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The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story Paperback – September 17, 2008

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Editorial Reviews Review

Amazon Significant Seven, September 2007: On the heels of Alan Weisman's The World Without Us I picked up Diane Ackerman's The Zookeeper’s Wife. Both books take you to Poland's forest primeval, the Bialowieza, and paint a richly textured portrait of a natural world that few of us would recognize. The similarities end there, however, as Ackerman explores how that sense of natural order imploded under the Nazi occupation of Poland. Jan and Antonina Zabiniski--keepers of the Warsaw Zoo who sheltered Jews from the Warsaw ghetto--serve as Ackerman's lens to this moment in time, and she weaves their experiences and reflections so seamlessly into the story that it would be easy to read the book as Antonina's own miraculous memoir. Jan and Antonina's passion for life in all its diversity illustrates ever more powerfully just how narrow the Nazi worldview was, and what tragedy it wreaked. The Zookeeper’s Wife is a powerful testament to their courage and--like Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise--brings this period of European history into intimate view. --Anne Bartholomew

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Ackerman (A Natural History of the Senses) tells the remarkable WWII story of Jan Zabinski, the director of the Warsaw Zoo, and his wife, Antonina, who, with courage and coolheaded ingenuity, sheltered 300 Jews as well as Polish resisters in their villa and in animal cages and sheds. Using Antonina's diaries, other contemporary sources and her own research in Poland, Ackerman takes us into the Warsaw ghetto and the 1943 Jewish uprising and also describes the Poles' revolt against the Nazi occupiers in 1944. She introduces us to such varied figures as Lutz Heck, the duplicitous head of the Berlin zoo; Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, spiritual head of the ghetto; and the leaders of Zegota, the Polish organization that rescued Jews. Ackerman reveals other rescuers, like Dr. Mada Walter, who helped many Jews pass, giving lessons on how to appear Aryan and not attract notice. 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. 8 pages of illus. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 Reprint edition (September 17, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780393333060
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393333060
  • ASIN: 039333306X
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (452 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #25,645 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Diane Ackerman is the author of two dozen highly-acclaimed works of poetry and nonfiction, including the bestsellers "The Zookeeper's Wife" and "A Natural History of the Senses," and the Pulitzer Prize Finalist, "One Hundred Names for Love."

In her most recent book, "The Human Age: the World Shaped by Us," she confronts the unprecedented fact that the human race is now the single dominant force of change on the whole planet. Humans have "subdued 75 percent of the land surface, concocted a wizardry of industrial and medical marvels, strung lights all across the darkness." Ackerman takes us on an exciting journey to understand this bewildering new reality, introducing us to many of the inspiring people and ideas now creating, and perhaps saving, our future

A note from the author: "I find that writing each book becomes a mystery trip, one filled with mental (and sometimes physical) adventures. The world revealing itself, human nature revealing itself, is seductive and startling, and that's always been fascinating enough to send words down my spine. Please join me on my travels. I'd enjoy the company."

Contact me or follow my posts here:, @dianesackerman,

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

375 of 401 people found the following review helpful By Grady Harp HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on September 9, 2007
Format: Hardcover
There are many stories that continue to come out of the WW II experience, stories of courage, love and survival in the face of near hopeless situations inflicted upon the globe by Nazi Germany, and, thankfully, biographies of heroes whose moral convictions were stronger than the destructive forces of Hitler's cadre. THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE is yet another unknown story, a true tale of survival of the human spirit pitted against what seemed to be the end of the world in Poland. Yet this book is not 'just another war story'. As presented by the astute investigator and gifted writer Diane Ackerman, whose many books include 'A Natural History of the Senses', 'An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain', 'The Moon by Whale Light - and Other Adventures Among Bats, Penguins', Crocodilians and Whales', 'A Natural History of Love', 'Deep Play', 'Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden', 'The Rarest of the Rare: Vanishing Animals, Timeless Worlds', and anthologies of poems such as 'I Praise My Destroyer: Poems' and 'Jaguar of Sweet Laughter: New and Selected Poems', this is a magical tale about a couple in Warsaw whose roles as zookeepers allowed their shared appreciation for animal life and ways of adapting to devise ingenious ways to protect many of the Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto from mass execution.

Jan and Antonina Zabinski were Polish Christian keepers of the Zoo when the Germans under Hitler's scheme of world domination and purification of Europe for the chosen race of Aryans began. Ackerman quietly builds her setting by concentrating on the special gifts of these two remarkable people in caring for the animals of the zoo: her descriptions of the various members of the menagerie are at once comical and insightful.
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356 of 383 people found the following review helpful By John Sollami on November 4, 2007
Format: Hardcover
I feel bad knocking this book because the story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski is one of two amazing people in Warsaw during the German occupation who demonstrated courage, brilliance, resilience, and humanity in the face of the grossest barbarism this planet has seen. Yet, Diane Ackerman has placed me in this position with her absurdly overblown writing, her precious turns of phrase, and her inability to establish a coherent timeline or storyline for what she's relating. I made note of more outstanding examples of her jarring images: "In a darkness that deep, fireflies dance across eyes that see into themselves." "Once its sprightly melody had been a favorite of hers, but war plays havoc with sensory memories as the sheer intensity of each moment, the roiling adrenaline and fast pulse, drive memories in deeper, embed every small detail, and make events unforgettable." "Meanwhile, the brain piped fugues of worry and staged mind-theaters full of tragedies and triumphs, because unfortunately, the fear of death does wonders to focus the mind, inspire creativity, and heighten the senses. Trusting one's hunches only seems a gamble if one has time for SEEM...." It seems Ms. Ackerman imagines herself to be the mistress of human senses and is writing beyond her material at hand. Too bad, because she had access to primary sources, to Antonina's extraordinary diary, which I wouldn't have minded reading without its being filtered through this author.

Nonetheless, the awful times in Poland and Warsaw come crashing through Ackerman's writing anyway. One wonders how any people at all survived German barbarity.
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157 of 170 people found the following review helpful By David W. Nicholas on September 9, 2007
Format: Hardcover
This book recounts one of those odd, quirky episodes in history which illuminate a variety of circumstances and events in a whole new light. When Warsaw fell at the beginning of the Second World War, the city had one of the better-known zoos in Europe. The zookeeper, Jan Zabinski, his wife Antonina, and their son Rys, lived on the grounds in an official residence. Jan served briefly in the army during the fighting, and was captured. He almost immediately had a stroke of luck, though: he met an old friend, a German zookeeper serving in the German army, and the friend escorted Zabinski back to his zoo.

Over the next five years, until the zoo was liberated along with the rest of Warsaw towards the end of the year, the Zabinskis used their positions as zookeeper and wife, and local celebrities, to conceal several hundred Jews and other refugees from the Nazis, some of them hiding in the now disused animal cages on the grounds of the zoo (many of the animals were killed by soldiers, or starved to death). Jan Zabinski was involved in partisan activities, and concealed munitions and other supplies in places he didn't think anyone would look. At the start of the war, it turned out that the Nazis were interested in the zoo for two primary reasons: one, they wanted to "move to safekeeping" any rare animals it had--the safekeeping of course being in a German zoo; and two, they were obsessed with resurrecting extinct species of animal that they thought "wild" and "untamed" and "pure". Because of these obsessions, they let the zoo continue to operate at a lower level much longer than they otherwise would have, and the Zabinskis were able to rescue hundreds of lives as a result.
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