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The Zookeeper's Wife: Righteous Poland

Updated on December 6, 2011

Diane Ackerman

Diane Ackerman is a fine storyteller, and that may be part of the problem that I have with her history, The Zookeeper's Wife . And she found a good story to tell: the activities of the Warsaw Zoo's zookeeper and his wife in the Resistance and as rescuers of Jews during the city's occupation by the Germans during World War II. This is a story of remarkable bravery, dedication, and humanity at a time and in a place where all these things appear to have been lacking in many others. Ackerman discovered the story, and her aim is to bring the reader into contact with that story in a way that allows them to share her own understanding of it as a naturalist and a poet. Acknowledging all this, and adding to it an appreciation for Ackerman's skills as a writer in her own right, however, I suspect that history as a record of facts suffers when it is a story.

I do not fault Ackerman for telling the story she does, but her focus on the zoo, and especially on the zookeeper's wife, the woman most removed from direct confrontation with the realities surrounding her in Warsaw, allows her to limit those realities to mentions and asides, skewed in the favor of a particular Polish nationalist history of the period and place. Poland becomes a nation of heroes, with a lone housekeeper representing the many Poles who were not rescuers of Jews, and the Polish Resistance becomes a united force with none of the factions, frictions, and independent, sometimes violently anti-Semitic elements, that also existed.

This reliance upon a single narrative of Polish realities, attitudes and actions as a heroic people results in some strange discordant notes in the book. For example, Ackerman writes, "Unlike other occupied countries, where hiding Jews could land you in prison, in Poland harboring a Jew was punishable by immediate death to the rescuer and also to the rescuer's family and neighbors, in a death-frenzy deemed 'collective responsibility'" (116). In this statement, she both exaggerates the typical result of discovery of Poles hiding Jews and mistakes German policy in other occupied countries. In the East, immediate death was the usual punishment for such a crime, whether one was a Pole, Ukrainian, Czech or other representative of the sub-human. In Poland, the typical response to hiding a Jew was not an act of collective punishment, but the elimination of the savior, their family, and the hidden Jew. Of course, given the power of German authorities, and even civilians, in the East and in Poland, larger-scale actions did occur, but this occurrence does not make it typical. Nor does recognition that other occupied peoples could, and did, suffer similar punishments make the actions of Jan and Antonina Zabinski less heroic. A refinement and more thorough understanding of surrounding circumstances does not diminish their actions.

A deeper understanding of the racial hierarchy developed and acted upon in murderous ways by the Nazis would probably have helped in avoiding such mistakes. The Poles had a definite place in the Nazi world, but it was not that of disappearance. The Nazis thought of the Poles more as a population to be culled than as one to be wholly eliminated. This culling would eliminate elements in the Polish nation dangerous to German rule and prevent future Polish nationalism from appearing while leaving a labor population available for German use. According to the Nazi plan, Poles would survive, though in far fewer numbers than before. The Poles and the Slavs were categorized in a similar fashion, as a lower form of human, though still human, and as peoples in need of culling in order to create a more governable population, large enough, however, to suit the needs of German agriculture and industry. Jews and most Gypsies were targeted for total elimination. Their continuing presence was always a compromise position indicating a temporary failure in annihilation initiatives due to military necessity, political consequences, and/or labor requirements. No plan devised by the Nazis, including those plans to ship the Jews off to colonies in Africa or Madagascar, envisioned their survival, only in these plans their eventual physical disappearance from the earth would first be accomplished by their physical removal from Europe. The difference between sub-human and non-human is a very important one, though both categories are distasteful as well as morally and scientifically indefensible.

The Zookeeper's Wife focuses on two remarkable people, and I confess to liking them both immensely. However, they were remarkable, and their separation from the main currents of Polish religious and political thought in the 1930s allows Ackerman to avoid those currents as well, except in a single passage noting the presence of anti-Semitism in pre-war Poland. Anti-Semitism was a strong force in Polish society, and one with fatal effects during the war years. This anti-Semitism in tandem with a German presence that allowed it free expression, and intensified by tensions associated with the war and with the U.S.S.R., resulted in the Polish massacre of Jews at Jedwabne. Today, it sours relations between Jews and Poles at the site of the murder of millions of both, Auschwitz. It plays out in an effort by Poles to contest the persecution of Jews by the Germans, or to minimize it in an effort to focus on the sufferings of 'real' Poles. Such antipathy was deadly to Jews and their saviors in wartime Poland, as the most perceptive and active threats to their survival and to the success of their duplicity came, not from Germans, but from fellow Poles.

Ackerman, however, is not concerned with Nazi Germany as a whole, however, but with a setting (the Warsaw Zoo), a couple (Jan and Antonina), and a love for nature, a connection to animal life that seems more spiritual than scientific. Against Antonina's spiritual connection to animals and her love for the natural world, she sets the acquisitive German zoologist and collector, Lutz Heck. While Antonina and Jan pursue the well-being and survival of animals in the present, Lutz Heck is obsessed with resurrecting the primordial past, with providing true stone age beasts for present-day Aryans to hunt. Lutz's biological obsession with resurrecting the auroch, the tarpans, and other prehistoric beasts drew from the current of eugenic thinking adhered to by Nazi scientists and thinkers. Examining his thinking on this rather fantastic subject does provide insight into the way in which Himmler's sorting of Poles into various biological categories, some subject to Germanization and some not, might have been considered plausible, even rational, within proper circles.

Ackerman confines herself largely to the geographical center of the lives of her main characters, the zoo. News comes into it from Warsaw. They leave it, briefly, to engage with the world outside. Their existence, their lives and their spiritual nourishment, are all within it, however. This shortened perspective results in a failure to connect the local with the larger, especially with the German, world of decision, planning, and action, except in the last pages during the Warsaw Uprising and Antonina's move into the countryside. Thus, Hans Frank's directives and announcements are disconnected from their context within the German administration centered around Hitler and his administrators. They are the free-floating diktats of a seemingly independent power. They might have appeared to be so, and Hans Frank would not object to his subjects in Poland's belief in his potency, but his position was not free of restraint and compulsion. He was not the power the Poles thought him to be, and his actions, his declarations, are rendered cartoonish by their divorce from the political and ideological realities that formed them.

As of 2011, Yad Vashem lists 6,266 Righteous Among the Nations for Poland, the most for any country. Jan and Antonina Zabinski were two of these remarkable, exceptional men and women, and in telling their story Ackerman touches on many others. Despite my reservations, and these informed only by a more thorough and longer apprenticeship in the period than that enjoyed by Ackerman, The Zookeeper's Wife is an important story. The Holocaust is a subject about which we often ask, "How could they do such a thing?" Rarely do we look at the rescuers, these men and women who at immense personal risk and with full cognizance of the consequences for their actions, whose existence illustrates the existence of options beyond complicity and passivity. And we should. We should look closely at them, for they did not ask "How could they do such a thing?" but acted that such a thing would not happen, would not succeed.

Jan Zabinski, zoologist and Righteous Among Nations
Jan Zabinski, zoologist and Righteous Among Nations
The bombing of Warsaw, 1939
The bombing of Warsaw, 1939
Jews collected for transportation to Treblinka, Warsaw
Jews collected for transportation to Treblinka, Warsaw

The Righteous Among Nations


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    • teresapelka profile image

      Teresa Pelka 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Well, I don't necessarily cherish Germans. It's just like blaming generations, when you say 'Germans did this', 'Germans did that' during WWII, especially on occupied territories.

      Right, the oppressors came from the Reich. That was the Nazi Reich. Today, I say, Nazis did this, Nazis did that. Contemporary Germans are not them. They were born years after WWII.

    • Ed Michaels profile image

      Ed Michaels 6 years ago from Texas, USA

      Most of us would like to think that we would have been on the side of the angels. However, unfortunately, most of us would not be. Other opportunities to act courageously in the face of attempts to eliminate a people followed, and humanity failed the test: Darfur, Cambodia, Rwanda.

    • jbrock2041 profile image

      jbrock2041 6 years ago from Park City, UT

      Thank you for your summary and thoughts on this book. I read this book a few years ago and remember enjoying it since it was about people who were so brave. I would like to think that if I was in that position, I would have done the same thing.