By Maddie Scott
“At dawn in an outlying district of Warsaw, sunlight swarmed around the trunks of blooming linden trees and crept up the white walls of a 1930s stucco and glass villa where the zoo director and his wife slept in a bed crafted from white birch, a pale wood used in canoes, tongue depressors, and Windsor chairs.” So begins the Zookeeper’s Wife, a war story by Diane Ackerman, an acclaimed poet, essayist and naturalist. In the first sentence, it is clear that Ms. Ackerman is primarily a naturalist who likes to create sentences that have the same beauty in the words as the nature she is describing. The war story seems to at times have a secondary role in the Zookeeper’s Wife. For example, when describing the curfew the Poles were subject to under German occupation, Ackerman writes, “After curfew, Poles could no longer stroll under a canopy of stars.” This paragraph continues with a detailed explanation of meteor showers, including description and history, with only cursory mention of the Poles who could still watch such showers from balconies or windows, and a brief comparison of meteors to German gunfire and bombs.
The reason this works for some readers is that Diane Ackerman seems to be a kindred spirit of sorts with the main character in the book, Antonina Zabinski, the Zookeeper’s Wife. Antonina had the same connection with nature that Ms. Ackerman has. As the author writes,“Antonina loved to slip out of her human skin for a while and spy on the world through each animal’s eyes, and she often wrote from that outlook, in which she intuited their concerns and know-how, including what they might be seeing, feeling, fearing, sensing, remembering.” Their residence at the Zoo, the Villa, was home to many animals that participated in family life, including a badger, rabbit and hamster.
Amidst the descriptions of nature, Antonina and Jan’s (her husband) zoo animals and family, Ackerman weaves in the story of occupied Warsaw, her own family’s fight for survival (Antonina left the Zoo and the Villa more than once with her young son during particularly dangerous times of bombing and fighting), and the remarkable resistance efforts that she and her husband participated in. Jan was part of the Home Army and took part in the Warsaw Polish Uprising. His connection with a Jewish entomologist, Szymon Tenenbaum, who left his collection of insects at the Villa for safekeeping when he was forced from his home, opened the doors to the Ghetto (the Polish director of the Warsaw Ghetto’s Labor Bureau had a mutual admiration for Tenenbaum and his collection of insects) and Jan was able to help many Jewish friends and strangers escape. Many of these people took up temporary (and some more semi-permanent) residence at the Villa. All told, the Zabinskis helped to save approximately 300 Jews. Antonina demonstrated the same strength, compassion and resolve in helping their Jewish “guests” as she did in keeping her family safe.
The Zoo itself went through many changes during the war. Many animals were killed during the first days of bombing in Warsaw, and many more were moved by the “benevolent” Lutz Heck, the director of the Berlin Zoo, and a Nazi, who tried to convince Antonina that he had the animals’ best interest in mind (while later taking a hunting party back to the Warsaw Zoo to kill remaining animals). After the war, Antonina and Jan restore the Warsaw Zoo, before Jan’s retirement from the Zoo in 1951.
Ackerman shows great skill in representing the Zookeeper’s wife’s strengths. In the concluding chapter, she relays Jan’s quotes via Danka Narnish, an Israeli reporter, “Her confidence could disarm even the most hostile. It wasn’t just that she identified with them, but from time to time she seemed to shed her own human traits and become a panther or hyena. Then, able to adopt their fighting instinct, she arose as a fearless defender of her kind.”
The movie adaptation of the Zookeeper’s Wife is visually appealing, and it is easier to follow the comings and goings of the Jews that the Zabinski’s save, rather than in the book with its heavy description and seemingly non-linear timeline. Antonina, played by Jessica Chastain, convincingly conveys her love for the people she saves, animals, and her son. Her love for her husband, however, is clouded by a fictionalized romance between her and Lutz Heck, played by Daniel Bruhl. The movie takes evidence of Lutz’ admiration of Antonina from the book and turns it into a mutual attraction, much of which the movie is based upon. Antonina is also portrayed as soft-spoken and unsure of herself. Despite the great things she accomplishes in helping Jews to escape the Warsaw ghetto by giving them shelter in her house, the sense that the audience gathers from the movie is that she is overly emotional, tempted romantically by a Nazi who in the book she is clearly wary of from the beginning, and not an equal partner to her husband. The movie also takes great artistic license in portraying a young Jewish woman who was taken in by the Zabinskis after being brutally raped by Germans in the Ghetto. While such atrocities certainly happened again and again during the war, this character is created for the movie, and not mentioned in the book.
If one wants to learn of the remarkable story of Antonina Zabinski and to get a more accurate representation, it is far better to read the book than to see the movie.