Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman

Originally posted Wednesday, November 26, 2008

An amazing story of the ability of the mind to access the survival instincts we don't even know we possess. One woman's story of utilizing the Warsaw Zoo after semi-destruction and the loss of animals to German zoos or outright shooting, to rescue hundreds of Jews as a part of the Underground. Chapter 1 takes place in 1935 and gives a jump-off point of life at the zoo before the horrors to follow.

While Diane Ackerman has obviously done a great deal of research and interviewed many witnesses, her book occasionally appears to get sidetracked. In one section the war is going on and suddenly it is over as she discusses Hasidism and seems to switch into the time after the war (e.g. 1960s) and talks about the results of the war in the past tense although the chapter is actually in 1941. Over these few pages there is almost a calm, and then we are taken back into the war. I felt these instances could have possibly been brought out in notes rather than interrupting the flow. However, perhaps there was a feeling of necessity to the plot that I didn't see at the time. It may simply have been a quieter time in the course of what was going on in Warsaw before another heavy bombardment of war, dehumanization, the beginning of the "liquidation" of the Ghetto and the nearing of the Allies (some of whom apparently were not allies to Poland).

I love the way the author portrays the life at the villa, going along its own unique way. A new kind of normal to most inhabitants, permanent or traveling through. The most amazing mixture of people and animals interacting as one is wonderful to see, both heartwarming and indicative of how humans and animals learn to survive. The lessons given on how to appear normal when caught out on the street, taking on the subtle characteristics of the perceived purer class apparently worked very well. Antonina seems to have the gift of communicating with the animals to such an extent she has learned how to be invisible, when to be still, how to observe, and many other animal instincts which she draws upon quite naturally in times of danger.

It would appear that Diane Ackerman has become Antonina in her writing at times, a part of her character; she seems so completely a part of the story, possibly because the foundation of her writing is based on Antonina's journals and diaries. Antonina appears to be a dark horse, outwardly appearing calm when she is "frightened to death" for her family, husband Jan, who is in the Underground Army, her son Rys, and later the birth of her daughter Teresa. While frightened when stopped by German soldiers, she thinks in her mind over and over such things as "put away your gun" while coming up with a plausible answer in a normal voice, and almost as though she were a hypnotist, the gun would be put away and she would be on her way unscathed.

This is a very interesting book, I learned a great deal about Polish and Jewish customs and history, and certainly I learned how devastated life and the country itself was during and at the end of WWII. I knew little about Poland and this was a very important book to me. There was enough softening and humor in the telling of the antics at the villa, but still the horror comes through of the Jewish Quarter, the Ghetto, the bombings, the deliberate burnings, the annihilation of not just the Jews, but the Polish people were also to be annihilated. This book is a must-read if we are ever to find an end to racism and despotism. I highly recommend this book to anyone.

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