Zookeeper's Wife, A War Story By Diane Ackerman
When Diane Ackerman travelled to Poland to research an ancient horse breed, she had no knowledge of the war story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski that would fascinate her so, and result in this wonderful book, The Zookeeper's Wife. My husband's grandfather came from Poland – one of only a few in his family to leave before the Second World War and, consequently, to survive the Holocaust. He would not speak of Poland and no one in the family ever had anything good to say about the people of Poland. This book gives another perspective, as it tells the story of a network of Christian Poles who did all they could for their Jewish neighbours, at great risk to their own wellbeing. At its centre is the story of the Zookeeper of the Warsaw Zoo, Jan Zabinski and his wife Antonina.
Jan and Antonina were professional zookeepers. Their pre-war days were filled with satisfying work and travel to international symposiums; they were immersed in a life and work that they loved.
The Nazi invasion of Poland changed everything. Animals escaped or were killed; Jan and Antonina found their staff gone, no food for animals, and little for people. Heck Lutz, the son of a prominent German zoologist, took many of the animals to a zoo in Berlin. Jan became involved with the Polish underground movement, and with the support of the German occupation officers, planned to use the zoo as a pig farm, thinking it would be the last place the Nazis would look for Jews. This also enabled Jan to move about the city on business, and he was able to smuggle food into the Warsaw Ghetto - dietary laws long since waived as people struggled to stay alive. Right from the beginning, Jan and Antonina hid Jews in their large villa on the zoo property. Although Antonina's mother was Catholic, her father was an atheist and Antonina had been educated at the only school in Warsaw where the study of Christianity wasn't required. Therefore, she had Jewish school friends. Jan had grown up in a poor Jewish area (although he was a Catholic) before marrying into wealth.
Jan and Antonina had always had a home filled with visiting friends and relatives so that the many changing faces now passing through their home was not an oddity. Antonina, who, at the age of nine, had seen her own parents killed by the Bolsheviks, worried about the burden of secrecy on her young son, Rys, who was told not to talk about the "guests", knowing that his parents would be killed if found out.
After the pig farm failed, the zoo was used for garden plots and eventually as a fox farm. Life at the villa was a complicated one, orchestrated by Antonina, of caring for both the animals and the "guests". Antonina would often play a particular piece of music to indicate to the "guests" that they must hide. "Guests" were also referred to by animal names, as one would expect to hear people at a zoo speak of animals. Antonina was able to make good use of her uncanny ability with words, soft or firm, as she knew instinctively exactly what words and what tone of voice was necessary to diffuse a dangerous situation. In the winter of 1942-1943 there were 300 people living in the villa. Everyone was well aware of the danger since a decree passed in 1941 "that all Poles hiding Jews would be killed."
Among the many fascinating stories in this book is one of a Mrs. Walter who ran a "kind of charm school, the charm of non-detection….with special attention to how they walked, gestured, acted in public…hair belonged off the forehead, neatly reined in or swept up into more Aryan styles… clothing a combination of inconspicuous colours…taught the key Christian prayers and how to behave in church or at ceremonial events." I was also thrilled to learn that there was a written record of life in the Warsaw Ghetto hidden in boxes and milk churns under a shop, and found by survivors combing through the ruins in 1946 - "vividly detailed accounts written in Yiddish, Polish or Hebrew, which now reside in the Jewish Institute in Warsaw."
As the war relentlessly continues, life at the villa changes little. Antonina gives birth to a daughter, Teresa, in 1945, while Jan is away fighting in the Polish Uprising. As the Germans begin retreating from Warsaw, the Russian troops advance on the city. The citizens, not knowing that "Stalin, who had been promised a chunk of Poland after the war, wanted both the Germans and the Poles to be defeated". Planes bombed the city and Polish civilians were shot in the street, and the "high priority Wehrmacht fox farm" was moved to Germany. With the zoo officially closed now, Antonina and her children were moved to a small village in the countryside. Here they were safe, but alone. After the collapse of the Warsaw Uprising Antonina discovered that Jan had been wounded, but had survived and was now interned in a German POW camp. The family was reunited after the war and Jan and Antonina took charge of the Warsaw Zoo once again. They restored their home, much damaged but still standing, and continued to live there.
I found this an incredible book to read, one that completely changed my perspective of the behaviour of the Polish people during the Second World War. Jan Zabinski said much later "I only did my duty - if you can save somebody's life it's your duty to try. We did it because it was the right thing to do."