The Zookeeper's Wife 

by Diane Ackerman
(Norton)

Ackerman will appear at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway, 227-2583, Tues Nov 20, 7:30 pm, $10-26

In the introduction to her beautiful new book, Diane Ackerman relates an old Polish folktale from her childhood: In a village "with a little circus whose lion had suddenly died," an old Jewish man was offered the job of impersonating a lion for the show. He accepted, and as the cage shut behind him, he realized there was another lion in captivity with him. Trembling with fear, the man began to chant a Hebrew prayer. Instantly, the other lion joined in and the two finished the prayer together. "I could not have imagined," Ackerman writes, "how oddly relevant that folk story would be to this historical one."

The Zookeeper's Wife is an extraordinary account of human compassion and (un)natural science in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. Before the war, Antonina and Jan Zabinski were Catholic zookeepers who tended to their small universe of elephants, giraffes, foxes, and assorted fauna as if it were an extension of their own family. In 1939, Nazis bombed Warsaw, massacring the zoo animals and corralling over 400,000 Jews into a ghetto the size of Central Park. Over the next six years, the Zabinskis furtively hid hundreds of Jews in their empty zoo, despite the certain death they would have faced if discovered. For the sake of discretion, their "visitors" were named for the animals whose habitats they occupied, creating a human bestiary of "crocodiles" and "pheasants" in this covert zoo.

The story is incredible, but it's Ackerman's research and writing that make The Zookeeper's Wife unforgettable. Antonina was an eloquent diarist, which provided immense insight not only into daily life at the zoo, but into her private thoughts and fears as well. Ackerman blends Antonina's account with an enormous knowledge of Polish wildlife, Nazism's roots in the occult, zoological administration, life in Jewish ghettoes, and seemingly every other facet that informs this rich story. She then lays out her research with a novelist's sensibility, crafting a book every bit as literary as it is informative, and unlike anything this writer has ever read.

Although Ackerman occasionally gets a little carried away with her descriptive gifts and copious research, The Zookeeper's Wife is an unforgettable book of tremendous beauty that emerges from the darkest shadows of evil.

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