The Zookeeper’s Wife

July 26, 2009

I first learned about this book from a radio interview with the author, Diane Ackerman, on Science Friday (January 18, 2008). The book’s central conceit, that Nazi ideas about racial and genetic purity somehow led to special treatment for the Warsaw Zoo during the Nazi occupation, and that this, in turn, facilitated the creation of an escape route for Polish Jews fleeing the Holocaust, was irresistible. Also irresistible were the accounts of how Zoo animals regularly took up residence in the Zookeepers’ home.

The book itself largely delivers on these plot points, although the central premise, linking Nazi ideology, the Zoo’s preservation and its eventual use as a hiding place for escapees, seems overblown. The Zoo stopped functioning as a zoo shortly after the start of the occupation. Also, I couldn’t help feeling that the zookeeper and his wife would have found a way to assist escaping Jews by any means necessary.

The book opens in 1935 with a description of the animals’ morning calls driving the zookeeper’s wife from her bed. However, the relative calm of this lively morning is replaced a few pages later by the story of World War II. Nearly all of the book is devoted to the period between 1939 and 1945, and almost nothing is said about the post-war years or what it was like to live under communism. Given this focus, there is the expected, yet still revealing, description of Nazi brutality and one gets a fair idea of what it was like to live under siege, occupation, and then frenzied withdrawal. I couldn’t help but wonder, do the inhabitants of modern war zones, experience life the same way as the Poles did in World War II?

On the other hand, for all its detail, the story of the war, the Holocaust, the Warsaw Ghetto and its ultimate destruction, and the final Warsaw uprising, were all well-known to me and I could have skipped this book, save for one thing: the unusual characters inhabiting its pages. Although the book has its tedious sections (and these are accentuated by the author’s penchant for padding the text with lists of all types), Ackerman assembles a fair number of compelling stories, some based on humans, some based on animals (the bunny and the cat turn out to be more interesting than the zebras), and some that combine the two in interesting and unexpected ways.

Chemistry alert. For those of you who would like to bleach your hair (perhaps you need to look more Aryan?), do not use “pure hydrogen peroxide”. 100% peroxide is an explosive and I’ve never seen any solution that was concentrated beyond 30%. I can only guess that the book’s reference to “pure” peroxide means undiluted household peroxide (which is already quite dilute).

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