Using Antonina Zabinska's diary and "loose notes," the prolific Diane Ackerman in "The Zookeeper's Wife" tells the true story of two Christian zookeepers in the Warsaw Zoo who saved up to 300 people from the Nazis.
The story dates back to the worst parts of World War II the German obsession to rid the world of Jews. In many ways, this is another "Schindler's List."
Once Germany invaded Poland, Warsaw was essentially destroyed, including the city's zoo. Antonina and her husband, Jan, dealt with the death of most of their animals in a highly humanitarian way by harboring Jews in the empty cages.
Over a dozen other Jews lived in the family villa, and Jan was active in the Polish resistance, keeping ammunition and explosives on the property. Antonina cared for both the human and animal inhabitants, the latter including otters, a badger, hyena pups and lynxes.
In five years, 800,000 Poles were displaced, 1.3 million went to Germany as slaves and more than 300,000 were killed. By 1940, all Polish Jews were put in a ghetto the size of a park, where they lived under the worst possible conditions. Most of the Jews who lived in the zoo managed to survive the war.
Fortunately for historians like Ackerman, the Zabinskas also gave several interviews to Polish, Hebrew and Yiddish newspapers. Ackerman found various other documents, including memoirs and letters collected by some wartime archivists who hid them in boxes and milk churns.
No armchair historian, Ackerman also spent time at the zoo itself, which is now open and functional again, getting the feel of the place where so much of this strange story happened.
Ackerman's interest stemmed partly from her maternal grandparents being Polish. She also assiduously studied the Polish culture to assist her in interpreting the history.
Antonina exulted in her diary about "the barbarity" inflicted on the Jews by the Germans. She used six exclamation points to stress her disgust. "Not long ago," she wrote, "the world looked on the dark ages with contempt for its brutality, yet here it is again, in full force, a lawless sadism unpolished by all the charms of religion and civilization."
In the beginning, when both Poles and Jews heard about all the inhumanity, they refused to believe it. "As long as we didn't witness such events themselves, feel it with our own skin," wrote Antonina, "we could dismiss them as otherworldly and unheard of, only cruel gossip, or maybe a sick joke. Even when a Department of Racial Purity opened a detailed census of the city's Jewish population, it still seemed possible to attribute such madness to that famous German talent for being systematic and well organized, the wheel-spinning of bureaucrats.
"However, Germans, Poles and Jews now stood in three separate lines to receive bread, and rationing was calculated down to the last calorie per day, with Germans receiving 2,613 calories, Poles 669 calories and Jews only 184 calories. In case anyone missed the point, German Governor Frank declared, 'I ask nothing of the Jews except that they disappear."'This is a book everyone interested in humanity should read.
If you go . . .
What: Diane Ackerman, reading and book-signing
Where: The King's English, 1511 S. 1500 East
When: Monday, 7 p.m.
How much: free
Phone: 484-9100Web: www.kingsenglish.com