Cannonball 32: The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

The Zookeeper's WifeThe Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Man, I have been having the worst luck with Holocaust books, lately.

The Zookeeper’s Wife was recommended to me by a dear friend. The story itself is actually quite remarkable. It’s the true story of Antonina and Jan Żabiński, who ran the Warsaw Zoo during World War II. After Poland was taken over, Antonina (the titular character) and Jan began helping the Underground by harboring Jews in the zoo, in the animals’ empty cages.

It really was amazing, how they used their zoo and their wits to save lives and to survive themselves during this harsh and uncertain time.

So why did I only give it two stars? Because, dear God, Ackerman’s writing made me want to puke. I mean, it wasn’t Tatiana-de-Rosnay-bad, but it was pretty bad. Basically, what Ackerman did was read through Antonina’s letters and interview surviving relatives and stuff. Then she thought to herself, “What must Antonina have been thinking? What must Antonina have been feeling?”

But I highly doubt that Antonina thought of herself as a character from a book, and that she didn’t organize her thoughts as though her mind was a screenplay. There was a forced drama to Ackerman’s writing that, to me, cheapened the genuine gravity of the events of the book.

And maybe this part isn’t Ackerman’s fault, and I know I’m pickin’ nits, here, but I also took issue with the dust jacket book summary, which made a big deal of the Żabińskis being Christian. That’s actually why my dear friend recommended the book to me: “It’s a really great story and it’s so interesting and, oh, they were Christians and –”

There were nothing but cursory mentions of God in the book. I’m not saying that I think the Żabińskis were bad people just because they didn’t God it up enough to satisfy the likes of me — far from it; they were heroes — but I did feel a little misled. I’d expected there to be much more in there about how their faith informed their decision to join the Underground, and it just wasn’t in there. And, from what I could gather, they were Catholic. Get your facts straight, publishers. That’s just lazy.

I think that the Żabińskis’ story is incredible, and I think they deserved a better write-up than they got. I hope that, someday, some other writer does this story justice and washes the memory of The Zookeeper’s Wife from my brain.

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6 Comments »

  1. […] Holocaust books, lately. It saddens me that there are so many bad Holocaust books out there. Add The Zookeeper’s Wife to the list. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  2. Jen K Said:

    I remember enjoying this book, but it’s been quite a while since I’ve read it. I had one question about one of your comments, though:

    “And, from what I could gather, they were Catholic. Get your facts straight, publishers.”

    I’m actually an atheist, but I was raised Catholic, and in Germany. I’ve always considered Catholicism to be a branch of Christianity, and that it’s more of a Catholicism vs Prostantism type of thing. From what I gather from your statement, though, you seem to consider Christianity and Catholicism as distinct from each other. My question is whether this an American take on religion or am I just misinterpreting you? To me saying I’m Catholic would just be adding specifics, like saying “I’m of German descent” rather than “I’m of European descent” – both would be true, one would simply be more detailed.

    • Jelinas Said:

      Hey, Jen K, the CBR Beast,

      No, no, you’re totally interpreting me correctly. The short answer to your question is this:

      Catholics believe:
      Faith + Works = Salvation

      Christians believe:
      Faith = Salvation + Works

      A nuanced distinction, but an important one, and the reason why the Protestants protested in the first place.

      I think a lot of Americans think the same thing that you do, most Catholics especially, and even some Protestants.

      I guess some would say that it would be more accurate to say that it’s more of a distinction between Catholics and Protestants, and not between Catholics and Christians, but I believe that what the Catholic Church essentially teaches (see above formula, which I know is a gross oversimplification) is not consistent with what the Bible has to say about salvation. I believe that if you’re adding works to faith for salvation, you’re negating the faith, and the formula you’re essentially left with is:

      Works = Salvation

      And that’s not the gospel of Jesus Christ. He says that whoever would believe in Him would have eternal life, not whoever is a good person and does the right things.

      I hope that answers the basic question you’re asking. I could say loads more on the topic, but don’t want to spray you with the hose when all you asked for was a glass of water. 😉

      On a side note, I had no idea you were German, much less raised in Germany!! That’s ossom!! 😀 I visited Germany briefly a few summers ago (down in Herrnhut and Zittau; most of my trip was spent in the Czech Republic).

      • Jen K. Said:

        Thanks for the answer! I’m actually half-German. My mom’s German, and I was there from K-7, so some of the more formative years :p I learned to speak English first, but read German first. I lived in Bavaria, about two hours from Munich. I love Prague, though.

      • Jelinas Said:

        MAN, that is so ossom!! I would’ve given my left arm to be able to speak German well in high school and college (it was my foreign language).

        I’m trying to learn Czech now, but, MAN, it is a CRAZY-HARD language. Beautiful, though.

  3. […] autobiography on a friend’s bookshelf and asked to borrow it. She also insisted that I take The Zookeeper’s Wife. Suffice it to say that I thought this book was the better of the […]


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