The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

After having seen the book-to-movie film preview for this novel, I purchased a copy, thinking it would be like so many of the historical fiction novels of WWII that I’ve read and enjoyed. Though it was very different, I still enjoyed it very much. It took me quite a bit longer to read it than others, but I believe that is because of the large amount of quotations and well-researched background information. This is a nonfiction narrative based upon the true story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski during WWII in war-ravaged Warsaw, Poland. Jan was the zookeeper for the well-known and successful Warsaw Zoo. His wife, Antonina, shared a special bond with the animals at the zoo, and her courageous and compassionate personality allowed her to save over 300 people, mostly Jewish, who were seeking refuge from the Nazis during WWII. The reason the Zabinskis were able to hide so many Jewish people on the zoo property and in the villa is because of the Nazis obsession with preserving certain animals in their purification scheme. Were the Nazis not concerned with animals and zoology, Jan and Antonina would likely not have been able to save lives like they did.

The descriptions of exotic zoo animals and even common animals in the story are detailed and realistic. The author clearly completed many hours of extensive research in order to tell the Zabinski’s story, as evidenced by the lengthy chapter-by-chapter details section and the bibliography at the end of the book. This story was different from most of the WWII novels that I normally read because rather than focusing on life in a concentration camp, it detailed the daily life of those living in Poland during the war, which for some was living in constant terror and fear. Because of the wealth of detail and personal stories weaved into the story, this was not a quick read. It took me a while to get through the book, but it was worth the read and I did enjoy it very much.

I look forward to seeing the movie, because I believe it will be a nice complement to the book.

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The Kommandant’s Girl by Pam Jenoff

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Emma, a young Jewish woman living in Poland during WWII, is forced to assume a new identity as a Polish girl named Anna. A newlywed, Emma’s husband Jacob is in the Jewish resistance group and he is forced to go into hiding just a short time after they are married.  Emma and her parents are taken into the Jewish ghetto to live in cramped quarters with no comforts of home. Luckily, Emma is secretly taken out of the ghetto in the middle of the night by one of the resistance group members. She assumes the role of a Polish gentile named Anna, a niece to a wealthy Catholic woman named Krysia, who is Jacob’s aunt. Krysia is also involved with the resistance but Emma is much safer in her care than in the Jewish ghetto. Fearing for Jacob’s safety, the uncertain future of her aging parents in the ghetto, as well as her own future, Emma must press on, living a life of lies and secrets in order to remain safe from the Nazis.

To complicate matters further, Emma is introduced at Krysia’s dinner party to Kommandant Richwalder, a high-ranking, powerful, and extremely handsome Nazi official. Emma knows she should loathe the Kommandant, but he is sweet, caring, and very much interested in her. “Anna” goes to work for the Kommandant, which allows her to secretly assist the resistance group in gathering information from the Nazis. She never dreamed she would be so comfortable in the presence of a Nazi official, much less spend all her time with him and become his “girl.” As the war intensifies in and around Krakow, Anna gets even closer to the Kommandant in order to carry out a most dangerous mission for the resistance group. Torn between her vows to Jacob and her feelings for Richwalder, Emma must decide which path to take.

When the secrets of her true identity threaten to come out, Emma’s life will never be the same again. The ending will have readers reeling. I cried for Emma, who lost so  very much, but still had the courage to carry on despite the circumstances.  This is a beautifully written story with a fast-paced story-line which readers will enjoy from beginning to end.

Thank you to Harper Collins MIRA for an advanced digital review copy.