Hypable spoke with Diane Ackerman, author of The Zookeeper’s Wife, ahead of the adaptation’s theatrical debut on March 31.
If you’d like to hear the full interview for yourself, tune into our latest episode of Book Hype.
About ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’
The New York Times bestseller soon to be a major motion picture starring Jessica Chastain.
A true story in which the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo saved hundreds of people from Nazi hands.
After their zoo was bombed, Polish zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski managed to save over three hundred people from the Nazis by hiding refugees in the empty animal cages. With animal names for these “guests,” and human names for the animals, it’s no wonder that the zoo’s code name became “The House Under a Crazy Star.” Best-selling naturalist and acclaimed storyteller Diane Ackerman combines extensive research and an exuberant writing style to re-create this fascinating, true-life story — sharing Antonina’s life as “the zookeeper’s wife,” while examining the disturbing obsessions at the core of Nazism. Winner of the 2008 Orion Award.
If readers liked ‘Zookeeper’s Wife,’ what other books would you recommend to them?
That’s hard for me because there are many books written about the Holocaust. But The Zookeeper’s Wife comes at it from a different perspective, from the perspective of the animals and of compassionate heroism. I don’t know of other books like that.
I enjoyed reading The Pianist. And I’ve read a lot of books by people who were in the Warsaw Ghetto, and those were very powerful. But I wouldn’t recommend them necessarily as reading… I’m going to stop on that.
It’s very hard because I don’t know of another book like it.
What first interested you in writing?
I was writing when I was very little. My mom told me that a friend of hers phoned her one day and said, “Marcia, I just think you’d want to know that your daughter is talking to herself again as she is walking home from school.” That was true. I was making up stories and writing poems and trying to make the world stable from as far back as I can remember. When I was 12, I thought it would be good to be a publisher or a reporter. I started publishing my own horse newspaper — it was all about horses. And I wrote each copy out in pencil by hand and then I abandoned it because it was obviously going to be too tiring a profession if you had to write every one by hand. Then about two years later I thought, “I’ll write a novel about a horse named Stormy and the girl who loved him.” And that didn’t quite work out. Then I thought I’d write a spy novel, but you really needed to know about sex and violence, and I didn’t know about either one at that point. I abandoned that, and so it went. But I continued writing, mainly poetry all the way along.
When I was in high school, I was lying out in the sun with some girlfriend one day and they had put their boyfriend’s names on masking tape on their backs so that they would get a suntan and it would spell out the boys’ names. I happened to be reading a newspaper and it had a little item in there that a schizophrenic’s sweat smells different. And I thought, “Oh my, this is fascinating.” I’d been so interested in learning about who we are, what the human condition is like, how we came to be the way we are. I thought, “Maybe when I go to college next year, what I’ll do is study biopsychology.” I went to Boston [University] and studied biopsychology. I got married and divorced within a year. In that process I transferred colleges. When I transferred, the computer put me in English by mistake. So there I was at 18, someone who had been writing shyly but enthusiastically for her whole life, and I just assumed it was fate. From there, applied to MFA programs and creative writing.
Antonina’s story is another one of those hidden voices. The people you didn’t know were working behind the scenes during these periods. How did you first hear about her and Jan’s story, and what compelled you to share it?
I came to the story of The Zookeeper’s Wife through the animals. I was writing for National Geographic, and at the time I was writing about endangered animals. I had heard that there were very ancient looking horses running around a forest in Poland, and that the forest itself was very ancient. It was the forest that the fairytales we have come from. I wanted to see the horses. Unfortunately, National Geographic sent me to the South Pacific instead to write about seals. But I stayed interested in the horses. Over the next few years, I kept pursuing it, reading a little more here and a little more there, and decided I’d really like to go to this forest. I tried to get in touch with them, but of course I do not speak Polish. I asked a neighbor who had been born in Warsaw if she would help me email the park service. She said, coincidentally, that one of her uncles had been a vet at the zoo before the war. We got in touch with him via email. He said that he thought the zookeeper’s wife from that time had kept a diary. We asked him to find it for us and he did.
He sent it and my friend translated it. Then I discovered what was really going on. It wasn’t just the question of these ancient horses; there were a lot of very unusual and endangered animals running around the forest. The zookeepers in Warsaw were taking home orphaned animals and raising them right inside their home. The more I read, the more I saw that the zookeepers were taking in escaping Jews from the ghetto. When I began to read more about Antonina’s sensibility, what she was like, what her relationship with nature was like, with animals, how much she risked and how deeply, deeply empathetic and compassionate she was, I just knew I had to share her story.
We have so many different versions of what heroism is, but they all tend to equal violence. Even if you see a woman hero, during war time, you can bet that she is going to be larger than life, she is going to shoot people, she’s going to be like a superhero. But it isn’t always like that. There are a great many people out there who are compassionate heroes. Who risk their lives everyday, to make life more livable for people who are in horrible situations. And that is what Antonina did. Her husband was heroic in a more traditional way. He was the head of an underground unit and he was the one who actually smuggled people out of the ghetto. Her form of heroism was not only to keep them alive and hide them whenever the Nazis came by, and that was often, but also to see if they could survive the war with their humanity intact and not be so traumatized that they had no life left. She worked very hard at that. She brought them all out after dark and they were hiding in different zoo cages, but she brought them into the villa and there happened to be a pianist who was hiding there who played music. There were artists. They had dinner parties. They were frightened, of course; they were horrified by what was going on, but they had mutual support from one another and there were also all of these crazy animals running around the house. They had the innocent distraction of the animals as well. She was an extraordinary friend to them.
How do you approach a project that feels so massive?
I did a lot of research, but I happen to love research. The research part is fun. This was challenging. How do you write in such great detail about a time that is unfamiliar to you, and a place as well. You can’t make anything up because I was writing narrative nonfiction. What I did was read everything I could get my hands on, and as I was saying earlier, I read books by people who were living in the Warsaw Ghetto. They wrote diaries about what was going on and hid them in milk churns. The milk churns were buried, and after the war, people found them, so we do have accounts of that. We have accounts by the rabbi in the ghetto; his sermons have come down to us. I read everything.
I also went to Warsaw and visited the zoo. I was able, firsthand, to see what the experience of being there would be like. Fortunately, after the war, even though Warsaw was completely leveled, the citizens rebuilt the downtown area brick by brick according to Renaissance architectural drawings. So when I stood on Antonina’s balcony and looked at the downtown, I saw what she saw. I could learn about the behaviors of the many animals in the zoo, what they smelled like. I could learn about the what navigation pattern of birds over Warsaw in 1929 was like. I knew what she saw when she looked up. It was possible to learn an awful lot about the era, about her.
For example, at one point in her diary she says she and her son hid in a Baltic lampshade store. She doesn’t describe it, but you can learn what they look like, the lampshades of the era. It was possible to set the scene in that way. Every time someone speaks in the book, I am quoting directly from Antonina’s diaries or interviews that were done with her or her husband after the war, or testimonies that were given by people who hid at the zoo or people who knew them. Ultimately, it was possible to write the book in layers. I wanted to make it very vivid on the sense so that people could feel like they were right there and experiencing what Antonina was going through.
What was the most fascinating part of your research?
There were a lot of things that surprised me, but I must say that one of them was the Nazis’ relationship with genetics. Hitler did not invent the idea of a master race. He got the idea from the American Eugenics movement, which was very popular here, unfortunately, before the war. He wanted the people who worked for him to not only breed what he considered to be “pure Aryan people,” and kill all the others, he also wanted pure Aryan animals and plants. He sent a botanical commando squad all over the world to steal the best specimens from botanical gardens and bring them back for breeding. He was going to do the same with animals from all over and the plan was to drain 100,000 acres of marshland in the Baltics, rip up forests, replant everything. If you think about it, we worry about that now because of climate change, but he intended to essentially destroy and replant and rebreed the whole planet, going from one country to another getting rid of the genes of the people who lived there and the animals and the crops and replace them with a Nazi version of them. I found that really surprising. I didn’t realize that the Nazi lunacy went to that extreme.
One of the things that stuck out to us in the book was their relationship to animals. For example, in the book you mention that many of the patients did not get pain medicine or anesthesia and yet others were punished for not giving it to worms.
Yeah, that’s right. Even though children were being operated on without anesthesia, they had a paradigmatic relationship with nature. On the one hand, they were the greenest people imaginable. They really believed that animals were noble creatures, almost mythic. Humans too, except for all the humans they put in special categories — slobs, Jews, Catholics, gay, handicapped, gypsies. They believed that they were related to people who had lived on Atlantis. They were sending out expeditions to very different places where their scientists could measure the cheekbones of people. They were completely obsessed with it. It was a mythology, really. Because Atlantis? Really? It was absolutely preposterous. They took it to maniacal extremes.
What do you do when you get overwhelmed by the amount of information or the morbidity of the story?
You have to be very careful where you hold yourself, where you position yourself as you’re writing. For example, I was able to read the testimony of the people who survived the war, of the people who were living in the Ghetto. I could do all of that. What I could not do was visit the camps. That would have been more than I could cope with. But I must say, when I heard that Jessica Chastain had gone to the camp because she wanted to know what was at stake, what her character Antonina was fighting for, that impressed me enormously. I knew that she was heart and soul invested in the film and in the story.