence of a local reading group, and that this book would be discussed at their March meeting. I decided it would be a good book to read after all, and to have other book-lovers to discuss it with. Unfortunately, it didn’t occur to me that it might be difficult to get hold of the library’s copy of the book in the weeks leading up to that meeting (assuming not everyone goes out and buys their own copy). By the time I got a copy through interlibrary loan, I had one week left to read it. I had barely started it by the time the group met (I didn’t go), and it took me over a month to finish the book.

Some books don’t take me more than a week to read (even when they’re not children’s books like the last two I read). But this one, while definitely interesting, is not exactly gripping. There is little suspense – references to interviews given by Jan and Antonina after the war make it clear that both will survive. The action moves slowly, with frequent detours to fill in every detail the author could glean from diaries, letters, interviews, and a wealth of other sources about life in Warsaw during the war.

Some of the detail is fascinating, such as the chapter about Dr. Tenenbaum’s large insect collection. An entomologist who had been friends with Jan since boyhood, Dr.  Szymon Tenenbaum and his wife (herself a dentist) were among the Jews forced to live in the Warsaw Ghetto. The German head of the Labor Bureau, an amateur entomologist named Ziegler (who also happens to be a dental patient of Lonia Tenenbaum), turns out to care more about Tenenbaum’s marvelous insect collection than about what ulterior motives Jan might have for cultivating his friendship and making so many visits in and out of the Ghetto.

Another interesting chapter tells about a “beauty institute” set up to teach Jewish women how to appear Aryan and thus escape detection. In terms of appearance, this included dying their dark hair a lighter color and wearing it in a style more typical of Aryans than Jews, wearing glasses that de-emphasized their Semitic noses, wear clothing of inconspicuous colors, and wearing Christian symbols such as a cross. It also dealt with speech patterns, cooking traditional Polish foods, and even learning Christian prayers.

I was surprised that Jews would agree to such things, but apparently even kosher laws were waived by the need to eat whatever scarce food could be found – even pork. Some Jewish men chose surgery to restore their foreskins (as the standard police practice to determine if men were Jewish was to check for circumcision) – but I would guess that the more devout Jews would rather have died before abandoning this sign of their covenant with God.

Since I have never been drawn much to natural sciences (I prefer applied science, such as the history of inventions), I hadn’t expected to find the part of the book about animals all that interesting. The focus is less on the zoo’s animal inhabitants, however, than on Antonina’s remarkable ability to understand and communicate with them. Her husband Jan said of her, “She’s almost able to read their minds. … At a moment’s notice, she can lose her Homo sapiens nature and transform herself into a panther, badger, or muskrat!”

 Her home was always full of animals – not only family pets but also orphaned baby animals and injured animals. Somehow they all lived peacefully in the large villa – lynx kittens, a badger, a chimpanzee – and eventually a son of her own joined the happy confusion of young crawling and climbing about.

War did much to strain any kind of peace in the Zabinski’s lives, however. What zoo animals were not killed by bombing were either shipped away to a German zoo (supposedly for safekeeping, but the German zoo director who took them coveted the best animals) or shot by carousing German soldiers for “sport.” I had wondered how a zoo could be used to hide Jews, but it turned out that once the animals had been destroyed, the zoo grounds provided lots of space where humans could be smuggled in and out.

The zoo property functioned at various times during the war as a pig farm, an area for community gardens (helping make up for wartime food shortages), and a German fur farm. Each of these gave Jan legitimate reasons for his comings and goings, including in and out of the Warsaw Ghetto. Antonina knew he was heavily involved in the Polish Underground, which worked both at sabotaging German efforts and helping Jews escape, but she did her best to know little of the details of his dangerous work.

Antonina’s life had plenty of its own dangers, because the zoo grounds and the villa itself were usually filled to capacity with Jews, a few of them long-term visitors, but most staying just long enough to be smuggled on to the next stop on their escape to safety. A wrong sound or movement at the wrong time could alert Germans, who were often nearby enjoying a walk on the zoo grounds. Code words (the Guests, as they were called, were referred to by animal names) and secret signals (a particular melody played by Antonina on the piano) helped prevent detection, and a steady stream of legitimate visits by friends and family masked the high level of human activity in and around the villa.

While Jan and Antonina and their children survived the war, some of their good friends did not, including Szymon the entomologist. Their son Rys had to deal with his own losses, as animals that he had grown up with as part of the family were killed by German soldiers. Antonina reflects again and again on how difficult it must be to grow up in wartime, never to feel truly safe or able to trust other people, and having to take on nearly adult responsibilities (helping keep their hidden Jews safe) long before one should have to.

I was reminded, reading this book, how little I know of Polish history. Growing up, I knew that there was a sizable population of people of Polish descent in the neighboring city of New Britain. But the only thing I really associated with Polish people was Polish jokes, and they never reflected well on the people they featured. I didn’t think they gave anything like a true picture of Polish people, but I never heard anything to make me think the people of Poland had much to be proud of either. At the time I was growing up, they lived under Communism, and when Solidarity began to be in the news during my early adulthood, I was surprised that so many workers would be willing to defy their Communist masters in that way. 

Years ago, I read a historical novel featuring a Polish officer, and I began to get some inkling of the country’s proud history. I read about honor, and bravery, and people whose land might have been conquered but not their spirit. This is what I saw in The Zookeeper’s Wife – a widespread resistance to the Nazi oppression, and Catholics who would gladly risk their lives to help their Jewish friends and neighbors.

The Polish people, of course, were not well regarded by the Nazis either. They were not considered “lice” like the Jews, but genetically inferior to the Germans and eventually to be replaced by them. It’s hardly surprising that they would make common cause with those whose extermination had been planned to take place sooner. Since the action takes place entirely in Poland (there is a brief account of time Jan spent in a German POW camp at the end of the war), there is no indication given of how ordinary Germans felt about all this.

Their leaders, though, were clearly obsessed with the idea of genetic superiority. Even in animals, they wanted to breed true lines of superior German animals, stronger and nobler than the mongrels that other countries had allowed to dilute the characteristics of pure bloodlines. One zoo director in particular was intent on breeding specimens that seemed to have the traits closest to their primitive ancestors – wild and strong rather than weak and docile. Strength was a trait they greatly admired. Compassion, apparently, was seen as weakness.

But Jan and Antonina had both strength and compassion. And they used their strength to create a haven for the weak, whether animal or human.

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