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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Book review: The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story

I picked up The Zookeeper's Wife at Target as an impulse buy since I needed something to kill the time between matches at N's volleyball tournament a couple weeks ago. The blurb on the back bills it as the amazing story of how two Gentile Polish zookeepers "managed to save over three hundred people from the Nazis by hiding refugees in the empty animal cages".

While the title centers on Jan and Antonina Zabinski, the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo, the book is really the story of how many Polish citizens risked their lives to save their Jewish friends and neighbors. While in the past I've read a lot about WWII and the Nazis, I don't remember ever reading much about the occupation of Poland or the Polish resistance. It's really an incredible story, and the people described are so much whom I would want to be if I was ever in such a situation. It's hard to imagine the courage necessary the courage it must have taken to defy the Nazis, at risk of not only their own lives but their children's. One scene, in particular, where Jan and Antonina's son is threatened by Nazi soldiers, is absolutely chilling.

This is a book that inspires you and renews your faith in humanity. It's a great story...but it isn't a great story. That is, it's a non-fiction work. Because it's written as history, the narration leads to a certain distance from the events of the book. That probably made it easier to read, but it also kept me from feeling the kind of connection I would have had with the characters if it had been written from a closer point of view. I bought the book under the impression that it was based on history; that is, I expected it to read more like a work of fiction. I found the style (for example, reporting what Antonina wrote about something in her diary rather than having the character Antonina tell something) very distracting until, towards the end off the book, I happened to finally notice the back of the book where it said, plain as day, "HISTORY/WWII". D'oh.

Pick this one up. You'll be amazed, inspired, and probably want to dig deeper into her sources to read more about these incredible people. I know I do.

5 comments:

  1. I used to work with a woman from Poland (still a friend, but rarely get to see) whose relatives hid some Jewish people for about a year - her stories were just amazing...albeit sad!

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  2. Thanks for this. I'm always looking for new books to read. I have to say that I have a really hard time with stuff like this but I guess that is the way it should be...it shouldn't be easy and light...an important part of history to never forget.

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  3. That DOES sound good! But like you, I prefer a true story told in a fiction way... I have not been able to get into a book for the longest time. I have always been an avid reader. I devour books when I am in the mood, but lately, I have not been in the mood. My unread book pile keeps getting higher!

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  4. Sad stories of a terrible period. Great post.
    Indeed I am very tired to read on the newspapers about "days to remember", to watch in tv celebrations, to listen long speeches about the WWII and in the world NOW there are a lot of wars.

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  5. I just read the long walk. It is about a polish officer and friends who escaped and walked to freedom after internment by the Russians during the same time period. It was quite personal, and I could really relate to the subjects. I think you would enjoy it.

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