Noted poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman was raised on her Polish grandfather's folk tales -- among them the story of a small circus whose lion has just died. Thinking quickly, the circus director dresses an elderly Jewish gentleman in the lion's fur, and puts him in the lion's cage where he has a profound experience.
For Ackerman, this childhood tale was nothing short of prophetic: Her extraordinary new book, "The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story," is a real-life version of the circus fable. It is also a "new" piece of Polish history -- the little-known tale of Jan and Antonina Zabinski who Ackerman defines as "Christian zookeepers horrified by Nazi racism, who capitalized on the Nazis' obsession with animals in order to save over 300 doomed people."
Indeed, throughout much of World War II, the Zabinskis hid and cared for Jewish "guests" not only in nooks, crannies and hollows of their villa on the Warsaw Zoo grounds -- but also in empty cages, sheds and animal enclosures on the property.
Few know of the Zabinskis' bravery today.
Ackerman, whose own affinity for animals is found throughout her work, came upon the Zabinskis' story while she was researching a breed of wild horses in a Polish preserve. Relying on numerous sources, Ackerman has reconstructed not only the terror and uncertainty of Warsaw's darkest days but the cleverness and compassion with which one couple managed to keep hundreds of Jews from harm. That they did so with fun and fine music as well as fear -- side by side with both precious and plain animals -- are all facts brought to life by Ackerman: "War didn't only sunder people, Antonina mused in her memoirs, it could also intensify friendships and spark romances; every handshake opened a door or steered fate."
Warsaw's zoo under Antonina was just that by day -- becoming something else altogether by night when the "guests" would emerge from hiding to share meals, music, talk. They were all people "silenced by the unspeakable," many of them enduring what one called the "psychic earthquake of having to shed her name."
Descriptions of Warsaw's Jewish Ghetto, and the Aryan world outside, are both chilling and riveting in "The Zookeeper's Wife." A sense of loss -- of people, principles, culture, freedom and safety -- is palpable. But so is hope, in the form of the Antonina and her husband Jan -- who also used the zoo grounds to hide munitions for the Resistance.
There is a vibrancy and life in the face of the unspeakable here, much of it understood by Antonina -- and Ackerman -- in terms of the animals whose habitat made the Zabinskis' bravery possible. Antonina thinks throughout that animals have much to teach mankind. Why is it, she asks at one point, that "animals can subdue their predatory ways in only a few months, while humans, despite centuries of refinement, can quickly grow more savage than any beast?" Maybe one day, she muses, "we'll discover the secrets of animal behavior, and . . . we'll master our bleaker instincts." In the meantime, we have "The Zookeeper's Wife" -- a book with all the makings of a classic.
Karen Brady is a former News columnist.
>The Zookeeper's Wife:A War Story
By Diane Ackerman
368 pages, $24.95