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A Different View of WWII,
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This review is from: The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story (Hardcover)
I noticed in some reviews that people didn't like this book since it was not what they considered to be a "war story." It helps to be familiar with Diane Ackerman's other writings before reading this book. More than the usual books about the casualties of war, atrocities, death camps and human misery which we already can read volumes about, this book is about humans and animals trying to survive in situations few of us can even imagine. Sometimes, just caring for a lone rabbit could help a human survivor give one something else to think about and allow them to hold on to a shred of hope. The zoo and all its inhabitants were the family of Jan, the zookeeper and Antonina, his wife and their young son before and during most of the invasion of Poland by Germany during WWII. A daughter was born in the middle of the chaos and destruction and yet, like the zoo animals and various strays that often became comforting pets, she offered a bit of happiness in unimaginable times of suffering.
The story is woven together in Ackerman's typical style. From her descriptions I began to know and care about the animals as Antonina did. And I ended up grieving for them as well as the humans who loved and cared for them in what was a very special zoo in the heart of Warsaw before the Nazi invasion. The Warsaw zoo was a favorite of Polish families who came to spend time on the beautiful grounds and to see a variety of animals including one of the first of 12 baby elephants born in captivity. Antonina serves as midwife and describes the joy of her birth in detail. The zoo was attempting to house animals in habitats with more natural surroundings, rather than the typical viewing cages. This was the focus of Jan, the zookeeper. Antonina had a special gift for relating to animals--even thinking like them--that would bode well for her in dealing later with the German invaders. During the war they hid and saved hundreds of Jews (or those who did not look "Aryan" enough) in hidden parts of make-shift rooms often adjoining escape routes in and under their home and among the outside zoo cages left vacant by the carnage and theft of the zoo animals. In time, the underground network extended into the heart of the Warsaw ghetto in which they and many others risked their lives housing the hunted or helping them escape.
This book is not easy to read. It was so heartbreaking at times that I couldn't finish chapters without putting it down for a couple of days. It is not a complete downer. There are also hilarious incidents that made me smile as Ackerman describes some of the antics of the animals and some unusual interactions between them and their human companions. Ackerman's primary sources are the journals left by Antonina and are well documented. In the title it's called "A War Story" but it is part of the war we heard little about. Usually one thinks of war in human terms. This has a broader scope in that it includes, along with the horrible loss of human life and possessions, the vast collateral damages of war. There is a loss of habitat and flora that can't be replaced, entire species as well as animals with families, personalities and names are lost. Call parts of it anthropomorphism if you wish, but read this book keeping in mind the bigger picture of what war really costs us all. It's primarily a book about the ability and will to survive. When humans are tested to their limits, the more it seems they could adapt to "animal-like" techiques, often improved their chances. It's also a story about the incredible braveness and self-sacrifice of the Polish people themselves and about how two people and their extended family found a way to make a difference.