Thinking: The House Under a Crazy Star

By David Zuckerman

The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story. By Diane Ackerman. W.W. Norton, $23.95

From the first days of the Nazi occupation of Poland, and right up until the war’s end, the grounds of the Warsaw Zoo harbored a menagerie of human and animal refugees. At great personal risk, zookeeper Jan Żabiński and his wife Antonina leveraged every resource they had—the zoo’s grounds, its many buildings and
facilities, Jan’s standing as an esteemed zoologist—to provide a safe haven for escaping Jews. Jan too, unbeknownst to Antonina, aided the Resistance by storing arms and equipment. Despite its daily perils, life at the Żabiński villa (Resistance codename: The House Under a Crazy Star) was uncommonly pleasant.
Home to an ever-changing cast of artists and intellectuals, the villa also sheltered a “biblical hallucination” of animals that at times included an eagle, a chicken, a house-trained badger, and an arctic rabbit, among others. (Only smaller creatures remained after a Nazi zoologist shipped off many of the zoo’s large animals for breeding and to supplement German collections, then invited Wehrmacht officers to slaughter the rest on a “hunting expedition.”)

In her seventh work of nonfiction, Diane Ackerman—also a poet and journalist—again proves capable of both exhaustive research and beautifully lyrical prose. Drawing heavily from photographs and diaries, she renders the zoo and its residents in vivid, ultra-fine detail. Absent a strong narrative arc, it’s this defining of personalities (human and otherwise) that color Ackerman’s account and lend it poignancy. At times the bounty of Ackerman’s research overwhelms (she’s fond of lists) or distracts (expect asides on the histories of penicillin and the pogo stick). But other tangents, such as a discussion of the Nazis’ reverence for nature and how they sought to extend their eugenic enterprise to flora and fauna, are illuminating and evidence of the author’s own deep concern for plant and animal life.

—David Zuckerman

Issue 25

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