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The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story
by Diane Ackerman
W. W. Norton, September 2007

Diane Ackerman, a noted writer on natural history, recounts the horrors of the German occupation of Poland in World War Two through the unusual prism of the Warsaw Zoo, where its director,Jan Zabinski, and his resourceful wife, Antonina, managed to save hundreds of Jews.

With the German invasion in 1939, Warsaw had been devastated and the zoo along with it. With most of their animals dead, the Zabinskis found a way to put their empty cages to good use. The Germans had allowed Jan to turn the zoo into a pig farm, and to enter the ghetto for food scraps for the animals. He smuggled food in and smuggled people out. One thing led to another, and while the Jews were transported to death camps, the Zabinskis hid some 300 Jews over time in sheds, animal enclosures, and even the lion house. At any given time about a dozen of these "guests" were hiding inside the Zabinskis' villa. Jan, active in the Polish resistance, kept ammunition buried in the elephant enclosure and stashed explosives in the animal hospital. Meanwhile, Antonina, with extraordinary ingenuity, courage, and even humor, kept her unusual household afloat, caring for both its human and its animal inhabitants — otters, a badger, hyena pups, lynxes. She had a unique gift, “a nearly shamanistic empathy when it came to animals.” For Antonina, animal and human formed a continuum. It is the perfect story for a writer like Diane Ackerman, with her loving grasp of natural history.

Using Antonina's diaries, other contemporary sources and her own research in Poland, Ackerman keeps the story in context by leading us into the Warsaw ghetto, the 1943 Jewish uprising, the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, and introducing us to the leaders and volunteers of Zegota, the Polish underground organization that rescued Jews. But with her exuberant prose and exquisite sensitivity to the natural world, Ackerman also engages us viscerally in the lives of the zoo animals, their keepers, and the other 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. 8 pages of illustrations.

Diane Ackerman has surpassed even herself in her latest book, which is alternatingly funny, moving, and terrifying. – Jared Diamond, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel

I can't imagine a better story or storyteller. The Zookeeper's Wife will touch every nerve you have. – Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Everything is Illuminated

Stunning… Rarely does one read a book in which the author and the heroine are so magically matched. – Dava Sobel, author of The Planets and Galileo's Daughter

The alpha female in a unique menagerie… [Antonina] was special, and as the remaining members of her generation die off, a voice like hers should not be allowed to fade into the silence.  – D.T. Max, The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Sept. 9, 2007

Ackerman's writing is viscerally evocative, as in her description of the effects of the German bombing of the zoo area: “...the sky broke open and whistling fire hurtled down, cages exploded, moats rained upward, iron bars squealed as they wrenched apart.” This suspenseful, beautifully crafted story deserves a wide readership. – Publishers Weekly

Diane Ackerman is the author of the best-selling A Natural History of the Senses, among many other books that demonstrate her broad knowledge of animal life. Also an accomplished poet (Jaguar of Sweet Laughter: New and Selected Poems), she lives in upstate New York.