For our listeners who haven’t read The Zookeeper's Wife, how would you describe the book?
It’s the true story of a Warsaw zookeeper’s family that saved 300 Jews during the Holocaust, a story of war and sanctuary, and of good coming out of evil. But it’s especially the story of Antonina Żabińska, the zookeeper’s wife, who had a powerful, mystical relationship with animals, and was an unlikely heroine who rose to towering acts of bravery and compassion when it came to outsmarting the Nazis and caring for the refugees hiding in the cages of the zoo. It’s a story about love—for both humans and the other animals we call “animals.” It’s a story about evil and its opposite, and about discovering yourself in the midst of an inferno.
Where did you first hear about Antonina Żabińska’s story and what compelled you to write it?
I first came to the story through the animals. I’d heard about ancient horses roaming a primeval forest in Poland, and that piqued my curiosity. When I started delving into it, I learned that the Żabińskis, the Warsaw zookeepers, were adopting orphan animals from that forest and raising them inside their home. By sheer luck I came upon Antonina’s diary, and when I had it translated, I was stunned to discover that they were adopting more than animals—hundreds of human refugees were spirited out of the Warsaw Ghetto and hid in the bombed-out zoo cages. Their zoo became one of the most successful hideouts of WWII. Antonina, especially, was extraordinary, but her story somehow vanished between the seams of history, as women’s stories often do. The more I learned about her almost mystical relationship with animals, her cleverness at outwitting the Nazis, and her many radical acts of compassion, the more I knew I had to share her story.
March is Women’s History Month. Why do you think it’s so important to share the stories of women throughout history?
History is also Herstory, and women’s achievements are plentiful, but they tend to go unrecorded and undervalued. Yet these stories often transcend culture, class, language, gender and era to offer us a unique view of the human condition, seen through women’s eyes. Their lessons tie us together across time and country, and inspire us to grow and be bold for changes in our own lives.
What research did you do for the book and were you surprised by anything that you learned?
I did a colossal amount of research, in books and in Poland, but I love learning, and animals, and the research was deeply fascinating.
The Zookeeper's Wife has been made into movie—congrats! What has surprised about the process of turning your book into a film?
The film is exquisitely beautiful and emotionally electrifying, and it stays true to my book and to the Żabińskis’ story. But it’s a different kind of creative adventure from writing a book. I’ve seen it several times now, and am deeply moved each time, as I relive the events in new dimensions. It’s been thrilling to discover how one artistic medium can be powerfully translated into another.
Here at the Reading Women, we’re all about promoting female voices. What female writers have inspired you?
Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Penelope Lively, Collette, Edith Wharton, Carson McCullers, Maxine Kumin, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, Annie Dillard, and so many more.
What have you been reading lately?
At the moment, my open books are: Donna Seaman’s Identity Unknown, Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Janna Levin’s Black Hole Blues, Mary Oliver’s Our World.
What are you working on now?
I’ve just begun a new book, but I’m afraid I can’t say anything about it quite yet!
Diane Ackerman has been the finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction in addition to many other awards and recognitions for her work, which include the bestsellers The Zookeeper’s Wife and A Natural History of the Senses.
The Zookeeper’s Wife, a little known true story of WWII, became a New York Times bestseller, and received the Orion Book Award, which honored it as, "a groundbreaking work of nonfiction." A movie of The Zookeeper’s Wife, starring Jessica Chastain and Daniel Brühl, releases in theaters March 31st, 2017 from Focus Features.
She lives with her husband Paul West in Ithaca, New York.
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