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Thursday, March 18, 2010

BPL Book Discussion: The Zookeeper's Wife

This month the BPL book discussion group met to discuss the unique WWII nonfiction title, The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman. I actually began the discussion with a comment from a participant in Kathy's evening group back when they discussed it in January. She said, "It is important to read stories about heroes who aren't warriors." I think this one sentence sums up the entire book and its appeal.

We have read a lot of titles with a WWII frame in our group, but that did not diminish the appeal of this book; all but 2 people absolutely loved the book and "couldn't put it down." This is a book about people, animals, nature, and war.

Jan and Antoninia Zabinski were the zookeeper and his wife in Warsaw when the Germans invaded. Over the years that Warsaw was occupied, working with the Polish resistance, they were able to shelter and save over 300 Jews from certain death by hiding them in the zoo. Naturalist Ackerman, has scoured Antoninia journals, interviewed her son, and scoured the surviving records of the Polish resistance in order to recreate the fascinating, forgotten, true-life story of the zookeeper's wife and the true nature of the obsessive evil that was Nazism.

Here are some of the major issues we discussed:
--Even though there were many details about the animals in their lives, you did not have to be a people person to appreciate all of the detail.  We were especially riveted by Ackerman's descriptions of the Nazi's obsession with back breeding the wild Polish horses to their "pure" state.
--We would have liked a map of the zoo grounds. The Jews and resistance workers were hidden fairly out in the open, in a pheasant house and in their home on the grounds. Many were disguised as gentile workers, all while the Germans were also on the zoo grounds. How lcose were the Germans to the hidden people. Also, where was the Ghetto in relation to the zoo? We had many location questions that a map would have answered.
--We spent a good deal of time talking about the Polish resistance. Even living in the Chicago area, home to the most Poles outside of Poland, we were all always taught that the Poles gave up when the German invaded. Not so, we have now learned. They fought each and every day their were occupied. --We all now have a heightened appreciation for the Poles and their intricate and organized resistance.
In terms of the language, Ackerman's writing is beautiful. Multiple people discussed how it drew them in. We appreciated her choice to spend time on the day-to-day details of life living under the Nazi's (who by the way, only hated Jews more than Poles), and the daily life and death struggle of ordinary people.
--But especially, we loved Antoninia. One participant called her "the animal whisperer." Her courage and ability to read people and animals in a way that literally saved all of their lives many times. We loved her passion and eccentricity. We also found her and Jan extraordinary since they did not see themselves as heroic; they just felt they were doing their part for the underground machine to save Poland.
--We discussed the contradictions here. Antoninia and Jan's story is one of survival and the best of what a humans can become; juxtaposed with the outright evil of the Nazi's.
--Finally we talked about what we would have done in their situation. This is a heartbreaking story of good people who put others first. If they had been found out, everyone would have been killed immediately. We all hoped we would have been like A and J and actively save others, but until it happens, you don't know what you would do.

    We ended by talking about what a great example this book is of the fact that reading exposes you to so much more of the world.

    Three Words That Describe This Book: Inspirational, WWII, Animals

    Readalikes: Some readalikes that came up as we were discussing this book were Leon Uris' Exodus, Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky and the nonfiction of Temple Grandin.

    For those who want more info about the Polish underground, try Fighting Warsaw. I would also suggest Faithful Elephants, a memoir by a Japanese zookeeper during WWII.

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