Book Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife

Synopsis from Goodreads: When Germany invaded Poland, Stuka bombers devastated Warsaw—and the city’s zoo along with it. With most of their animals dead, zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski began smuggling Jews into empty cages. Another dozen “guests” hid inside the Zabinskis’ villa, emerging after dark for dinner, socializing, and, during rare moments of calm, piano concerts. Jan, active in the Polish resistance, kept ammunition buried in the elephant enclosure and stashed explosives in the animal hospital. Meanwhile, Antonina kept her unusual household afloat, caring for both its human and its animal inhabitants—otters, a badger, hyena pups, lynxes.With her exuberant prose and exquisite sensitivity to the natural world, Diane Ackerman engages us viscerally in the lives of the zoo animals, their keepers, and their hidden visitors. She shows us how Antonina refused to give in to the penetrating fear of discovery, keeping alive an atmosphere of play and innocence even as Europe crumbled around her

First off, let me say that I wasn’t aware this book was what the movie of the same name was based on. I actually haven’t seen the movie (for some reason, I thought it was a kid-oriented flick with Matt Damon, but it’s neither of those things) and after reading the book, I don’t think I’ll be watching the film version.

I wanted to like this book, as much as one “likes” a book about Nazi atrocities to the Jewish population during World War II. Let’s say that I had hoped this book would be more than it was for me. The basic storyline is that the Zabinskis, who had been the zookeepers/biologists running the Warsaw zoo before the war, utilized the empty spaces in the zoo complex to shelter people, most of whom were Jewish although some were also Resistance, and assist in their escape from the Warsaw ghetto and Poland itself when possible. The book relies heavily on Antonina Zabinski’s journals and letters to tell the story. Oddly though, she comes across as almost a passive figure in this story, and while her husband, Jan, was an active member of the Resistance, wound up fighting against the Germans in a Polish Army unit and being captured and imprisoned for the last year or so of the war, he winds up being a minor figure in the story somehow.

The author also has vignettes of some of the “guests” (as they were called) who stayed at the zoo, including a sculptor and other artists, scientists and other learned residents of the ghetto, as well as some of the prominent military and government officials, both German and Polish, who Antonina interacted with during the course of the war. Some of these figures are described and their life story and work is discussed, but then they’re dropped from the storyline and I was left trying to puzzle out why they were mentioned, as there didn’t seem to be any thread carried through the narrative about why they were important.

The book also has a lot of rambling passages taken from Antonina’s journals that talk about the animals and rebuilding the zoo but they don’t seem to be included to further the storyline itself. The author presents the war as a time of great suffering and hardship for the Zabinskis. I don’t doubt that is somewhat true – I can’t imagine how difficult wartime occupied Poland was – but honestly, they were able to have a place to live, had coal to heat at least the living spaces of the massive villa on the grounds of the zoo that they lived in, as well as food and clothing. (There’s even a mention near the very end of the war in 1944 that Antonina is able to get fresh milk for herself and the children. I’m betting that there were a LOT of Warsaw residents who hadn’t even seen milk in close to half a decade at that point.) They continued to have a housekeeper up until late 1943, as well as luxury items like a piano, that the Germans didn’t loot or confiscate, so I think their “great hardships” were likely on a much lesser scale than those of the larger population.

I have read some other reviews that call out mistakes and inconsistencies in the history itself. I’m not an in-depth student of this particular time so I can’t speak for those in detail, but the book definitely had some shortcomings. How did they manage to keep so many “guests” concealed? How did Antonina and her children manage to leave Warsaw and find a relatively untouched village in rural Poland to stay in during 1944-1945? And how on earth did they pay for things like fresh milk there? In what ways did the Resistance fighters coordinate efforts to save people using the zoo as a base? And most importantly, the author chooses to downplay the level of suffering and devastation to the Jewish population in Warsaw and indeed, all of Poland, as well as throughout occupied areas of Europe. Why would you take that approach when it is such an important and compelling story to tell?

A disappointment for me. I’m giving this one 2 out of 5 stars overall. (However, this was book 100/100 for my Goodreads 2021 challenge, so I will take that as a win, albeit a small one.)

3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife

  1. 100 books read is definitely a win! I had heard of this book (or maybe the movie?) but never realized it was based on actual journals from the time period. I wonder if the journals themselves are as passive as the novelization sounds?

    1. This actually is nonfiction (as opposed to historical fiction) – and there are paragraph-sized sections included out of her journals, so yeah… still passive. (Of course that opinion is also based on the passages the author selected for inclusion. I would suspect the entire journals are like that but haven’t read the actual source material.)

      1. Oh, based on the description of how passive it was, I had assumed it was historical fiction. It feels odd to me that the reality would be so passive, so I made an assumption. Still a neat story, but… that’s just odd to me.

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