Sunday, July 25, 2010

THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE - Diane Ackerman

It's 6 in the morning and I have been up since 2:00 with a tummy ache and worry over my sick cat so I finally told myself to post about this book. I have been avoiding it for a month. The reason being that I have read it for two book discussion groups and was waiting until the second meeting to avoid posting twice. But after the second meeting I was a little miffed and so avoided thinking about it. But I digress.
 

My adult Literati group in Monroe, Indiana had been so anticipating reading this selection since last summer when we chose it. We like to pick one or two nonfiction per year to read and member of our group so liked Zookeeper that we could hardly wait to get to it. We finished off our school year with this book in May. We totally enjoyed it.

It is a remarkable true story about Jan and Antonina Zabinski who were the directors and operators of the Warsaw Zoo before during and after the WW II German occupation of Poland. Of course since the book is about the Warsaw ghetto and persecution of Polish Jews a reader knows there will be stories of heartache and loss within. But that is not the book's focus. It is the uplifting and heartwarming story of how the zookeepers spirit Jews out of the ghetto, protect, and feed them in the zoo and then send them on in the underground to safety. All the while they continue to take care of the remaining animals after the Nazi's kill most of the bigger ones and the wild ones they feel might be a threat if left loose. The Monroe Literati members had a good time doing some research about the Zabinski's and other people mentioned and finding out what happened to them after the war. We found later pictures of them and read about the honors they acquired in Israel for their work. In all there were 300 people that they helped to survive the war.

Of course the Zabinskis didn't work alone and there are plenty of stories here to enjoy about how they and other influential Polish people conspired right under the noses of the Nazis to take care of their neighbors. The lessons about how to appear Aryan given to the residents and the story about the extensive bug collection that survived and today resides as an important exhibit in a Polish museum were awe inspiring. I learned so much I didn't know about the Nazi machine also. For instance there is some explanation of the narcotics used to keep the German soldiers aggressive and a bit of their ideas about eugenics and reverse evolution by breeding.

The complicated procedures and signals the zoo residents used while sheltering Jews consisted of using music (a specific piece was played on the piano with gusto to signal Nazis being near) and coded phrases (when Rhys is sent to “feed the lizards” he is actually going to that section of the zoo but taking food to refugees) revealing the elements of both danger and humor in the book.

The hosts for this discussion decorated the tables with animals, WWII artifacts, and books about the Polish occupation including articles about the Zabinskis.

Alas, I was so excited to go to discussion with my public library group in June thinking we would also have a good time with this title but the reviews from that group were negative. Most did not like it and some didn't bother to read it saying someone told them they wouldn't like it. And so it goes. But that depressed me. So finally I am getting around to giving my $.02.

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