Reach and Read: The Zookeeper’s Wife

The Zookeeper’s Wife By Diane Ackerman

This is a review of Diane Ackerman’s non-fiction book based the personal diary of Antonina Żabińska, the Warsaw zookeeper’s wife. Destined to be a movie soon (apparently, someone beat me to this good idea), this book offers a different perspective on Nazi rule and non-Jew life during WWII. I enjoyed this different perspective and departure from the concentration camp viewpoint. The flow of the book is a little off at times as it starts out more novel-ish and then becomes choppy as historical passages are inserted, however, the pure amazement I experienced reading about Antonina and Jan’s, her husband, bravery and perseverance despite the dire risks to her family. I am grateful for the additional facts, necessary to paint the picture, so this criticism hardly matters. It is estimated that more than 300 people, mostly Jews escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto, passed through the Warsaw Zoo in hiding as part of the larger Underground. Antonina obviously possess a great ability to calm and connect with many across all walks of life, four legs, wings, big, nocturnal, exotic, Nazi or otherwise.

A key learning for me was in addition to the fixation on an Aryan race, the Nazi’s were obsessed with animal genomics and genetic breeding experiments to bring back some lost majestic creatures, such as tarpans and aurochs. I felt some internal conflict when reading about the Poland’s Balwieza forest and how some of its natural splendor is due to the Nazi eugenic quest and overall megalomania. Regardless, I have added Bialowieza, a world hertitage site, to my bucket travel list.

As is often my style, an intriguing thought begets another and another and so on we go down a rabbit hole, only to emerge on the other side with some interesting connections. Here we go!

I will say that in the beginning when Antonina is describing all the sounds in the morning, I couldn’t help but hum the “What does the fox say” tune… According to Antonina the foxes yelp and the ant eater says hatchee, hatchee, hatchee (p. 20, 62). There is also a pet (yes, pet) badger in the story, which I would not recommend people try at home, because, well, you know, honey badger don’t give a sh_t, and she is crazy…. Alright, enough pop culture references… for now.

There are even beekeeping references in this book, with some great honey delights, which are now on my list, including:

  • Krupnik – hot vodka with honey
  • Piernik – honey spice cake
  • Pierniczki – honey spice cookies

Does anyone have a family recipe for pierniczki they would like to share?

The Linden tree is also described with great prose as a place of refuge and natural shrine, hence commonly found in church yards and all throughout Slavic countries. I could almost smell it in the pages. Bees are commonly revered as servants of God, due to the fruits of their labor: mead and honey to nourish, wax candles for worship services etc. The connection: bees love linden blossoms, and in this book, Jan kept a few hives at their zoo along the linden border and Antonina reflects on them in her journal. This summer I will go out in search of local linden.

In the Middle Ages, it is reported that the village of Mazowsze put a law on the books condemning hive vandals to death. A first pass, you may think this is all about the honey, but in actuality, the wax was more important, due in large part to the Pope’s demand pure beeswax candles for the Church and in less about honey as a way to sweeten food. Bee-ing the Abbee (J) beekeeper was a highly prestigious job and I would presume this is partly why some many our hive innovations come from monasteries [Brother Adam – WBC Hive and Buckfast bees, Rev. Charles Butler and  eponymous hives – Abbe Warre and Reverend L. Langstroth].  There are so many more references to bees in religion, that I will save that waxing and waning for a later date.

Lastly, bringing it all home, I searched the interwebs for “Nazi Beekeepers”, as you never know what will come up. This led me to Vladimir Katriuk, wanted for war crimes but keepin’ bees since 1959 in Canada. From here, I found Karl von Frisch, of waggle dance discovery fame, although not a Nazi, was forced out his prestigious position because he refused to do ideological study on bees for the Nazis. Take a few minutes and read this intriguing interview in The Cabinet by Najafi and Raffles for more on this subject.

Want to learn more? I always do!

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