Historical Era: WWII
Historical Rating: This book is a non-fiction publication – 100% pure history.
Overall Rating: 4.5/5
Book Jacket Summary: “After their zoo was bombed, Polish zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski managed to save over three hundred people from the Nazis by hiding refugees in the empty animal cages. With animal names for their “guests,” and human names for the animals, it’s no wonder that the zoo’s code name became ‘The House Under a Crazy Star.’
Best-selling naturalist and acclaimed storyteller Diane Ackerman combines extensive research and an exuberant writing style to re-create this fascinating, forgotten, true-life story- sharing Antonina’s life as “the zookeeper’s wife,” while examining the disturbing obsessions at the core of Nazism.”
HFA Review: I was actually surprised when I discovered, after purchasing this book, it was a non-fiction piece. This intrigued me even more. I love non-fiction and was curious how this book would compare – since it seemed to fall somewhere between a biography and the writing style of Erik Larson (The Devil in the White City). I am a HUGE Larson fan, and, no, it’s not just because I grew up and live in Chicago (okay, maybe a little). This book definitely follows in the vein of The Devil in the White City – just replacing murder mystery with Nazi subterfuge.
Diane Ackerman‘s attention to detail is phenomenal and truly brings the reader into Antonina and Jan’s world in such a way that I felt as if I were one of the guests hiding in their house, observing their world right along with them. The first few chapters of the story bring the reader into the life of the zoo, pre-war. We see Jan and Antonina’s unique, yet wonderful, world encompassed in their little Warsaw zoo. Though it can feel like a bit of a slow start, it is done with strong purpose. Not only do you get a sense of what the Warsaw people where thinking and feeling leading up to the German invasion (a wonderful historical insight), but it helps the reader fall in love with the Zabinski’s and their animals. Thus, when the bombs start dropping and Antonina, with Jan, are forced to flee under enemy fire during the September 1, 1939 German attack, my heart was racing along with them and my was mind worrying about the animals they were forced to leave behind, just like Antonina. When the devastation to the zoo and the animals is revealed, it is both heartbreaking and anger inducing. How could one country be so callous and evil towards fellow humans and innocent animals? Killing them with no more concern or thought than one gives to exterminating bugs!
This sentiment is what fuels Jan and Antonina’s biggest and most dangerous mission during the war: rescuing, housing, and finding safe places for Jewish people to reside to ride out the war. Jan finds creative means to sneak people out of the Warsaw ghetto and keep the zoo from folding (though the zoo is no longer in the sense there are no animals to visit, Jan finds other means for the grounds to make money, keep their presence there warranted, and hide their guests), risking his life and that of his family each and every time. Antonina creates quite a front to fool the Nazis, who roam the zoo grounds every day. She calls the refugees by animal names and the few remaining animals by human names. She uses certain songs to give signals to her guests of when they need to hide and when they can come out of hiding. Being an avid piano player, nobody is suspicious of her just randomly deciding to sit down and play for a while. The evenings, when all the guests could come out and enjoy the house, seem almost magical for both the Zabinskis and their guests, a little piece of normalcy in the midst of chaos.
What truly stood out for me was the creativity the Zabinski’s used in holding this facade together day after day, their bravery as they continued to take greater and greater risks (with guaranteed death if caught), and (of course) their compassion for fellow humans, refusing to stand by and watch the horrors brought on by the Nazi regime without doing something to stop it – even if it was just a small dent in the grander scheme. Oh, and the icing on the cake, the amount of success they had when it came to their efforts, but I’ll let you read to find out the entirety of their impact.
My only complaint, and it’s a nit-picky one, is that sometimes I felt that chapters would take a tangent into information that was enlightening but elaborated on beyond what would be interesting to most readers. I found myself skimming a bit to get the gist and to get back to the heart of the story, the Zabinskis and their guests – human and animal. For some readers every little piece may be equally interesting or important or, for others, a little skimming may be required. Either way, this book is definitely worth reading and the insights into the Nazi mind are like none other I have encountered. Particularly focusing on an aspect I haven’t come across much – the Nazi’s desire to eradicate foreign plants and animal species to be replaced with German ones and the attempts to bring back certain majestic but extinct animals. It wasn’t just about humans, it was making a perfect race and world from the ground up.
Historical Content: The author explains, in the very beginning of the book, her methods for collecting information and how she researched this story. Since it is a non-fiction piece, all the information is pulled from diaries, family pictures, interviews of the Zabinski’s son, interviews with people who lived in Warsaw and/or knew Jan and Antonina during the war, artifacts, the timeline of the events of the war as they unfolded in Warsaw, etc. The information presented not only on the Zabinskis and their heroism, but also of life in Warsaw during the war and the Nazi mindset, is staggering. My wealth of knowledge when it comes to WWII has grown significantly from Ms. Ackerman’s meticulous work. Like Mr. Larson’s work, this book is a beautiful blend of history and a real-life story that captures your heart and mind.
Publisher: Norton, 2007
Pages: 323 (not including “Details” section)