CHRIS RICE COOPER is a newspaper writer, feature stories writer, poet, fiction writer, photographer, and painter. She maintains a blog at https://chrisricecooper.blogspot.com. She has a Bachelor's in Criminal Justice and completed all of her poetry and fiction workshops required for her Master’s in Creative Writing with a focus on poetry. She, her husband Wayne, sons Nicholas and Caleb, cats Nation and Alaska reside in the St. Louis area.
Friday, January 13, 2017
Analysis on Antonina Zabinski from THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE: Her Ability To Maintain The Identity of the Animals She Loved . . .
Analysis by Chris Rice Cooper:“The
Psychological Enigma of Antonina Zabinski” from Diane Ackerman’s The
In 1939 in Poland Antonina
Zabinski was a young 31-year-old woman who, along with her husband Jan, 42, ran
the Warsaw Zoological Garden.
couple, along with their son Rhys, lived in a two story three-bedroom 1930s
stucco and glass villa located in the middle of the Warsaw Zoological Garden.
The Warsaw Zoological Garden was 75 acres of forests, ponds,
buildings (the Pheasant House, the Lion’s House, the carpentry shop);
storerooms, pantries, barns; pavilions; cages, and varying habitats for
The War Zoological Garden housed a massive collection of
animals, 1500 total:antelopes, bee
hives, badgers, bears, bison, cats, cheetah, the largest crocodile, cuckoos,
donkeys, rarest eagle, elk, deer, elephants, flamingos, foxes, giraffes, hyenas,
gibbons, horses, jaguars, lions, monkeys, ostriches, parrots, peacocks,
pelicans, wild penguins, pigs, tree porcupines, rabbits, ravens, the heaviest rhino, seals,
squirrels, black swans, oldest turtle, wolves, and zebras.
In September of 1939 Germany invaded Poland and everything changed:the Nazis took most of their animals away to
place in Nazi-controlled zoos in Germany.
The other animals were shot by employees for safety reasons, some
slaughtered by gun-happy and hard-drinking Nazis for sport, and other animals
were killed to feed hungry people.
As a result, Antonina and Jan had to resort to having their
zoo become a pig farm and then a fur farm.
On October 12, 1940 the Nazis forced all the Jews from Poland
to leave their homes, friends, belongings, and communities and herded them into
a district on the north side of town, which came to be known as the Warsaw
Brick wall of the Warsaw Ghetto dividing the Iron Gate Square with a view of bombed out Lubomirski Palace (left) on the Aryan side of the city. Attributed to Ludwig Knoblock. Photograph taken on May 24, 1941.
In the fall of
1940 Antonina and Jan hosted their first of 300 guests at their zoo, now known
as The House Under the Crazy Star, an
underground for Jews, particularly those who were in the Warsaw Ghetto.
To avoid discovery some of these escapees would enter the villa through a drain over that can still be seen in the zoo today.
This blond, Catholic, devoted wife and mother, skilled
pianist, hosted the small menagerie of animals and the 300 Jews without
complaining, without being discovered by the Nazi regime, and only losing two
Jews to Nazi violence.
did this young woman, from the ages of 32 to 36, fool a whole regime for a
period of years on behalf of the animals she identified with and the people she
loved and considered her equal?
The answer can be found in Diane Ackerman’s bestseller The
Zookeeper’s Wife based on the war story lives of Antonina, Jan, and the
animals Antonina identified with.
Jan, a devout
scientist, credited Antonina with the “metaphysical waves” of a nearly
shamanistic empathy when it came to animals:“She’s so sensitive, she’s almost able to read their minds, a way of
observing and understanding animals that’s rare, a sixth sense –it’s been this
way since she was little”
Ackerman further describes how Antonina slips out of her self
to align her own senses with the senses of the individual animal and having her
attunement put the animals at ease.
uncanny ability to calm unruly animals earned her the respect of both she the
keepers and her husband, who though he believed science would explain it, found
her gift nonetheless strange and mysterious.
And Antonina the strange mystic was able to form a peaceful
resistance not by arming herself with guns and knifes, but maintaining the same
identity as the animal and exhibiting the same behaviors as the animal.
Mixed Media Art by Christal Rice Cooper
such occurrence happened in March of 1943 when a fire broke out in one of the
zoo’s buildings now being used as a German storage area.A German soldier on his bicycle approached
her in anger about the fire.Antonina
responded to him with the friendliness of a mammal and the charm of the lynx
she reared since birth. She convinced him the fire started by some German
soldier and his girlfriend from a love fire they didn’t completely extinguish.As a result, the soldier did not search the
buildings that would have revealed the hidden Jews inside. The German soldier and
Antonina engaged in talk about animals as they headed to the villa.Two more German police
officers joined them and were entertained by Antonina’s explanation of why the
fire started.Minutes later Antonina
received a phone call from the Gestapo, and she convinced them everything was
taken care of.
With the coast clear,
the Guests came out of hiding and hugged her, praising her bravery.In her diary, she noted that she “couldn’t
wait to tell Jan.”
the evening, the guests were praising her bravery to her husband Jan, and he
went on to explain that this was not Antonina’s bravery that saved them but her
ability to exhbit the behaviors of the animals she cared for.
“It’s as if she’s
porous. She’s almost able to read their minds.It’s a snap for her to find out what’s bothering
her animal friends.Maybe because she
treats them like people.But you’ve seen
her.At a moment’s notice, she can lose
her Homo sapiens nature and transform herself into a panther, a badger, or
In her own diary, Antonina confirms Jan’s
psychological point of view of her.
“Jan was right, the
German soldiers’ reaction to my telepathic waves was similar to the zoo
Antonina’s special ability with these animals and her love of
these animals would never take priority over the lives of humanity.It is her compassion for these 300 Jews that
Far left, Antonina in her polk-a-dot dress; Top, cropped from mixed media art by Christal Rice Cooper Bottom, Warsaw ghetto wall and footbridge over Chlordan Street Far right, entrance to the Warsaw Zoological Garden.