“The monkeys and birds, screeching infernally, created an otherworldly chorus backed by a crackling timpani of bullets and bomb blasts,” writes Diane Ackerman in her riveting book The Zookeeper’s Wife, a narrative nonfiction about WWII and the Warsaw zoo. “Echoing around the zoo, the tumult surely sounded like ten thousand Furies scratching up from hell to unhinge the world,” she continues, describing the horror Hitler’s army inflicted when it invaded the city in 1939, using it as a testing ground for a new form of warfare called Blitzkrieg. With hauntingly evocative prose, Ackerman’s page-turner reveals the plight of the zoo’s exotic animals, as well as that of Jan and Antonina, the Polish Christians who ran the zoo and used its grounds to hide more than 300 Jews and resistance fighters during the German occupation. Ackerman, who will give a talk Sunday, October 19, at UCSB’s Campbell Hall, recently took the time to respond to questions via email.
How did you come across this story of Jan and Antonina? I entered the story through the animals. Years ago, I heard of a lost-in-time forest in Poland, where there were ancient-looking horses running around, and I wondered how they got there. Then I learned that there were also ancient-looking bison, and that the director of the Warsaw Zoo during WWII was the world’s expert on those bison, that his wife Antonina adopted orphan animals from the forest, and that somehow it had to do with Nazi perversity. In time, I found Antonina’s memoir and children’s books, Jan’s writings and interviews, testimonies given by people who sheltered at the zoo, and many other documents that told the whole story.
How long did it take you to research and write the book, and aside from Antonina’s journal, what other sources were of the greatest help? For about five years, I saturated myself in Antonina’s world. In Poland, I spent time at the Warsaw Zoo and in the villa where the Zabinskis lived; followed Antonina’s footsteps down some of the streets she wrote about; spoke with people at the Warsaw Zoo; interviewed the Zabinskis’ son; spoke with women, now in their eighties, who served in the Underground during the war; visited outlying cities and Bialowieza Forest; located the insect collection that plays an important part in the story; and visited other relevant sites and museums.
I read a sea of books, interviews, and testimonies-by and about people who witnessed the Holocaust-and studied WWII history, armaments, cuisine, leaders, airplanes, medicine, architecture, fashion, music, films, and such. And I studied the sounds and smells and behaviors of the animals that the Zabinskis adopted as pets and those they tended in the zoo. I had great fun learning about Polish plants and animals and folk customs. I love continuing to be a student. The process was completely fascinating and absorbing.
Who is your favorite human character in the book? Antonina. She believed in the sanctity of life and the basic goodness of people, despite evidence to the contrary. And she was determined to include joy, play, wonder, and even innocence in a household where everyone feared the real dangers, horrors, and uncertainties. That takes a special stripe of courage that’s too rarely celebrated. She teaches us about how to survive with kindness and dignity in a mutilated world. It’s a tale of what so-called ordinary people rise to in every era, though we hear little about those dramas. We tend to think of heroes in terms of violent combat, but people also perform radical acts of compassion. We don’t talk about those much, preferring instead to highlight the worst in human nature. But I’m fascinated by how often and with what wholeheartedness so-called ordinary people like Antonina and Jan perform acts of compassion, courage, and sacrifice for complete strangers.
How did the experience of writing this book differ from others you have written? The Zookeeper’s Wife is “narrative nonfiction,” a new genre for me. Most of my other books are either poetry or natural history, in which I try to see both the forest and the trees, the whole big, bustling experience of being alive on this planet, explored from many perspectives. I used those skills often while writing Zookeeper, for example as I researched the texture of life in a zoo in WWII Warsaw. But I’ve been very careful about sticking to the facts. When I describe the zoo in winter, for instance, it’s based on details Antonina offers in her memoirs, and on research I’ve done into the Polish climate and wildlife. Every time the characters speak or “think” something, I’m quoting directly from their writings and interviews.
Diane Ackerman will speak at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Sunday, October 19, at 3 p.m. The event is free to the public. For more information, call 893-3137 or visit www.ihc.ucsb.edu.