“The Zookeeper’s Wife” by Diane Ackerman

I recently saw a preview for the movie “The Zookeeper’s Wife” and decided to read the book before watching the movie.  I read lots of history and am especially interested in Holocaust survivor stories.  After being on the hold list for a long time from the library, I finally got the book and read it this week.

Antonina and Jan Zabinski

There is a fascinating story of many incredibly brave people buried Diane Ackerman‘s “The Zookeeper’s Wife.”  Jan and Antonina Zabinski are the zookeepers of the Warsaw Zoo before World War II.  They keep their positions, despite most of the zoo animals being killed.  But they decide to rescue Jews out of the Warsaw Ghetto.  They are a way station for the Underground and harbor most of their guests for a short time in the tunnels under the zoo.  A few guests stay longer and live in their home.  Jan develops some friendships that allow him to bring Jews out of the Ghetto.  Antonina finds a place for them and figures out how to feed and care for them until they move on.

Guests in the zoo tunnels

This wonderful story of the Zabinskis is told in about 75 pages of “The Zookeeper’s Wife.”  Unfortunately, the book is 384 pages long.  The rest of the book is full of detailed and exhausting digressions away from what should be a suspenseful, gripping tale.  There are discussions about animal camouflage and German eugenics.  These digressions take away the power of the central story.  They may show off the author’s extensive research, but they don’t make the story more interesting.

Another problem with the book is a failure to bring these real people to life.  Jan is a shadow and we never understand him at all.  Antonina is more real, but most of the words about her are from her diary.  Her writing anthropomorphizes the animals around her until they seem to have more personality than the people.

Diane Ackerman

I was still interested in seeing the movie after reading “The Zookeeper’s Wife.”  I hoped that the movie would cut through the extraneous parts of the book.  Unfortunately, from the reviews I read of the movie, this doesn’t happen.  Instead, the movie version decides to give peripheral characters in the book a central role in the movie.  As if the story of saving Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto wasn’t gripping enough.

“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is a great story.  I am still waiting for an author or director who will tell it the way it deserves.