The Zookeepers Wife is a book about the occupation of Poland during WWII, focusing mainly on the systematic subjugation and subsequent extermination of the Jews. Based in Warsaw, on the surface it is the story of Antonina and Jan Zablinski, the zookeepers of the title. They run a humane and popular zoo in Warsaw, focusing on many rare or endangered animals. Antonina feels at one with animals and has a gift to be able to calm them down. However, the fate of the Zoo is doomed with the invasion of the Nazi army in 1939. Many animals are taken to Germany, and those not required are either killed by the bombing campaigns, or shot by Germans for sport.
This however is far from the end of the usefulness of the Zoo. Jan and Atonina use the surviving zoo buildings to hide and protect many Jews, some whom come themselves, and many others who are rescued from the Ghetto by Jan himself. He uses his job and underground connections to gain a pass into the Ghetto, and rescues many Jews from an almost certain death. The book recounts the activities of the Zoo over the six years of the war and details the way the couple hid people, rescued people, fed people and the difficulties they faced in trying to hide quite large numbers of people from the occupying forces.
The author uses this story of individual human compassion as a way of telling the larger story of the fate of Poland under Nazi occupation. The events at the Zoo, and that happen to Antonina's family are drawn from Antonina's personal diary, but these events are put into wider context by the author, using various sources to give a historical context to the continued subjugation of Poland, and an insight into Nazi ideology. We are told that Hitler wanted Poland for himself, so even Poles were to be eliminated. There was also a section about Hitler's desire and respect for animals, especially pure breeds, and a Nazi program to and back breed certain animals to their original form. I knew nothing about this, although it fits with his pureblood ideology. I learnt a lot about the Polish underground which Jan was part of, and how it was so central to the survival of so many people. Everybody pulled together to make the system work, even boy scouts risking their lives carrying messages. The sense of a nation under threat, but determined not to be ground down permeates throughout this book, seen mainly through the constant traffic of both Jews and Underground members seeking refuge at the Zoo.
This book shows the true nature of human compassion in the face of what often seem to be insurmountable difficulties and horrors. It also shows a sense of community spirit and everyone doing what they could in an impossible and unimaginable situation. Everybody should read this.