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Strange sanctuary

The Zookeeper's Wife A War Story Diane Ackerman W.W. Norton: 368 pp., $24.95

September 02, 2007|Donna Seaman | Donna Seaman is an editor for Booklist and host of the radio program "Open Books" in Chicago (www.openbooksradio.org). Her author interviews are collected in "Writers on the Air."

History is a loosely knotted net, through which many lives and stories are lost. Jan Zabinski, the director of the Warsaw Zoo, and his wife, Antonina, saved the lives of more than 300 imperiled Jews, but the zookeeper and his wife fell through gaps in the chronicles of Nazi-besieged Poland. They are now reclaimed by poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman in "The Zookeeper's Wife," a stunning tale of war and sanctuary.

Ackerman writes perceptive, knowledgeable and rhapsodic books about the miraculous workings of nature, from the ways of whales to the glory of roses and the "alchemy of mind" that makes us human. She not only shares the Zabinskis' fascination with and respect for animals, she and Antonina are soul sisters in the pleasure they take in the sensuous beauty and ceaseless inventiveness of life. They also share a passion for writing. Antonina left a vivid record of her extraordinary experiences in her journals and the books she wrote for children.

Jan was an ambitious zoologist with a "grand vision" for Warsaw's 5-year-old zoo when he and Antonina (who was 11 years his junior) married in 1931. She possessed a preternaturally empathic sense of animal life. Able to "slip out of her human skin" and enter the minds of other creatures, Antonina could perceive the world from the animals' points of view and understand their fears. Not only could she soothe agitated or depressed animals of all shapes and sizes, she also discerned a mutual yearning for communication and companionship between humans and other species. As the curtain rises on this riveting slice of recovered history, Antonina, the imaginary love child of Doctor Dolittle and Jane Goodall, is looking after two baby lynxes, a wolf cub, a "sociable badger," a red deer fawn and her toddler son. Life is blissfully demanding in the lushly wooded and flowery zoo, which in 1939 is simply "magnificent." And doomed.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, September 06, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
'The Zookeeper's Wife': A photo caption Sunday with the book review of "The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story" by Diane Ackerman referred to Antonina and Jan Zabinski, a couple who offered refuge to Jews during World War II, as "German saviors." The Zabinskis were Poles.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 09, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
'The Zookeeper's Wife': A photo caption Sept. 2 with the book review of "The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story" by Diane Ackerman referred to Antonina and Jan Zabinski, a couple who offered refuge to Jews during World War II, as "German saviors." The Zabinskis were Poles.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 09, 2007 Home Edition Book Review Part R Page 2 Features Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
'Zookeeper's Wife': A photo caption Sunday with the review of "The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story" by Diane Ackerman referred to Antonina and Jan Zabinski, a couple who offered refuge to Jews during World War II, as "German saviors." The Zabinskis were Poles.

German bombers fill the sky above Warsaw on the first day of school in that fateful September, and in a matter of hours, everything changes. Located on the Vistula River, the zoo comes under heavy bombardment. As the terrified animals burst from their blasted cages, jumpy Polish soldiers shoot down those they deem injured or dangerous. Yet, miraculously enough, an array of animals escapes unharmed and crosses the bridge into the city, creating a "biblical hallucination."

Poland is forced to surrender; the nightmare occupation begins, and Jan, whose sangfroid and "penchant for risk" are matched by extraordinary good luck, joins the many-pronged, superlatively organized Polish Resistance. The Zabinskis remain at the damaged zoo and manage to secure some of their most precious animals. But how long will they be allowed to stay? Enter Lutz Heck, director of the Berlin Zoo and a big-game hunter. Heck admires the Zabinskis and is a bit sweet on willowy Antonina, a perfect embodiment of Aryan femininity. A fervent Nazi, Heck intends to bring racial purity to nature itself by resurrecting three legendary extinct German species: the aurochs, a mythologized bull; the Neolithic horse, or tarpan; and the forest bison, which just happens to be a specialty of Jan's.

With Heck's protection, the Zabinskis stay put. But they pay the devil's price. Although Heck extols the nobility of animals (how incisively and damningly Ackerman dissects the Nazis' perverted view of nature), his treatment of the Zabinskis' beloved "animal republic" is depraved and grotesque. Shocked and appalled by the bloodbath, Antonina wonders, "How many humans will die like this in the coming months?" No sane and decent man or woman could ever have imagined.

Jan (whose Polish Underground code name was Francis, for Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals) grew up in Jewish neighborhoods and attended Jewish schools, and consequently he feels "a moral indebtedness to the Jews." A maestro of subterfuge, he lays his life on the line day after day to help the Jews imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto. Back at the zoo, Antonina makes the "guests" as comfortable as possible. While most of the more than 300 Jews the Zabinskis shelter stay only until safe passage can be arranged, others live at the zoo for years, hiding in plain sight. Ackerman observes, "who better than zookeepers to devise fitting camouflage?" Bursting with people and animals, the Zabinskis' villa "pulsed like a beehive." Ackerman also describes the villa as an ark, and she likens the constant need for defensive strategy and "all the planes of existence and resistance" in the villa to a "three-dimensional chess game."

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