There’s a saying that when we don’t understand the past, it is bound to repeat itself. It is because of that saying that I kept reading The Zookeeper’s Wife. Three times I almost put this book down because I did not expect the horrors of the past to touch the strings of my heart. I can’t say I’ve ever been described as empathetic, however when it comes to animals, I feel a deep compassion. Maybe I read this story wrong, because I felt for the animals, and for the relationships the people had with them. It isn’t that their stories overshadowed those of the people, it is that animals aren’t in control of a war brought on by humans. Regardless, The Zookeeper’s Wife’s story showed me a very different perspective of war. One that I found to be both alarming and generous at the same time.
The book is not a novel, but written from accounts taken from Antonina Zabinski’s diaries. She and her husband Jan were the zookeepers of the Warsaw Zoo during World War II. Along with accounts of other’s that experienced the war in Warsaw and historical events, The Zookeeper’s Wife, chronicles how the zoo helped the underground movement as well as assisted in hiding Poles and Jews in the Villa and animal enclosures of the zoo.
It is Antonina’s way with animals that allows the family to live cohesively with them, as well as use them to protect their friends on the run from the occupation. Hurt, but otherwise wild, animals would be brought to live inside the Villa alongside the family until they were well enough to return to their enclosure. New baby animals would at times become pets for their son Rys, or other visitors of the Villa that were in need of a companion during the war.
When bombs started falling from the sky they did not discriminate animals from people. The war treated everyone equally, leaving death and destruction along the way. Antonina’s story shows the horrors of both the people and animals of Warsaw dealt with, specifically the idea of pureness. Nazis adopted the belief that animals, like people, should be pure Aryan. Zoos were looted for their best animals and sent to German zoos, while the ones left behind were often killed for sport.
Although the Zabinski family and most of the Villa’s visitors survived, many animals didn’t. As an animal lover I find it commendable that the zookeeper’s wife and other guests of the Villa took to protecting animals as best they could during the occupation of their city. I know I wouldn’t dream of leaving my pets behind, and it is comforting to know that my sentiments have been shared in times of darkness for all animals.