by Diane Ackerman
This is the story of a zoo in wartime. Warsaw, Poland was bombarded by German attacks, occupied by the enemy, involved in devastating battle with the Uprising, and finally subdued under Soviet rule. Through it all Jan Zabinski and his wife Antonina remained in the zoo grounds, although at times they were forced to abandoned the villa that was their home they always managed to come back to it, trying to save what they could. In the early months of the war many buildings were destroyed by bombs, animals released (intentionally and by accident- this part of the story reminded me of Pride of Baghdad). Dangerous animals were purposefully shot because of fear they would escape, more were removed to zoos in other cities far from the war. The zoo grounds were ripped apart by soldiers as different orders came down from the occupying enemy: turned into a pig farm, established with garden plots to feed civilians and soldiers, stocked with raccoon dogs as a fur farm.
Before long, it seems there weren\’t many animals left and mention goes to how people in the city survived the war, the many underground activities, the horrors of the ghetto, incredible stress and risk people suffered from, and most of all- how the zoo director and his wife saved some three hundred people, hiding them in the villa and outlying buildings of the zoo. I admit I wished for a bit more about the animals, but the detailed picture the book painted of civilian life and all the efforts Jews and other threatened people went through to avoid attracting attention (and thus death) was compelling reading. I learned quite a lot of detail I wasn\’t aware of before. Ackerman is a good writer who knows how to tell a story, and seems to have done very thorough research. It all makes me wish I could read Antonina\’s original diaries and memoirs, or her husband Jan\’s books about the animals, but I don\’t know if any have even been translated. I was full of admiration for everything this couple did to help other people, most of them complete strangers.
One thing that stood out to me was the frequent mention of a sculptor, Magdalena Gross, who visited the zoo to use the animals as subjects for her art. The author often remarked how famous she was, how meticulous with details to accurately capture the poise of the animals. I really wanted to view some of her work but had trouble finding it online- I did come across a site that shows many animal statues from the Warsaw Zoo grounds, but I\’m not sure if those are hers. Does anyone know?
I recently saw the film version of The Book Thief (excellent!) which vividly depicted wartime Germany for me, so it was interesting to read a completely different viewpoint of the same historical timeframe.
Rating: 3/5 368 pages, 2007