A Natural History of Terrible Things
Diane Ackerman tells a story of war and the Warsaw zoo.

Reviewed by Susie Linfield
Sunday, September 16, 2007


By Diane Ackerman

Norton. 368 pp. $24.95

A lovely story about the Holocaust might seem like a grotesque oxymoron. But in The Zookeeper's Wife, Diane Ackerman proves otherwise. Here is a true story -- of human empathy and its opposite -- that is simultaneously grave and exuberant, wise and playful. Ackerman has a wonderful tale to tell, and she tells it wonderfully.

The book begins in the mid-1930s, when a young couple, Antonina and Jan Zabinski, were the directors of Warsaw's elaborate, fecund zoo, which housed its animals not just in cages but in habitats meant to recreate their native wetlands, deserts and woods. Antonina was a Russian-born Pole whose parents were killed by the Bolsheviks in the early days of the Russian Revolution. Jan was a rarity: a Polish Catholic whose father raised him as a staunch atheist in a working-class Jewish neighborhood. The Zabinski household was a sort of madcap bohemia, full of artists, intellectuals and a rotating assortment of non-human friends, including a lion kitten, a wolf cub, a chimpanzee, a "sluttish" cat named Balbina, a kissing rabbit named Wicek, and a paunchy muskrat who practiced an "exquisite" ritual of morning ablutions.

As all this might suggest, Antonina and Jan weren't much interested in conventional boundaries. "Antonina and Jan had learned to live on seasonal time, not mere chronicity," Ackerman writes. "Their routine was never quite routine, made up as it was of compatible realities, one attuned to animals, the other to humans." And so their lives were imprinted "with small welcome moments of surprise."

The mercilessly effective Nazi bombardment of Warsaw in 1939 destroyed the zoo. Ackerman, a poet and naturalist whose previous books include A Natural History of the Senses, is particularly evocative in describing the wreckage: "The sky broke open and whistling fire hurtled down, cages exploded, moats rained upward, iron bars squealed. . . . Wounded zebras ran, ribboned with blood, terrified howler monkeys and orangutans dashed caterwauling into the trees and bushes, snakes slithered loose, and crocodiles pushed onto their toes and trotted at speed. . . . Two giraffes lay dead on the ground, legs twisted, shockingly horizontal. . . . The monkeys and birds, screeching infernally, created an otherworldly chorus. . . . The tumult surely sounded like ten thousand Furies scratching up from hell to unhinge the world."

And here is where the Zabinskis' real story begins. Jan immediately joined the resistance, teaching biology at an underground university, smuggling food into the Warsaw Ghetto and using the ruined zoo as an arms cache. (After the war, Antonina learned that he was also building bombs, sabotaging trains and poisoning the pork sent to the German army's canteens.) Equally important, Jan and Antonina opened their home -- a Bauhaus-style glass villa -- and the zoo to partisans and Jews, some of whom were smuggled out of the ghetto by Jan himself. The Zabinskis hid their "Guests" in closets, rooms and even the old animal cages; in the course of the Nazi occupation, they helped approximately 300 women, men and children. And Antonina insisted, throughout, on maintaining a festive, music-filled household, even as she and Jan lived with the constant threat of exposure, torture and death, not just for themselves but for their young son, too.

How to account for the Zabinskis' actions? Jan was a cool, courageous risk-taker, and his upbringing had brought him personally close to many Jews. But Antonina was high-strung, often fearful (after all, the Bolsheviks had taught her something about political violence). In Ackerman's telling, it was Antonina's connection to the animal world -- her belief that every living thing is entitled to life, respect and nurture -- that made her incapable, despite her own terrors, of turning away from suffering. Nazi ideology, obsessed with categorization, hierarchy and uniformity, was incomprehensible to Antonina, who delighted in life's messy, rambunctious diversity.

A story like this could easily devolve into Dr. Doolittle-like sentimentality. Ackerman avoids mawkishness in two ways. First, the horrors of the Holocaust seep into almost every page, just as they should. The Zabinski household may have maintained a determined joie de vivre, but we never forget that the Guests' time in the ghetto has transformed them from accomplished, vibrant people into broken, hunted prey: "shipwrecked souls," Antonina called them in her diary. Equally important, Ackerman refuses to romanticize nature. She knows that the animal world is full of -- in fact, depends upon -- deception and violence, and that a person's immersion in the natural world is no guarantee of goodness.

Which brings Ackerman to Lutz Heck, the distinguished director of the Berlin zoo who became the Zabinskis' nemesis. In the midst of the occupation, he promised Jan and Antonina that he would protect the tattered remnants of their zoo -- until, one day, he and his drunken SS friends laughingly murdered the animals for sport. Yet like Jan and Antonina, Heck adored animals; his love, however, took a peculiar form. Supported by his patron Hermann G?ring, Heck hoped to recreate pureblood versions of certain extinct, presumably noble species, such as tarpans (ancient horses) and aurochsen (ancient cattle), while eliminating others that the Nazis regarded as racially degenerate. Heck aspired, as Ackerman writes, "to nothing less than recasting Germany's natural world, cleansing it, polishing it, perfecting it." In short, the Nazi program for animals was much like the Nazi program for humans.

Ackerman posits that, after years of observing predatory behavior among animals, Heck might have justified genocide as "hygienic and inevitable." But she reminds us that here, precisely, is where humans differ from animals: We are capable of resisting our violent natures. "What's instinctive isn't inevitable," she writes, and "we don't always play by nature's rules." At the heart of the Nazis' madness, she implies, lay a paradoxical refusal to control our most amoral impulses on the one hand and to accept the natural world's imperfections on the other.

The Zookeeper's Wife is not flawless. Ackerman glosses over some complicated issues, such as how Hasidic thinkers faced the Shoah, conflicts between factions of the underground and the relationship of Poland's postwar communist government to former members of the resistance. She describes her sources -- including Antonina's diaries, Jan's recollections and various postwar interviews -- but provides sparse endnotes, so it is unclear if the book's many detailed conversations consist of verbatim quotes or were reconstructed. And the end of the book feels rushed; Ackerman's discussions of those who perform what she calls "radically compassionate acts," and of the Zabinskis' postwar lives, are disappointingly sketchy.

Still, this is an extraordinarily moving story, told with style and vigor. Jan and Antonina Zabinski remind us of what we mean by the word "humane," at least in our most optimistic moments. *

Susie Linfield directs the program in Cultural Reporting and Criticism at New York University.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company