A couple of weeks ago, I read Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy - also about the Holocaust and WWII. The Zookeeper's Wife, though, is written from an adult perspective (versus a child's perspective in Yellow Star) and had significantly more details about the brutality of war; the Nazis' views and actions; and the impact on animals. It was truly a difficult book to read for these reasons...particularly around the holidays.
That being said, I did learn quite a bit about these subjects that I had not known before. In high school history class, I don't remember the teacher covering even a fraction of what was covered in this book.
On the eve of World War II, there were 380,000 Jews in Warsaw. Most did not survive the Holocaust. The director of the Warsaw Zoo (Jan Żabiński) and his wife were responsible for saving about 300.
Backing up a bit, in 1928, Jan Żabiński was appointed director of the Warsaw Zoo. Before World War II, Jan oversaw the creation of several exhibits including the monkey house, elephant house, enclosures for antelopes, a seal pond, and the giraffe barn. The Warsaw Zoo was as esteemed as any zoo in Europe.
In 1937, the zoo's female elephant (Kasia) gave birth to the first Indian elephant born in a Polish zoo.
Led by the criminal zoologist Lutz Heck, the Germans (when they invaded Poland) carted off the best animals for their own collections. At the start of the war, it turned out that the Nazis were interested in the zoo for two primary reasons:
(1) they wanted to "move to safekeeping" any rare animals it had - the safekeeping being in a German zoo; and
(2) they were obsessed with resurrecting extinct species of animals that they thought "wild" and "untamed" and "pure."
Despite killing the animals, the Nazis let the zoo continue to operate at a lower level much longer than they otherwise would have as both a pig farm and fur farm to provide food and warmth to their soldiers. This allowed Jan Żabiński along with his wife (Antonina) and their son (Ryszard) to save more than 300 Jews from the Holocaust.
While the Nazis depopulated the ghetto where hundreds of thousands of Jews lived, the Zabinskis repopulated the zoo — this time with humans. The Nazis had allowed Jan to turn the zoo into a pig farm, as mentioned earlier. So Jan and his staff had reason to enter the ghetto to pick up unused scraps to feed the animals. They brought in non-kosher food and smuggled out people.
The Zabinskis hid Jews in sheds, enclosures, and even the lion house. Those who had papers or Gentile looks were passed via the underground to other parts of Poland. The rest stayed.
After Jan brought the Jews to the zoo, it was up to Antonina to safeguard them: to find them room and food, to keep their spirits up, and most of all to hide them from the Nazis.
Jan Żabinski was seriously injured during the 1944 Warsaw uprising, and taken prisoner. When he returned, animals started being reintroduced to the zoo, which was reopened in 1949. Jan was re-appointed as the director of the zoo in 1949 and continued in the post until 1951.
One of the things that I found challenging about this book is the author's style of writing. It seemed to drag on in places, and I was skimming through these sections. The book could have been shorter and still as effective in conveying the important role that the Zabinskis contributed to saving 300 people's lives.
Despite the author's writing style, I still felt like the The Zookeeper's Wife was a worthwhile book to read.
Some of things that I learned by reading The Zookeeper's Wife included:
- Nazism hoped, not only to dominate nations and ideologies, but to alter the world's ecosystems by extinguishing some countries' native species of plants and animals (including human beings), while going to great lengths to protect other endangered animals and habitats, and even to resurrect extinct species like the wild cow and forest bison.
- Lindens (a type of trees) were planted throughout the zoo and Poland. They are frequented by bees that provide mead and honey for the table and beeswax candles for church services.
- every bomb that went off created a different scent, depending on where it hit. When a bakery was hit, the rising dirt cloud smelled of yeast sours, eggs, molasses, and rye. The mingled odors of cloves, vinegar, and burning flesh spelled the butcher's.
- Germans, Poles, and Jews stood in three separate lines to receive bread, and rationing was calculated down to the last calorie per day, with Germans receiving 2,613 calories, Poles 669 calories, and Jews only 184 calories.
- Jan was given the nickname "Francis," after Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals. He was known for risk-taking, and for hiding weapons and guns in areas close to Nazi encampment. Discovery would have meant on-the-spot death for him and his family.
- inside the ghetto, crowded apartment buildings quickly became hovels ravaged by tuberculosis, dysentery, and famine, and typhus plagued the ghetto with high fevers, chills, weakness, pain, headaches, and hallucinations. Since lice spread the disease, jamming people into a ghetto made epidemic inevitable.
- the SS officers viewed antisemitism as the same as delousing. Himmler said on April 24, 1943, "Getting rid of lice is not a question of ideology. It is a matter of cleanliness...we shall soon be deloused. We have only 20,000 lice left and then the matter is finished within the whole of Germany."
- most people know that 30-40% of the world's Jews were killed during World War II, but not that 80-90% of the Orthodox community perished, among them many who had kept alive an ancient traditional of mysticism and meditation reaching back to the Old Testament world of the prophets.
- for most people in the Ghetto nature lived only in memory - no parks, birds, or greenery existed in the ghetto - and they suffered the loss of nature like a phantom-limb pain, an amputation that scrambled the body's rhythms, starved the senses, and made basic ideas about the world impossible for children to fathom.
- Poland lies at the intersection of several great flyways - south from Siberia, north from Africa, west from China...autumn laced the air with a stitchery of migrating songbirds and chevrons of blaring geese.
- A Christian doctor's daughter with many Jewish friends...reconfigured her job at the Social Welfare Department, recruited ten like-minded others, and began entering the ghetto via a "sanitary epidemiological station" to deal with infectious diseases. In truth, the social workers smuggled in food, medicine, clothing and money, while freeing as many people as possible, particularly children. That meant first persuading parents to give her their children, then finding ways to smuggle the little ones out - in body bags, boxes, or coffins. The people and children were placed with Catholic families or put in orphanages. A jar she buried in the garden held lists of the children's real names, so that after the war they might be reunited with family.
- Nuns often hid children in orphanages in or near Warsaw, with some specializing in hard-to-place Semitic-looking boys, whose heads and faces were bandaged, as if they'd been wounded.