Sunday, April 6, 2014

Literary Wives #8: The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman

Welcome to the 8th book in the Literary Wives series!

As I started reading this book I was a bit surprised as I expected more of a historical fiction format, and felt as if I was reading a documentary. Once I had read the first 30 pages or so I was enthralled, however! Ackerman has a real knack for descriptors and making the reader feel as if you are standing in Poland, seeing and experiencing everything as you read, as if you are one of the characters. 

I appreciated the outline of research completed to write this book as contained in the Author's Note at the beginning; I am always interested to know just how the author has compiled notes, etc. Although I have read about WWII before, I had no idea of the Nazis' great interest in "purifying" animal bloodlines. For example, Lutz Heck, one of the Nazi higher-ups, along with his brother Heinz, was "completely infatuated" with "the resurrection of three pureblooded, extinct species--the neolithic horses known as forest tarpans, aurochsen (the wild cow progenitor of all European cattle breeds), and the European or 'forest' Bison." The Heck brothers had produced some near Aurochsen and tarpans of their own just prior to WWII, however, the Polish strains "ran truer to type" and were "the clear inheritors." (Was that good or bad news for the Zabinski's?) Lutz appeared at the Warsaw Zoo one day pledging his "help," however, as Antonina stated, "For all we know he may just be playing with us. Big cats need little mice to toy with." Per a mutual friend, Antonina had been told that she reminded Lutz of his first great love, and while she was flattered by his attention and did find him to be "a true German romantic, naive in his political views and conceited perhaps, but courtly and impressive," she was also wary and distrusting of him and his motives. As well she should have been!                                                              
"Under the Third Reich, animals became noble, mythic, almost angelic..." However, in contradiction to this, the high-level Nazi officers got drunk and went on shooting sprees in the zoos, simply shooting animals dead in their cages! Antonina described the heartbreak and sorrow she felt as she heard the shots and realized all the zoo's animals would be dead. Jan was a "devout scientist" who credited Antonina "with the metaphysical waves of a nearly shamanistic empathy when it came to animals," claiming she was so sensitive to them, it was as if she could read their minds. Listening to them die had to be particularly heart wrenching after all the care Antonina had heaped upon these animals to make sure they were well-fed, healthy, and happy. These animals were like family members to both her and her son.

Antonina with Tofi and Tufa, two baby lynx kittens she
spent 6 months bottle-feeding and who remained
dependent upon her for another 6 months until they
reached one year of age.
However, as heartless as the Nazis appeared to be toward animals, in the end, it was nothing compared to their treatment of humans. Not only were the Nazis determined to eliminate any and all people of "inferior value" such as the Slavs, Gypsies, Catholics, or Jews, but they were determined to retain only people they determined to be of "full value." All this to create their idyllic "race of Aryan god-men." Thus confirming what the world now knows--these men were psychotic sociopaths! "Although Mengele's subjects could be operated on without any painkillers at all, a remarkable example of Nazi zoophilia is that a leading biologist was once punished for not giving worms enough anesthesia during an experiment." Unbelievably sick and sadistic. I am always saddened by the cruelty humans have shown to other humans throughout history...

At the time, it was unknown to Antonina just how involved Jan was in the Resistance, and he only told her what he felt she must know, to help protect her. He stockpiled and distributed weapons and most of all, he used the Nazis fascination with animals to his advantage to come and go, delivering money and food to Jews hiding out in Warsaw and also those imprisoned in the Ghetto. It is estimated that the Zabinskis helped some 300 Jews escape without ever being caught. I do admit to feeling sorry for their son Rys who always had to be aware of keeping secrets: about the "guests" who came and went, while secretly delivering food to those hiding in various animal shelters, underground bunkers, etc. at the zoo. Not a life you would necessarily choose for a child, but tough times call for tough measures, and as Jan himself stated, "I only did my duty--if you can save somebody's life, it's your duty to try." This book certainly depicts the strength of the human spirit, both to endure and to help others whatever the risks!

Anonina and Jan feeding a baby bird.
Now for the "wife" questions!

According to Jan: "Antonina was a housewife, she wasn't involved in politics or war, and was timid, and yet despite that she played a major role in saving others and never once complained about the danger." 

1) What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife? Jan's comment above angered me. Exactly how was she NOT "involved in politics or war"? Just because she wasn't out and about the way he was didn't mean she wasn't responsible for all 300 people reaching safety. In fact, only 2 of these 300 didn't survive the war! She was the "leader" of this small group in the villa and totally responsible to care for and prevent the discovery of these "guests." To discount her as simply a "housewife," is, I believe, quite insulting! As usual, no matter how much a woman contributes, it seems those contributions are always viewed as less important than those of a man. I urge anyone doubting that to read this book and note how deftly Antonina handled many situations with brutal soldiers, saving not only herself, but all those for whom she was responsible while Jan was gone. She exhibited unbelievable bravery and courage, all while pregnant, then straddled with a newborn, etc. She has my utmost respect; I feel most anyone else may well have "blown it" and been unable to adapt and flex so quickly to avoid annihilation. Though I guess none of us knows how we might handle such extreme situations until we are there. 

2) In what way does this woman define "wife"--or in what way is she defined by "wife"?
I wonder what Antonina might have done with her life if she hadn't married Jan. But since she was the "wife of a zookeeper," her days were never dull! She was constantly overseeing the care and nurturing of all the animals, large and small, with a menagerie living with them in the villa. In addition, she ran the household and had her own child/children to raise. As was typical in this time period, society defined her by her role of wife, and I don't believe she resented this overall, though she did feel defeated that Jan didn't publicly acknowledge her accomplishments. She certainly proved many times over she was perfectly capable of taking care of herself and others! She certainly did much more than just serve as a "housewife," in my opinion!  

Check out the other bloggers' reviews as well: 

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J

Ariel of One Little Library

Audra of Unabridged Chick

Carolyn of Rosemary and Reading Glasses

Cecilia of Only You

Kay of whatmeread

Please plan to join us for our next read, The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness.

Reviews to be posted the first Monday in June.

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  1. I DID read this yesterday and thought I had made a comment, but maybe it didn't take? Your comments about Jan's attitude are certainly true. I found that aggravating as well. I agree with you that although Antonina saw herself as a housewife and Jan considered her one, she was much more.

    1. Hmmm...I received no notice of a comment yesterday! Poo! :( Anyway, Kay, I am glad you took time to stop by. At least this main theme of Antonina being so much more than a "wife" was one that I believe all of us LW co-hosts had in common! :) I love our otherwise varied reactions!

  2. What a wonderful and thorough review, Lynn, and you even added photos!

    I like what you wrote in reaction to Jan's comments/"praise." I feel that that is a problem that we continue to have...that one needs to be outwardly confident, bold, charismatic, etc. etc. to be seen as those things. I think that traditionally women exert their powers but in more subtle ways, as do both men and women who aren't outward leader types. I imagine that Jan must have seen Antonina has the quiet, meek wife who wasn't interested in politics...but was surprised when the war made her strengths more visible.

    1. Guess what just appeared today? Your wonderfully thorough comment!! :) So, evidently, it didn't completely disappear! It was just delayed! :)

  3. Oh Lynn, I just typed up a long comment but when I entered my name the text disappeared!

    I was saying that you wrote a really wonderful and thorough post! And that Jan must have always viewed Antonina as a meek housewife with no interest in politics, until the war must have brought her strengths to the fore. We still struggle with that, don't we? The quieter among us are mistaken to be lacking in leadership or contributions, when the truth is that so many people, especially women, exert their strengths in quieter ways.

    1. Oh, Cecilia, I hate it when I lose text before I've posted it!! Thank you for trying again and your kind comments! Our society does tend to have incorrect assumptions about the "quiet" folks among us. I own the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain, but have not yet had the chance to read it. In reality, I have never had that challenge--I've had to work to tone it down! :) One thing I have learned throughout adulthood, you don't need to be "loud" to be strong, courageous, or brave, and quieter more subtle leadership can be the most effective. Thank you for making me think about Antonina from that perspective!

  4. Hi Lynn,
    Great review! Like you, I was totally fascinated by all of the digressions about animal bloodlines... I had no idea the Nazis were so intent on not just creating a "pure" race, but recreating a perfect environment. And then, as you pointed out, the irony and hypocrisy of the Nazi soldiers who went on killing sprees in the zoo... it's just sad.
    I also like that you point out that Antonina was certainly involved in the war. I can't believe everything that she had to handle!

    1. She was so much more than "just a wife," in my opinion! The insanity of the Nazi regime never ceases to amaze me. I just finished reading Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay and so appreciated the way she depicted the benefits of memorials and the value of "never forgetting" such human tragedies... Though we all such genocide still occurs all too frequently in our world, just in smaller venues. Yes, very sad... Thanks for stopping by!!

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