Diane Ackerman creates a new world every time she writes a sentence. A teacher and naturalist, the author has tackled everything from our own human wits (A Natural History of the Senses ) to monk seals and poetry. Hell, she even had a molecule named after her along the way—the dianeackerone. But her descriptive powers are at their most heartbreaking in her latest book, The Zookeeper's Wife , a nonfiction story that centers on Antonina and Jan Zabinski, Polish zookeepers who survived the bombing and Nazi occupation of Warsaw during World War II. With details drawn from Antonina's diaries and Ackerman's immersive reporting, the book chronicles the couple's struggle to keep the zoo open, not only to house their few remaining animals, but to use as a base for Warsaw's Polish Underground—ultimately hiding nearly 300 Polish Jews and other refugees in their home and surrounding zoo buildings in the course of the war. Frightening, inspiring and even funny, the book celebrates a band of people who refused to let terror sap their basic rights—to love, laugh and stay alive. WW spoke to the author, who will appear as part of the Portland Arts&Lecture Series next Tuesday, Nov. 20, about unlikely heroes, prehistoric horses and Nazis.
How did you stumble onto Jan and Antonina's story? I hear it had to do with prehistoric horses.
Originally, I was going to write about wild horses [that live in a primeval forest in Poland] for National Geographic …. I found that there were more than horses, there were bison and aurochs [wild cows] there, and Jan Zabinski, the director of the Warsaw Zoo, was the world's authority on those bison. The forest had only survived [World War II] because of Nazi perversity. Hitler and the high-ranking Nazis had decided that it was going to be a pure Aryan game reserve after the war. And I thought, "This is really strange." Then I heard about the diaries that Antonina had kept. I know a Polish woman [in America], who sent her uncle to the various used bookstores in Warsaw until we found a copy of [the diaries]. I only really started focusing on writing the book about three years ago. I had to come up to speed on World War II, and this is nonfiction. So I'm not allowed to make anything up.
That's something I admire about Zookeeper : You never forget that the characters are real people.
That's the only fair thing to do. I could have told this as a historical fiction, but then people would have just said, "Well, you just made this up." No, it's the real story that is remarkable…. I was really drawn to Antonina's towering compassion and almost telepathic relationship with animals. After all, she and her husband were Christians; they might well have survived the war without any danger, and yet they risked their lives and the lives of their family members and their young son for 300 people. Strangers, most of them…. This woman was, well, she was an amazing example of what ordinary people can rise to—and do rise to—every single day. But we don't hear about these things, because for some reason we like to highlight the worst in human nature instead of the best, and we only seem to think of heroes in terms of warriors, combat, not in terms of subversive acts of altruism.
Do you pick up your subjects' habits while researching them? Do you dream of them?
I don't dream of them. But when I work on any book, it becomes the lens on how I see the world. As if everything that happens in my life is magnetized to the purpose of that book.
Your descriptions are so vivid: the smell of a bomb exploding in a bakery, the calls of birds in the zoo. How do you stop yourself from embellishing the truth?
I studied the natural history of Poland, and I knew that whatever was true now was true for Antonina [then]. She was a very alert observer of the natural world. Her diary notes are extremely vivid. So it was easy. For example, when she described the bombing of the zoo and the escaping of the animals, and the animals are running through the streets of Warsaw, I know from my own experience that when alligators and crocodiles run, they can press up onto their toes and trot. I've seen them do it. So in describing the scene, I could honestly say that is what they were doing….
What was the most difficult scene to re-create?
[One was] the New Year's Eve shooting party [where Nazi officers shot zoo animals in their cages]. Because even as you and I speak right now I can see Antonina inside sitting on [her] bed with her son trying to read Robinson Crusoe , but just being so horrified that she was literally frozen, and her son tugging at her sleeve. I can see it perfectly.
You come to some startling conclusions about the Nazis in Zookeeper.
It was really quite surprising how green, by our standards, they were. They led the world in environmentalism. They had a reverence that bordered on mythic or angelic for animals. But at the same time, at absolutely the same time, they had no problem killing someone else's animals. They had no problem operating on concentration-camp children without painkillers…but they wouldn't want to operate on worms without painkillers. They did not want to just breed perfect humans, but also breed perfect plants and animals. And actually redirect the course of evolution. I hadn't understood until I started writing this book the fullness of their lunacy.
What do you want readers to take away?
One lesson is…how do we survive with grace in a mutilated world? How does anyone? That was a question for them now, and a question for us now. Genocide is taking place now, all over the planet as it was then. Genocide is perfectly natural, unfortunately. It's most famously seen among lions…who drive off the male and kill the young, and immediately breed or rape with the females to produce their own bloodline. But the difference is that we can rise above that. We don't always play by nature's rules.
Diane Ackerman appears as part of Literary Arts' Portland Arts&Lectures series at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway, 248-4335. 7:30 pm Tuesday, Nov. 20. $10-$26. Visit literary-arts.org or call 227-2583 for tickets.