As some of you know, I’m part of an on-line book club called Literary Wives. Every two months we post a review on a designated book and April’s read is Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife (2007).
The Zookeeper’s Wife is a non-fiction account of the heroic efforts of Jan Żabiński, director of the Warsaw Zoo and his wife Antonina to save 300 Jews during WWII.
The Żabińskis were respected owners of the high-profiled and thriving zoo. In 1939, however, when Germany invaded Poland, much of the zoo was bombed, and many of the animals were killed or taken away (the rare/special animals were sent to Germany).
At this point Jan and Antonina began using the zoo and its villa to temporarily house and hide Jews. Jan became an active member of the Polish Underground and later in the Warsaw uprising near the end of the war. Antonina, in the meantime, kept the entire operation at home running; she had, in addition to those in hiding, a young son, an infant daughter, animals in and out of cages, and staff. And she did so while working desperately to keep as upbeat of an atmosphere as she could during this horrific time.
The questions we are discussing in this series are:
1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?
The main story really doesn’t focus on the Żabińskis’ relationship, but I did find some striking passages. During the height of the Żabińskis’ efforts, Jan became increasingly “short-tempered and uneasy.” Antonina wrote in her diary that Jan was “cold and expected more from me than from the rest of the people in our household” and that “nothing [she] did ever seemed good enough, nothing made him proud of [her], and perpetually disappointing him felt wretched.” (page 231)
It is, of course, hard to say if these dynamics were characteristic of what it meant to be Jan’s wife. After all, they were both living under extraordinary circumstances. As Ackerman writes, “To keep their life livable, [Jan] checked and rechecked every ritual and routine, a taxing responsibility, since the tiniest chaos, neglect, or impulse could unmask them. Small wonder that he rigidified from the strain and began addressing [the house guests] as his “soldiers” and Antonina as his ‘deputy.'” (page 231)
One day, Jan suddenly praised Antonina when he heard about her success warding off German soldiers in a narrow escape. Antonina wrote in her diary: “He was talking about my talents, praising me in the presence of other people. It never happened before! . . . He was serious?! He had called me ‘silly’ so often I’d started hearing it as a second name.” (page 235)
Near the end of the book, we learn from various interview excerpts after the war that Jan had always appreciated and admired his wife’s abilities and efforts. In one interview he said, ” . . . she was terrified the Nazis would seek revenge on us and our young son, terrified of death, and yet she kept it to herself, and helped me [with my Underground activities] and never ever asked me to stop.” (page 314) There were more acknowledgements like this about various aspects of Antonina’s character and strengths.
Was Jan condescending and did he assume a superior role in the marriage because of his gender? It is possible, given the times. I also wonder, though, how much was personality. I certainly know of couples in which the woman is the one who condescends or is sparing in praise. From Jan’s detailed acknowledgements of Antonina’s contributions and rare talents, it seems clear that he knew his wife well and appreciated her, but perhaps rarely showed his feelings to her during the war.
2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?
It seemed important to Antonina to win her husband’s approval. This could have been a function of her status as a wife, or it could have been a matter of personality. It seemed that Jan was rather stoic and sparing in his praise, whereas Antonina was more open with her feelings and wanted the same in return.
The above quote by Jan about how Antonina kept her fears to herself also shows Antonina’s loyalty to her husband. At the same time, I believe her willingness to put others’ needs before her fears speaks to her mindset as a rescuer. Antonina had unique strengths – an uncanny ability to relate to animals, the wherewithal to apply this ability to her interactions with enemy soldiers, and great compassion for fellow humans – and she used these as the perfect complement to Jan’s more analytical and physical work with the Polish Underground. I saw the Żabińskis’ marriage as a partnership with wife and husband sharing the same mission but offering complementary strengths.
. . .
Overall I had mixed feelings about the book. It took me a long time to finish despite the fascinating (and important) subject matter. I think it was because the story didn’t really feel linear in a way that I wanted it to be in order to stay engaged; Ackerman interrupts Antonina’s story with lots of facts and musings about everything from Nazi ideology to animal behavior. All of it is relevant on some level I suppose, but I found myself confused a lot of the time, not able to really picture how the Żabińskis were actually hiding the Jews, for example, because the story felt so scattered. Every time a chapter went off on a tangent I found my mind wandering.
. . .
Anyway, those are just my thoughts. Please check out my fellow Literary Wives club members to read their takes on the book!
Ariel of One Little Library
Audra of Unabridged Chick
Carolyn O of Rosemary and Reading Glasses
Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Kay of WHATMEREAD
Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors
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