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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."

Cool-headed, with nerves of steel, Jan undertakes missions as suspenseful as the plot of any top-notch thriller. Antonina, exhibiting equal grace under pressure, and even more vulnerable after the birth of their daughter, survives more than her share of terrifying encounters with Nazis. Her battles of wits eerily echo scenes in "Suite Française," a recently discovered, superlative novel of Nazi France by Irène Némirovsky, a valiant Russian-Jewish refugee who died at Auschwitz.

What makes this particular chapter in the electrifying history of resistance against the Nazis uniquely resonant? The Zabinskis' determination to make their underground realm convivial. To be sure, they were ever vigilant. But, Ackerman writes, "keeping the body alive at the expense of spirit wasn't Antonina's way. Jan believed in tactics and subterfuge, and Antonina in living as joyously as possible." The Zabinskis also "needed to remain among animals for life to feel true." Their animal companions -- an eccentric rabbit, gluttonous hamster, high-strung birds and a playful muskrat, to name a few -- provide comic relief and unconditional affection as Antonina labors in the garden and kitchen to nurture her large, endangered patchwork family.

Ackerman matches her animated accounts of life at the zoo with tense forays into the ghetto and discerning profiles of exceptional individuals. The renowned entomologist Dr. Szymon Tenenbaum, for example, whose glorious collection of a half-million insect species, thanks to Jan's ingenuity, helps save many of Tenenbaum's fellow Jews. The Hasidic rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira tends to his neighbors' bodies and souls by setting up soup kitchens and encouraging Jews to meditate on the "beauty of nature." And famed pediatrician Henryk Goldszmit (whose pen name was Janusz Korczak) refuses safe passage out of the ghetto to stay with children under his care, ultimately accompanying them to Treblinka.

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.

It is no stretch to say that this is the book Ackerman was meant to write. Ever since "A Natural History of the Senses," she has been building a galaxy of incandescent works that celebrate the unity and wonder of the living world. But every rapturous hour she has spent communing with plants and animals, every insight gleaned into human nature, every moment under the spell of language is a steppingstone that led her to Poland, the home of her maternal grandparents, and to the incomparable heroes Jan and Antonina Zabinski. The result of her tenacious research, keen interpretation and her own "transmigration of sensibility" is a shining book beyond category. Ripe for cinematic interpretation, "The Zookeeper's Wife" is a book to read and reread and give to others.

Compassion and reverence for life persisted during the shadow time of the Nazis, and sustain those struggling today to survive war and genocide in besieged cities, refugee camps and secret havens. What hidden stories of courage and succor are yet to be told? Will we ever be able to answer Antonina's question: Why is it that "animals can sometimes subdue their predatory ways in only a few months, while humans, despite centuries of refinement, can quickly grow more savage than any beast?" *

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