Two by two: a wartime rescue of people and animals Decades ago, I proposed an essay for National Geographic that would carry me into the primeval forest skirting Poland’s border with Belarus, to witness animals of the sort paleolithic artists once painted in ochre on the cave walls at Lascaux. The world of our early ancestors, with its giant bison, ur-horses, and other ribbed originals fascinated me, in part because in it animals occupied a niche where tasty and holy combined. I’d also heard that the living fossils haunting this Polish preserve had something to do with Nazi perversity. I didn’t know, when I proposed the story to my editor at National Geographic, that I was sharing some of Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering’s longing to revive extinct animals; their obsession sprang from racist motives, but in one of those twists history is peppered with, it allowed good to triumph instead.
As it turned out, National Geographic had a photographer sailing to French Frigate Shoals, in the Hawaiian archipelago, to chronicle the scant few remaining monk seals left on earth, and my editor dispatched me there. But over the next dozen years, miscellaneous facts, lore, insights and other mind-morsels began to accrete around the Polish horses and bison, until I woke up one day primed and coming down with a book. That’s how it always happens, a telegram from my subconscious slipped under the door of my awareness. Ã”Ã”You’re falling in love with this facet of life,” its mind-ink reads, Ã”Ã”find out why, and engage it in words.” And so I rejoined my quest where I’d left it, and layer by layer, a bizarre story began emerging that’s as heartful as it is unlikely, a little-known drama of WWII, about two Christian zookeepers who risked their lives to save more than 300 Jews by hiding them at their zoo. They also adopted many orphaned wild animals, which they raised (at times hilariously) inside their villa, and I found both the human and animal stories compelling.
Most of all, I was drawn to Antonina, the zookeeper’s wife, a woman of exceptional empathy and alert senses, who had a mysterious gift for calming ornery animals or people, including German soldiers. According to her scientist husband, Jan, who prided himself on being cynical and a hard-nosed realist, Antonina viewed animals as cousins or alter-egos, and they responded to her with an almost magical trust. Also, as a nature lover, I was both fascinated and horrified by the Nazi plan to control the genetic destiny of the planet. Nazism sought to alter the world’s ecosystems, not simply at the level of nations and politics, but in the genetic spirals of evolution, by extinguishing other countries’ native species of plants and animals including some human beings. And yet the Nazis loved animals and revered nature, going to great lengths to protect it, even trying to resurrect extinct species and their habitats. Antonina and her husband were able to capitalize on that paradox.
Because their story was so dramatic, I wrote my book, The Zookeeper’s Wife, as narrative nonfiction, and to paint the scenes in accurate sensory detail, I studied Poland’s natural world, which provided a steady stream of small astonishments. The sights, sounds and smells of a zoo depend on the animals it keeps, and I had such fun learning the ways of gibbons, badgers, arctic hares, lynxes and the other animals that either lived inside the villa or shared the zoo grounds.
Many wonderful details loomed on my visits to the modern Warsaw Zoo and the old villa, where I loafed and prowled for hours. Standing on their second-story terrace, facing Old Town, I could survey the city fom the same height and angle Antonina and Jan did, especially since the historic downtown had been meticulously rebuilt after the war. When I lay down in their bedroom, peered out their windows, stood on their terrace and leaned against its waist-high wall where salmon-colored tiles collect dew at dawn, knelt in what had been Antonina’s garden, I could sample the texture of her life.
I felt that her story needed to be told, because it’s a tale of heroic compassion, something Ã”Ã”ordinary” people rise to in every era, though we hear little about it. Warsaw’s age-old symbol is a mermaid wielding a sword, and it’s a chimera I think Antonina would have identified with: a being half animal, half woman. What a privilege it’s been peering through the lens of her sensibility, living the war and seeing the natural world through her eyes.
Diane Ackerman is the author of several nonfiction books, including A Natural History of the Senses and An Alchemy of Mind, as well as volumes of poetry. The Zookeeper’s Wife is her latest book.