The Sunday Conversation: 'Zookeeper's Wife' author Diane Ackerman sees parallels between World War II and today

As German bombers savagely attacked Warsaw in late September 1939, a surreal scene began unfolding in the streets. The city's renowned zoo was hit hard, and panicked animals were racing through the city’s Old Town. Many were shot, but the slaughter had just begun.

When a Nazi entourage visited the zoo on New Year’s Eve, SS members killed other animals for sheer sport. As she watched in horror, Antonina Zabinski, who ran the zoo with her husband, asked herself: "How many humans will die like this in the coming months?"

Adolf Hitler would go on to exterminate more than 380,000 Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. But the Zabinskis didn't stand by and watch. As told in Diane Ackerman's award-winning 2007 book "The Zookeeper's Wife," and now in a Focus Features movie starring Jessica Chastain, Antonina and her husband, Jan, fought back.

He joined the resistance. She ran a covert operation in which Jews were smuggled out of the ghetto and into the zoo, hidden in cages, tunnels and her home, and then transported to safety.

Ackerman has explored human behavior and the natural world in books like “A Natural History of the Senses,” and “The Zookeeper’s Wife” continues that inquiry in its portrait of Antonina, who had a sixth sense enabling her to calm and console animals, including homo sapiens.

How did you discover this story?

I came to it through animals. I learned that there were unusual species of small horses living in a forest in Poland and I wanted to write about them. I got in touch with the park service there, but I didn’t speak Polish, so I asked a neighbor in Warsaw to help me. She said, incidentally, that one of her uncles had worked in the Zabinskis’ zoo, and he told me that the zookeeper’s wife had published a diary. When I read it, I began to see the extraordinary sensibility Antonina had about animals, and how many she had adopted. But as it turned out, she was also rescuing people and saving lives.

Do you think there’s a relevance, an echo to this story in our world today?

I think the book and the film as well really resonate with what’s happening now. We see white supremacy suddenly being legitimized, as it was before. We see anti-Semitism on the rise. There’s terrible prejudice against refugees and immigrants. An entire religion has been singled out. And the story in the book reminds us of what can happen. This is not a new phenomenon. It’s happened before, and it started small. We need to be more vigilant than ever about what’s going on around us, and how it’s growing. Otherwise, history can repeat itself.

The story offers a more complex definition of heroism than we normally see. Antonina’s husband fits the classic definition, as a resistance fighter. But she’s different.

Yes, and that’s one of the reasons I wrote this book. So often we equate heroism with violence, usually with males — with martyrdom and cruelty. But there are many forms of heroism, and we are not an inherently evil species. If we were, we would not exist. We would not have evolved to where we are now, because we would have wiped each other out long ago.

In the movies, heroism often means people killing other people. But Antonina didn’t kill anyone. She was in desperate danger, risking the life of her young son and husband every day. But it was to help people survive, and not just bodily. She wanted them to survive emotionally, with their dignity intact. She performed radical acts of compassion. She made sure they could come out of hiding at night, after the German soldiers left the zoo. She snuck them into the house, they had dinner together, there were piano concerts. She was as much a social worker among them as a rescuer, and I’m convinced that kind of heroism takes place every day on our war-torn planet. We just don’t hear about it. We don’t celebrate it.

If you could go back in time and ask Antonina one question, what would it be?

Well, I’d want to know how she lived in a house with so many animals, and kept it clean! But seriously, I’d ask her how she reached deep inside of herself to do what she did, to hide and smuggle Jews out of the ghetto. The penalty for that was death, for her and her family. And I keep wondering, under those conditions, would I have been that brave? I don’t know.

The book focuses in great detail on Antonina’s relationship with animals and how well she understood them. She treated them with dignity and respect.

That’s the key to who she was. For the longest time, we’ve insisted that we’re separate from nature, that we’re humans. But now we know, more than ever, that we are nature. We are intimately connected to every inch of nature. We are the dominant force for change in the world, and if we disrupt nature like the Nazis did — trying to wipe out entire cultures — we’ll destroy ourselves in the process.

Your book and the movie tell a shattering story. What should people take away from “The Zookeeper’s Wife”?

I want us to cherish our links to other animals, and to the great kindness that’s within us. I also want us to remember always that our animal nature is capable of horrific evil. We most definitely need to be our brother’s and sister’s keepers. And if we want to protect this planet, that includes other animals as well. I’m hopeful for the future, because so many people are becoming more active by the day.

josh.getlin@latimes.com

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