Literary Wives: The Zookeeper’s Wife

literarywives2If you’re new to Literary Wives, here’s the summary: I’ll be joining bloggers Ariel, Audra, Emily, Cecilia, Kay, and Lynn as we post every other month about a different book with the word “wife” in the title. When we read these books, we have two questions in mind:

1. What does this book say about wives or the experience of being a wife?

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

This month, we’re talking about Diane Ackerman’s 2007 book The Zookeeper’s Wife. We invite you to join the discussion by commenting on our blogs (links below) or posting your own review on our shiny new Facebook page.

photo (66)The Zookeeper’s Wife is the first nonfiction book we’ve read together as a group.  I looked forward to reading the book for many reasons. My grandfather is a World War II veteran (Eighth Air Force), and close family friends, husband and wife, flew in the RAF and fought in the Dutch Resistance, respectively. I’ve also had the honor of meeting Holocaust survivors, thanks to the Maltz Museum of Jewish History, which is located near my hometown. Several of my high school friends’ grandparents were Holocaust survivors, too. All of which is to say that World War II feels more immediate to me than wars that, chronologically, are much closer to my own lifetime (Korea, Vietnam, even the Gulf War, which I remember seeing reports about on TV). I’m always interested to read another account of people who experienced the war.

Diane Ackerman traces the story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski (the eponymous zookeeper and his wife), who ran the Warsaw Zoo before the outbreak of World War II in September 1939. Like many other non-Jewish Poles, the Zabinskis risked their lives to save Jews and others hunted by the Nazis during the war; more than three hundred people passed through the zoo on their way to safety. Of all the countries affected by the Holocaust, Poland is the country with the most citizens deemed Righteous Among the Nations (non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews) by Yad Vashem. The Zabinskis were two of those citizens.

Their story deserves to be told. The pair went to great lengths to help others at the risk of not only their own lives, but the life of their young son. Guests at the Zoo often hid in plain sight; one of the Zabinskis’ strategies was to keep the Zoo and its villa pulsing with comings and goings, visitors, friends, and family all the time. The Germans even kept an arms dump on zoo grounds, yards away from the empty animal enclosures where Guests were sometimes hidden. As you can imagine, the risk of discovery was great, and the Zabinskis and their Guests survived several close calls.

The Zabinskis’ story is a fascinating tale of courage and human connection, but I’m not sure Ms. Ackerman was the right person to tell it. I think her goal was to tell the story of quiet acts of domestic heroism and tenacity (as exemplified by Antonina), and that’s why she focuses less on Jan’s work with the underground Home Army, or a straightforward telling of the Zabinskis’ activities during the war and more on the story of the zoo and its animals. Chronicling domestic heroism is an admirable goal, and certainly the book’s strongest moments are those that detail Antonina’s efforts to retain a sense of normalcy and beauty in the midst of terror,  but I kept feeling that people were shortchanged in this book. I would have preferred a book about the Warsaw Zoo with a more equitable focus on its residents — permanent and Guests — or a book that chronicled the lives of women in Warsaw (maybe five or six) who saved lives from home.

Ms. Ackerman is a naturalist and poet, and while at times I found her highly detailed descriptions of locations in Warsaw and everyday life in occupied Poland immensely helpful, at other times I thought that her prose was too purple (yes, even I admit there is such a thing), distracting from the story at the center of The Zookeeper’s Wife. In one instance, especially, I found her voice New-Age-y and her questions insensitive toward her subjects’ privacy. Of her meeting with the Zabinskis’ son, Rys, she writes:

No doubt he found some of my questions odd– I hoped to learn about his mother’s scent, how she walked, her gestures, her tone of voice, how she wore her hair. To all such inquiries, he answered “average,” or “normal,” and I soon realized those were memory traces he either didn’t visit or didn’t wish to share. (312)

Memory traces? Really?

Though the book is organized in roughly chronological order, Ms. Ackerman’s narration is so choppy that it was difficult for me to remember what was happening at any particular time in the zoo.  Time and again it seemed that people dropped out of the story, only to reappear near the end or not at all; sometimes it seemed the author was more interested in describing the antics of animals than the heroism of people. And very often — too often — I put the book down so I could research a name on the internet because people weren’t given enough page-time. Irena Sendler — if you haven’t heard of her, stop reading me and go look her up — appears just three times in the book, despite the fact that she was (a) an amazing heroine and (b) a Guest (person in hiding) at the zoo.

While the focus of The Zookeeper’s Wife is World War II and the events preceding it, I also felt that the book stopped too suddenly at the end of the war; we receive very little information about Jan and Antonina during the Cold War years. I would have liked to learn how they managed under a new totalitarian regime after working so effectively against another.

Ultimately, as you can probably tell, I found this to be a frustrating read. The Zookeeper’s Wife may be worth a read if you’re looking for a stepping stone into the stories of occupied Poland during World War II, or if you’re interested in early-twentieth-century zoo-keeping, or the Nazis’ interest in animal breeding (there’s a bibliography in the back of the book). I’m glad I learned about Antonina and Jan, but I wish it had been in a different format.

And now, on to the Literary Wives questions:

1. What does this book say about wives or the experience of being a wife?

The Zookeeper’s Wife focuses on the difficulties of Antonina’s position as a wife, it’s at its best. Antonina can’t ask too many questions about Jan’s underground activities, but she tacitly accepts the danger that he places the family, just as she openly accepts Guests into their home. She maintains the facade of an ordinary housewife during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, a facade which keeps her family and Guests safe. At the same time, she does perform the tasks expected of a wife at the time — keeping the house, budgeting, teaching her son — plus those tasks concomitant with running a house full of pets — all under extreme stress. Part of being a wife, for her, is waiting to see if Jan will come home alive every day, and facing terrifying and dangerous situations on her own, in her own home. There is no safe space for her during the war.

Here’s my favorite sentence in the book: “One of the most remarkable things about Antonina was her determination to include play, animals, wonder, curiosity, marvel, and a wide blaze of innocence in a household where all dodged the ambient dangers, horrors, and uncertainties. That takes a special stripe of bravery rarely valued in wartime” (166).

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

Antonina’s mental and physical toughness notwithstanding, she did defer to Jan in many respects, like a “traditional” housewife, and I found it irritating when he referred to her as “timid.” On the other hand, he acknowledged her bravery often and publicly:

“Antonina was a housewife,” he told Danka Narnish, of another Israeli paper, “she wasn’t involved in politics or war, and was timid, and yet despite that she played a major role in saving others and never once complained about the danger.” (314)

I don’t think I’d say that she defines “wife” or is herself defined by the term.

Please visit the other Literary Wives bloggers to get their takes on the book! 

Emily at The Bookshelf of Emily J. 

Audra at Unabridged Chick

Ariel at One Little Library

Cecilia at Only You

Kay at WhatMeRead

Lynn at Smoke and Mirrors