Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Zookeeper's Wife


This book by Diane Ackerman takes us back to the 1930s. More precisely, to a zoo in warsaw in the summer of 1935 . Jan Zabinksi , the director of Warsaw Zoo and his wife Antonina met and found a common interest - their love for animals. That interest led to their wedding in 1935 and to the birth of a son, rys (polish for lynx - naturally!). Their lives were filled with zopes and dreams for the zoo and for the animals in the zoo. Little did they know that their passion would later help them save soo many human lives. World War II happened and the germans attacks poland. In their frenzy to kill all jews possible, they landed up killing around 7 million people in Poland (of which around 3 million were catholic poles). That was close to 22% of the total population of poland. Poland lost a greater proportion of its population than any other country during world war II. We all know the nazi motives- ethinic cleansing! In the author's own words,

"Nazism hoped not only to dominate nations and ideologies, but to alter the world's ecosystems by extinguishing some countries' native species of plants and animals (including human beings) while going to great lengths to protect other endangered animals."

While they were trying to wipe the entire jewish race off the face of the earth, they were also simultaneously trying to re-create some of the world's lost glory - the aurochs, the tarpans,etc. It was this motive of theirs that eventually spared the Warsaw Zoo from complete demolition.

In this book, Diane Ackerman brings us the story of a very courageous couple - Jan and Antonina. In a world where even giving water to a thirsty jew was a jailable offense, these two brave people gave them much more than just water - they gave them food, shelter, and security and hid them from the germans. They very well knew what would happen to them if they were exposed - death and that too not a short,simple and easy execution. In spite of all the risks, the two of them did all that they could to help jews they knew (and many they didnt even know!) to escape from the clutches of the blood thirsty nazis.

These are the stories that are easily lost and never surface after the wars.. these heroes are never recognized and their bravery and sacrifice completely go unrecognized. Jan and Antonina had a lucky break - Diane Ackerman. She came across the story of the zookeepers when she went through Antonina's memoirs and then researched very deeply into this subject and came up with a book full of facts - "The Zookeeper's Wife". As she herself says, her sources included Antonina's memoirs, her autobiographical children's books, Jan and Antonina's interviews in newspapers after the war, conversations with Rys, various contemporaries, artifacts in museums, memoirs and letters of secret wartime archivists,etc etc..

but by putting together all this information, she has recreated the past. A complete recreation which doesnt just include the facts about the war.. but also little tidbits about the Zobinskis. Their characters, their dressing and food habits, etc. A Complete Portrayal.

I felt that the best parts of the book were the little parts - Jan and Antonina's struggle to protect their son from the war. Their vain attempts to protect his innocence and their struggle from keeping him from learning about war too early in his life. They did not want him to know the amoral, merciless side of nature. In one part, they talk about a pet hamster that Rys had. They even hesitated before telling him about how hamsters parents can be cruel enough to kill their own children. Yet, in spite of all their efforts, they were stuck in the middle of a war, with all the bombings and killings without reason. How could they explain it all to him?

I took the Page 69 test before I started reading the book - Marshall McLuhan suggested that you should choose your reading by turning to page 69 of a book and, if you like it, read it. Well, I really needn't have done it. The story line was too interesting for me to miss. But the page 69 test did work. I got a very good grasp of the style of writing and the content by just reading that single page. You should try it the next time you pick a random book to read!

Well, i could go on and on about this book and tell you everything there is to tell. But that wouldnt be fair. I think it is an amazing book. the fact that it is a true story only seems to reaffirm your faith in humanity. A consolation that no matter how cruel the world seems, there will always be a few humans.. More Noah's with an Ark to protect you from the raging floods!

I kinda brought that up coz through the book Diane makes many references to Jan's villa as Noah's Ark.

The best part about the book though is the strength with which Antonina managed the situation. Jan left the house early in the morning and came back late after work. He was involved in the 'Underground' activities as well..even without the knowledge of Antonina! Being at home full time with the jews they were helping, even a minor slip on her part would have alerted the germans who were always at close range to the zoo and that would have been the end of them all... she not only managed to keep them all safe and sound, she even brought joy and laughter to their lives. Her idea to brings animals into the house along with the people was a good idea. They enjoyed the antics performed by the animals and that distracted them from the state they were in. Compared to the other places where many jews were hiding, the Villa was a paradise! She did all this even through her pregnancy!!

The story of Antonina is very inspiring. Her courage and strength teaches us a lot. I think this book is a must read for everyone! there's so much to learn from it..and it is also a very enjoyable book to read!