Chosen by my bookclub, this non-fiction book was not exactly what I was expecting. The story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, this story significantly changed my perceptions of what happened during World War II in Poland. Jan and Antonina Zabinski were animal lovers, deeply attached to the Warsaw Zoo and its animals. As the zookeeper's wife Antonina raised orphaned animals in the family's home alongside their young son while Jan was rightfully proud of the zoo he was shepherding so carefully. But they were living in times destined to be rent apart by a devastating war, calling upon them to make a moral stand and then to turn that moral stand into action.
Jan fought against the Nazis during the Blitzkreig while Antonina held the homefront and feared for her son, Rysz, and for the animals left in her care. And of course, once the Nazis won, the fears increased. The animals not killed outright in the bombings suffered two fates: either be shipped to Berlin to the zoo there or be shot during a Nazi Christmas hunting party. And while the zoo ceased to be a zoo by any definition, the Zabinskis were allowed to continue living there through its other incarnations, giving them the means to smuggle more than 300 Jews out of the Warsaw ghetto, saving them from certain death in the camps. Jan worked throughout the war, helping the Polish Underground, smuggling human beings, and helping with low levels of sabotage. Antonina was more confined in the role she could play, especially during a difficult pregnancy, but without her calm head and quick thinking as the matriarch to a zoo-full of hidden people, all could have been lost.
The Zabinski's story is one that shows the heroism of the common people. It proves that more people than we sometimes suspect avoided the moral depravity that war brings in its wake. And it is a compelling and wonderful story of truly good people. So why was the book itself just the slightest bit dull? Ackerman makes many digressions from her main story, telling of the history that brought Poland to this pass, stories of acquaintances of the Zabinskis who really have almost nothing to do with the purported story here, and other bits that caused the story to drag instead of leap along. She detailed long lists of people or insects or animals that served no purpose in the narrative and she occasionally waxed overly lyrical about pieces of the natural world (a tendency I put down to her love of gardening and natural history as evidenced by her other book topics).
The book was strongest when she concentrated on the terrors that the Zabinskis faced, small and large, and when she allowed Antonina's journal to speak for her. There was little beyond superficial information about what sort of man Jan was, leaving the impression that he was a silent, rather cold person while she rounded out Antonina well, thanks to descriptions from those who had known her and to her own writings. But her attention to Antonina faltered at times and it was at those times that it became easy to put the book down and pursue other stories. This is a story that should have been riveting. It deserves to be told. But it plodded more than it ever should have.