Brandishing the Sword of Knowledge: Examining the Human Condition in Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife

Max Frazier (formerly Despain)

Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife was not the story she was looking for when the poet and author began researching the Bialowieża forest in Poland. Her grandfather immigrated to America before World War II, and he regaled her with fantastic stories about a primeval forest in his native land where ancient animals roam wild lands in the present day. She wanted to find out how those animals got there. In an interview with Ira Flatow of National Public Radio’s Science Friday Ackerman describes how her historical account of Antonina Zabinski’s radical acts of compassion unfolded when the author began researching the Bialowieża forest preserve, where she learned that Jan Zabinski and his wife were not only crucial participants in preserving animals of the forest sanctuary but also in preserving Jewish lives during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw in World War II. The full title of Ackerman’s book, The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story, warns readers that she will be engaging in a distinctly human topic: warfare. But hers is a different kind of war story. What she brings to a long history of war narrative is a perspective noticeable outside the norms of the genre because her historical account is the story of a civilian woman in war-torn Warsaw told by a civilian woman—a poet and author with a passion for the natural world and more than 60 years of distance influencing the tale. Ultimately, Ackerman offers a paradox: an emotionally charged, fresh telling of a well-known story of Jewish annihilation in World War II that becomes all the more effective for its critical examination of our role as humans in the world and unique animals in the natural order.

To study what is so remarkably different in Diane Ackerman’s telling of war requires understanding what is typical in war stories. People generally expect that war stories are true accounts of heroism, usually shown as courage in battle: warriors writing about their human experience. When we see the subtitle A War Story we anticipate battle scenes and soldiers’ experiences. Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien comes to mind as someone who presents those scenes and has argued about what a true war story isn’t:

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil. (65)

Picking apart his points, we find the most important structures of Ackerman’s work emerging: morality, virtue, human behavior, rectitude, and salvage. Because Ackerman engages with the natural world and humans as opposed to the battlefield, she addresses the things that O’Brien insists shouldn’t be there, finding that, outside of the experiences of battle, there are civilians and soldiers who are moral, virtuous, and courageous. Her characters remind us that people have redeeming qualities offered in contrast with characters demonstrating the worst of humanity’s flaws shown through warfare. Perhaps the most striking difference in her work is that traditional war stories emerge from the firsthand perspective of major battle atrocities while Ackerman writes as a historian studying a woman who, while directly terrorized by acts of war, was not a combatant. Even so, Ackerman’s unusual perspective does not remove The Zookeeper’s Wife from the category of war story, and it’s conceivably a fresher read for its unusual viewpoint. Her war story suggests that the cost of our human higher reasoning and creative expression seems to be the contrasting end of the human spectrum: conscious and atrocious warfare. By juxtaposing these ideas with the unconscious characteristics of the flora and fauna of the natural world, she highlights the war and art that is uniquely human, in both the worst and the best ways.

Beginning with humanity, then, Ackerman defines the idea of heroes differently than we might expect. Later in the same NPR interview, Ackerman notes that people think of heroes only in terms of violent combat, sometimes overlooking heroic people who have committed “radical acts of compassion.” Early in her narrative she establishes Antonina’s exceptional empathy as she offers Jan’s description of his wife emitting “metaphysical waves” of what Ackerman calls “shamanistic empathy” with animals (26). Antonina anticipates the animals’ needs, based off of their individual natures, and by the end of the first chapter, Ackerman has defined her as a “mammal mother herself and protectress of many others,” tying this description into the Warsaw city symbol: a mermaid who is half woman and half animal, “brandishing a sword” (28). Choosing words such as “mammal mother,” Ackerman provokes readers to remember that humans, too, are mammals and animals, and that Antonina’s empathy for both humans and animals will repeatedly save not only her life, but the lives of those she is trying to protect throughout the war.

Weaving themes about the blurring lines between what is human and animal, and criticizing immoral human behavior while making the animals’ plight an anthropomorphic mirror of human suffering, Ackerman offers a glimpse into the attacks on Warsaw that creates fresh pain for readers for a war that had grown remote over the more than half century since its brutal beginnings. When Ackerman quotes Antonina’s journal–the cat mothers “crazy with fear, were grabbing their young by the scruff of the neck and pacing their cages, anxiously looking for a better place to hide them” (52) as the battle waged–we understand the human fear that mirrors the agitation beyond sanity that caused the caged monkeys to fight each other. She later describes herself in a bombing as “just like our lioness, fearfully moving my cub from one side of the cage to the other” (59). In the original attack, suddenly a hyena’s sobs evoke empathy for the helpless human population (53). She describes how the bombing wounds bears and allows them to escape their cages. When Polish soldiers kill the bears, the danger is clear for both these soldiers facing wounded, violent animals and for the animals trapped in their cages to face the destruction rained upon the city. When the soldiers kill all of the dangerous animals—lions, tigers, and the male elephant—while they remain secured in their enclosures, we better understand the fear behind the heartless human actions that would never happen in a time of peace. Killing the defenseless animals foreshadows the senseless violence against the Jewish population in WWII. Both are acts of violence against an unrealized impression of menace that threatens the safety of the people who control the destiny of those beings they have caged. This unreasonable violence in the specifically human act of war has been traced across Homer’s Iliad to Anthony Loyd’s My War Gone By, I Miss it So about Bosnia and beyond. Ackerman’s story fits in this trajectory of narrating human violence.

Sophisticated contemporary readers could easily extrapolate the unusual perspective in Ackerman’s story to use a new lens for viewing the conflicts in our own time. The natural tendency to compare the animals’ troubles to humans’ matches the need to compare this war story to the ongoing conflicts happening in Iraq and Afghanistan when the book was published in 2007. A zoo is an ideal site to portray the violence of war against innocent, non-combatant victims. Chronologically first, the Warsaw zoo experience, full of “wounded zebras … ribboned with blood” and seals, camels, llamas, and ostriches that “emptied into Warsaw’s streets” like “a biblical hallucination unfolding,” (60), was mirrored six decades later when Iraqi soldiers used the Baghdad zoo as a fighting position. An Army officer interviewed about his experience, Maj. Rick Nussio, described how his troops were “in the middle of the city . . . and the next thing you know there’s camels walking through our position, and monkeys in the trees, and at night you have a lion roaming free. It was very surreal, very strange.” Poet Brian Turner who served as an infantry sergeant in Iraq in 2003 wrote in his poem, “The Baghdad Zoo,” about a gunner watching a lion chase down a horse and “Eaten down to their skeletons, the giraffes / looked prehistoric, unreal, their necks / too fragile, too graceful for the 21st Century” (7-9). Antonina’s two giraffes “lay dead on the ground, legs twisted, shockingly horizontal” (61) and the similarities between the wars and the devastation wrought on both animals and humans are brought into startling relief despite the time and distance separating the events. Each works as effective metaphor when the trapped animals suffer because of human barbarous acts of war.

Turner’s emaciated giraffes and Ackerman’s description of the need to stockpile food for the remaining zoo animals to survive the winter reminds readers that those not actively engaged in waging war have a difficult time surviving. She describes how “helpers should have been cellaring beets, onions, and carrots and topping off the silos with fodder, so that wintering animals would have plenty of vitamins” (73). Shortly after, we learn that the human rations offered by the German occupation government were calculated down to the last calorie “with Germans receiving 2,613 calories, Poles 669 calories, and Jews only 184 calories” (104). Much the same as the enclosed zoo animals depending on their keepers, the people in the city of Warsaw were at the mercy of the German bureaucrats for their survival. By October 12, 1940, the Nazis “herded [Warsaw’s Jews] into a district” (105) which became known as the Warsaw Ghetto; an enclosure just as much as any of the zoo animals’ cages except that its habitat “served the Nazi goal of grinding down morale, enfeebling, humiliating, and softening up resistance” (106). Ackerman’s continuous parallels between the zoo animals and the Jewish people’s plight not only reminds readers how helpless the persecuted people were, but also how the Nazis insisted on seeing the Jews as subhuman in order to justify their inhuman attempt at mass extinction of a portion of the human species.

While the Jews were enclosed in the Warsaw Ghetto, the Nazis appropriated many of the zoo’s animals and sent them to other Third Reich locations. World-renowned German zookeeper, Lutz Heck, appears at the Zabinski’s zoo under the pretext of helping with the animals, shipping them “on loan” to German-controlled zoos, but Ackerman describes how neither Jan nor Antonina trust him (94). The real historical figure, Heck, affords Ackerman the opportunity to delve into her naturalist interests as a way to criticize Nazi hypocrisy. She describes Heck’s position on breeding as surprising when she writes that he “chose to ignore the accepted theory of hybrid vigor” (91). She forms the argument that being human is already a pure breed because “All present-day humans descend … specifically from a genetic bottleneck of only about one hundred individuals” (91). Her finishing blow is that more contemporary studies prove that 92% of the world’s Jews in 1931 descended from four women and that all of humanity can be traced back to one person (92). In retrospect, the Nazi philosophy was wrongheaded, even for the theories of their time. But even as she describes the natural ethnic cleansing that exists in the animal kingdom, she dismisses the Holocaust as different from those because it was “far more premeditated, high-tech, and methodical” (92). Even if Heck were somehow subscribing to this natural order of ethnic cleansing when excusing his role in the Nazi genocide against the Jews, he lacked empathy. He took the zoo’s best remaining animals for the Third Reich and brutally slaughtered the rest for his own gain, which is all the proof the Zabinskis needed to know that he couldn’t be trusted.

A New Year’s Eve shooting party leading into 1940 showed Heck’s true colors and offered the close comparison of Nazi hypocritical discrimination for the rest of the narrative. In an effort to gain favor with his SS friends, Heck hosted a traditional European holiday shooting party, a celebration intended only for the noise and not for actual killing. But he changed the custom so that the SS privileged few could shoot “penned and caged animals for sport” (95).  Antonina describes the sunny winter day as a moment “beyond politics or war, of sheer gratuitous slaughter” (95). Ackerman pushes the comparison farther as a “kind of pornography in which the brief frisson of killing outweighed the animals’ lives,” and Antonina asks in her journal, “How many humans will die like this in the coming months?” (96). In a complex portrayal of human and animal suffering partially brought on by the well-intentioned human compulsion for conservation that lead these animals to be trapped in enclosures, Ackerman brilliantly layers the ideas of guilt, fault, and blame so that no one category of person is either entirely blameless or entirely guilty. Humans caged the animals for the virtuous intent of conservation, yet there remains the complication of containing wild creatures, which ultimately put them in the position to be brutally slaughtered by people with evil intentions. Through her viewpoint, the chaotic threads of human influence weave far too tangled a web for any one party to be purely evil or purely good.

Ackerman clearly sides against the hypocrisy in Nazi policy and rallies behind the heroism found in radical, if sometimes illogical, acts of compassion. As a naturalist, she finds the Nazi love for animals that seems so incongruent with their passion for exterminating part of the human race to be the most incomprehensible point of departure. She describes how “[u]nder the Third Reich, animals became noble, mythic, almost angelic” (85) but then she describes how Mengele had the freedom to operate on humans without painkillers, countering with “a leading biologist was once punished for not giving worms enough anesthesia during an experiment” (86). She depicts this instance as a “remarkable example of Nazi zoophilia” (86). The purposefully denigrating term defined as “attraction to animals that acts as an outlet for some form of sexual energy, formerly not implying sexual intercourse or bestiality” makes the Nazi’s fixation on animals tantamount to sexual deviance. Readers begin to see the Nazi’s perverse cruelty against Jews and perverse pleasure in animals as linked into aberrant characteristics of their philosophy that make them despicable.

Despite the ever-present science behind the Nazi policies, Ackerman easily dismantles the Germans into something unpleasantly animalistic while making animals themselves quite appealing. She demonstrates the blurred boundaries between humans and animals to both highlight Nazi brutality and to emphasize the radical compassion in other people. Some German soldiers watch the close relationship between people and their animals, and still brutally slaughter the animals for consumption. They observe Antonina’s son Ryś playing with his pet pig and, when the pig trustingly comes to them, they “dragged Moryś off squealing to be butchered” (124). Later, Ryś forms a friendship with a rooster and in an even more intense form of brutality, German soldiers say Ryś and a helper will pay for the men’s comrades’ lost lives, suggesting they will kill the Polish children while Antonina helplessly clutches her infant daughter to her chest. Out of sight, they pretend to shoot the boys, but in reality shoot the pet chicken. The loss similarly affects her son when he loses a close friend in his animal companion; even if the soldiers were not aware of the bond, they knew the effect of the false execution on Antonina. Later she struggles with the contradictions in their actions when their cruel prank contrasts with their concern, urging her to sit down before she faints. She writes, “maybe their monstrous hearts contain some human feeling; and if that’s so, then pure evil doesn’t really exist” (281). Ackerman positions this moment next to the Russian entry into Warsaw when the soldiers loot and pillage the zoo. She shows Antonina finding the Russian words of her childhood to use the concept of moral responsibility to defuse the moment. She reprimands the leader with: “Not allowed!  Your mother! Your wife! Your sister!  Do you understand?” and Ackerman adds that she touches his shoulder and “he looked surprised, and she saw the manic fury draining from his eyes, his mouth relaxing as if she’s smoothed the fabric of his face with a hot iron.” (283). Again Antonina writes about the event that if words had the power to stop the man in the midst of bloodlust, “maybe there’s some hope for the future of humanity after all” (284). Perhaps Antonina’s hope influences Ackerman who shows some of the best of humanity emerging from the catastrophe of war.

In a casual moment of describing a painstakingly thorough insect collection put together by Dr. Syzmon Tenenbaum, a learned Jewish man who died in the Warsaw Ghetto, Ackerman writes that his unique vision and artistry would be lost if contemporary archivists remove the insects from the original collection boxes and intersperse them with other insects in a larger display. She writes that, as a collector, he belongs to an “exotic suborder of Homo sapiens sapiens (the animal that knows and knows it knows)” (151). The term refers to modern man, but Ackerman subtly argues that, because we are classified as knowing we know, we as a species should know better than to behave as immorally as we do, particularly in the brutality of war. She pairs human classification with a new chapter opening in the striking difference between the Nazi obsession with pest control and the Nazi Warsaw Ghetto Labor Bureau director, Ziegler, who had been fascinated with Tenenbaum’s insect collection. The man acts in kindness when he brings Tenenbaum’s dog to the Zabinskis because her life was so difficult in the Ghetto with her owner, but of course he does not raise a finger to aid the man who built the collection that so captivated him. We’ve witnessed Ziegerler’s intentional and unintentional humanity only to learn about the senseless extermination that happened once the Nazis had “recategorized Jews, Gypsies, and Slavs as nonhuman species” (155). We know, as homo sapiens sapiens, that all the Nazis should have known better than to accept the inaccurate recategorization and to treat these people as a pestilence that needed to be eradicated from the earth.

In the face of the reclassification, Ackerman shows how extraordinarily human many Jews became in the face of “pestilence, famine, and cold” (156). Far from the vermin Nazi propaganda made the Jews out to be, the people Ackerman highlights are models of human transcendence. She describes Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Ghetto’s Hasidic rabbi whose diary and sermons show someone who had to “reconcile the agony of the Holocaust with Hasidism, a dancing religion that teaches love, joy, and celebration” (156). She shows how Shapira taught transcendent meditation to “witness one’s thoughts to correct negative habits and character traits” helping students achieve “hashkatah: silencing the conscious mind” (157). Faced with suffering and denigration, the Jewish people in the Warsaw Ghetto left records of incomparable mental feats to combat their miserable existence. Ackerman found repeated instances of people turning to memories of nature and a better life to fight against the relentless oppression. She returns to Shapira’s message that people could change their brains’ diet of “cruelty and suffering” on purpose, that they could “train mentally to refocus the mind, and nourish the brain” on something like the memory of the beauty of nature to mentally escape the confines of the Ghetto (159). The genuine horror of the Warsaw Ghetto comes clearly in focus in this telling and Ackerman leaves no doubt about who the brutes are, not to be confused with her animals, and who the humans are in this tale.

Transitioning to the Zabinskis’ radical compassion, Ackerman links Shapira’s transcendence to Antonina’s special form of keeping sanity. Because nature was readily available at the zoo villa, she fills it with animals that “drew people into a timeless natural world [that was] both habitual and novel” (166). The fluidity between the human and animal boundary, at least for Antonina, is part of what makes her the ideal protectress and nurturer for her “family,” including the hidden “Guests,” animals, and her biological son. When she defuses a hair-raising encounter with the Gestapo over a fire near the zoo, her husband describes her quick thinking as unsurprising and expected. Antonina quotes him in her journals as saying, “It’s as if she’s porous … at a moment’s notice, she can lose her Homo sapiens nature and transform herself into a panther, badger or muskrat!” (235). The correlation Jan makes is that he thinks his wife can “emit waves of calm and understanding” that engage what Ackerman identifies in modern science as “mirror neurons” that help create the stillness she projects in the people she encounters (237). Ultimately Ackerman offers us Antonina’s continued query into the tenuous boundary between human and animal when the empathetic woman writes, “But who knows, maybe one day we’ll discover the secrets of animal behavior, and maybe one day we’ll master our bleaker instincts” (239). But later Antonina also asks why “animals can sometimes subdue their predatory ways in only a few months, while humans, despite centuries of refinement, can quickly grow more savage than any beast?” (239). As if struggling against this tendency and unwittingly following Shapira’s advice to retrain the mind, Antonina focuses her efforts on helping her villa “Guests” maintain their humanity even while in hiding from the Nazis.

Ackerman describes how the Ghetto “had erased the subtle mysticism of everyday life” for many people (208). Antonina noted in her journals that her “Guests” needed more than refuge, “They desperately needed hope that a safe haven even existed, that the war’s horrors would one day end” (209). Ackerman notes that “to the extent possible, [the Zabinksis’] was a bearable, at times even festive, Underground existence” (209). Antonina writes that “the atmosphere in our house was quite pleasant . . . sometimes even happy” (209-10). That the villa could be almost normal amid the midst of the German occupation was an important point for Ackerman. Continuing the comparison between the zoo animals and the Jewish persecution, the happy home that housed both animals and people before the war is the perfect site for the “Guests’” transition from Nazi persecution to a new life of freedom.

Much of the happiness and humanity of the Zabinski household appears in the form of music, often with piano concerts in the evenings (191). If Ackerman has implied that war is a strictly human endeavor and that the violence and sustained cruelty is not mimicked elsewhere in nature, she also emphasizes that other solely human act as the opposite end of the spectrum: the production of art. When examining why humans make art, Richard Hickman writes, “Aesthetic experience generates art; the urge to create aesthetic significance – to make art – is often in response to the specialness or significance of an experienced event” (145). As humans who “know we know,” we feel compelled to reproduce our experiences through myriad media in order to better make sense of our world.

Hidden in the villa and code named “Starling,” the famous sculptor Magdalena Gross helps highlight Ackerman’s point by her presence. Part of her fame centered on her depictions of the zoo animals from before the war. She was noted for capturing animals “on the brink of a familiar motion or with distinctly human traits” that remind readers of that thin line between human and animal (170). She eventually became a Guest at the villa, her fame making it too difficult for her to claim anonymity on the streets of Warsaw. Perhaps an example of what Antonina’s humanity could do for the people passing through the villa, after the Warsaw Uprising, the sculptor and her long-time love (and now husband she married in hiding) moved to Lublin where she “met the city’s avant-garde art world” (306). Even as the war still waged, the irrepressible need to produce art erupted there and a new form of Poland’s subversive puppet theater formed with Magdalena Gross producing lifelike facial nuances on the puppets’ features (306).

After the war, the couple returned to Warsaw in 1945 and Gross’s first sculpture was a duckling turned duck while she waited for the zoo to have wild animals again. Gross’s vivacity along with descriptions of Warsaw’s “infectious spirit of daring” from the then president of the American Federation of Polish Jews, Dr. Joseph Tenenbaum (307), offers an image of human artistic vitality that insistently overcomes the brutality of human warfare. Although Jan Zabinski quit his new, native species zoo after only two years because his Warsaw underground backstory was incompatible with the new Soviet regime, he developed a cultural zoo in 50 books that both “illuminated the lives of animals and sued for conservation” (309). He broadcast a popular radio show and fought to preserve the European Bison located in Bialowieża Forest (309). In the face of Soviet oppression that shared similarities with the Nazis, once again the people turned to art in order to express their humanity.

With the war over and the Zabinskis’ role complete, Jan’s later interviews describing Antonina as a brave housewife who “seemed to shed her own human traits and become a panther or hyena. Then, able to adopt their fighting instinct, she arose as a fearless defender of her kind” are not the end of this story for Diane Ackerman (314). She recognizes the heroic feats offered by these seemingly ordinary people who, as Jan put it, only did it “because it was the right thing to do” (315)  The book would seem to reach a logical end with Ackerman’s simple sentences “Antonina dies in1971, her husband three years later” (315). But, turning the page, we are brought to the Bialowieża Forest Ackerman visited in 2005, and an examination of the long-term impacts of the Zabinskis’ and other humans’ actions.

The sum total of Ackerman’s inspection of the zookeeper’s wife ends up with a larger look at the human role in our world and our universe. From the individual to the global, she shows how our particular species has had a profound impact on the world’s environment. In a 2015 interview for Women’s History Month, Ackerman tells Jessica Hundley, “I appear to have a lot of science in my work, I suppose, but I think of myself as a nature writer, if what we mean by nature is the full sum of creation. I’m a great fan of the universe, which enchants me down to all the vivid details. The world revealing itself, human nature revealing itself, is seductive and startling, and that’s always fascinating enough to send words down my spine.” What for other people would be chills down their spines are, for Ackerman, words. These words form a narrative that is so compelling that we can’t help but look around us at the continued barbarity of the human impulse to wage war and question why we, as a species, cannot overcome what Antonina described as our “bleaker instincts.” When Tim O’Brien addresses true war stories exhorting readers, “You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you. If you don’t care for obscenity, you don’t care for the truth; if you don’t care for the truth, watch how you vote. Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty” (66), he chooses embarrassment as if he, too, realizes that, as humans who know we know, we should know better. The acts of war should be unbearable out of context and viewed with a reasoning mind. The instincts and behavior offered by both Ackerman and O’Brien seem much more primal and uncivilized than the behavior she has shown us in the animals featured in her book.

In the final chapter, beginning with a complete absence of humans, Ackerman offers us a sensory moment where “time seems to evaporate” (316) and we join animals so wild and primitive that they seem untouched by the civilizations outside Bialowieża Forest. Only one paragraph into this final chapter, we understand that humans sometimes provide the wild horses with hay and salt. Soon the concept of “re-created aurochsen” and the human impulse to preserve the beautiful forest intrude on the idea that the site is primordial and original. Describing five-hundred-year-old oak trees, 12,000 species of animals, and myriad flora, Ackerman comments that it’s “small wonder” that the forest is Poland’s only natural national monument and also a World Heritage Site (318). Because it’s a strict preserve, “all traces of humankind, especially noise, are discouraged” and the dead and decaying trees are left to support a “throng of creatures” (319). Yet the preserve is what it is because of human intervention. With an eruption of starlings, Ackerman manages to bring Antonina, Magdalena and Luzt Heck into one sentence linking heroine, victim, and perpetrator with a common love and reminding readers how easily we could find ourselves classified in each of these categories; that we, as humans, are one species (319).

In a deft twist of perspective, Ackerman shifts the language to the political agenda of not only the Nazis, who created “near tarpans” and “near aurochsen” but also the present day “Polish Patriots” who describe these animals as counterfeits (319-20). She pulls together commentary about Heck’s motivations, ultimately quoting a reviewer who claims that what Heck did in back breeding aurochsen “may have been a folly, but it was not a crime” (320). She produces an oft cited passage from C. William Beebe in the controversy over back breeding which turns the conversation into her own structure for the story of the Zabinskis. Beebe writes “The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed” (320), confirming Ackerman’s argument that, out of the brutality of the human impulse to wage war also emerges the human impulse to create art. And while the Nazis turned a blind eye to the immorality of the genocide they committed against the Jews, categorizing it as the extinction of a nonhuman species in order to justify their actions, they also produced beautiful new species and preserved an important ecological site, even if their conscious intentions were not nearly so pure.  If we’ve been asked to see this wilderness differently, as a human construct, an art form, and an artifact of human culture, now Ackerman brings us back to Warsaw where we’re asked to see the city in its relief against the forest.

Our last glimpse of Warsaw before the final chapter was as “a city in tatters” (302). With the echo of entropy, the decline into disorder, Ackerman portrays the city as “everything rendered down to its constituent molecules” (303). News captions describe “a wilderness of ruins,” a link Ackerman makes with the wilderness of Bialowieża Forest (303). In the final chapter, Warsaw has “tree-lined avenues” offering “ruins mix[ed] with new trends” and a sense that order emerges from the chaos of the war. Describing the human humor that locates the Ministry of Justice in the former KGB headquarters, and the commitment to using as many of the original stones as possible when rebuilding the city after the war (321-22), Ackerman offers readers a human ingenuity and spirit that has survived war and thrived in its creative production of the city. The colorful mosaic of the street Ackerman found described pre-war as having “some of the pale pink of human skin,” reminds us that many of the “constituent molecules” that had been pulverized in our earlier image of the city are present as human remains, unrecognizable in molecular form, but every bit as much a building block for the present-day city as the original stones re-set into the streets (322, 303).

In the denouement of an epic tale, Ackerman walks us from her first-person perspective into an old part of the city where we will find the Warsaw city symbol: the mermaid we were told about in the first chapter that we have forgotten in the tension of the narrative filling the intervening pages. Ackerman calls her a chimera, “a defender half woman, half animal” who is wielding a sword (323) and whose blurred human animal boundary and weapon of war recall the fragility of what defines us as human and what also makes us animals. With Bialowieża Forest a construct, and the city a wilderness, Ackerman insists that readers understand that the boundaries we erect as Homo sapiens sapiens are false and they reveal that, despite knowing we know, we often remain ignorant. In our best efforts to conquer and quell nature, we still do not understand our role in this world or this universe, but we can know that the natural world overcomes our actions against it.

Ackerman opens up a new perspective on humanity with the telling of Antonina Zabinski’s war story. The author cannot make a final statement about humanity, only noting that we are radically compassionate and radically evil. We creatively construct and barbarically tear down. Every human possesses chimeric qualities in our capacity to be both human and animal. In this historical narrative of heroics, Ackerman requires us to try on many human and animal identities to help address the larger questions of what it means to be human. And in the end, when she describes the possibility of Antonina gathering water from the mermaid well, the “life gurgl[ing] up from the earth” (323), is Ackerman’s final stance that nature, in all of its forms, prevails over any human actions to quell or control its existence.




Works Cited

Ackerman, Diane.  The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2007. Print.

– – -. “Interview with Icons: Poet and Author Diane Ackerman.” Int. Jessica Hundley. March 2015. Web. July 9, 2015. n. pag. Web. July 9, 2015

– – -. “The Zookeeper’s Wife.” Int. Ira Flatow. Jan. 18, 2008. n. pag. Web. July 10, 2015.

Hickman, Richard.  Why We Make Art and Why it is Taught. Chicago: Intellect Books, 2010. Print.

Holmes, Michael. “Baghdad Zoo a Different Battle.”  CNN. April 16, 2003.  n. pag. Web. July 11, 2015.

O’Brien, Tim.  The Things They Carried. New York: Broadway, 1998. Print.

Tenenbaum in Reply to Arciszewski Reiterates Charges Poles Failed to Aid Warsaw Jews.” Jewish Telegraphic Agency. May 3, 1945. n. pag. Web. July 12, 2015.

Turner, Brian.  “The Baghdad Zoo.” Here, Bullet. Farmington, ME: Alice James Books, 2005. Print.

“Zoophilia”. Oxford English Dictionary. n. pag. Web. July 11, 2015.