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.