The primary source for this book is the diary of Antonina Zabinski (the zoo keeper's wife). Her detailed descriptions of how she and her young son cared for a variety of animals (many as in-house pets) provides some relief from the otherwise depressing story of the Holocaust that was taking place around them. The story branches out from there to tell of the efforts of the Polish resistance to subvert the Nazi occupation and rescue as many as possible from the Jewish Ghetto. The Warsaw Zoo ended up being a hub of resistance activities and a way-station for moving fugitives to safer locations (Noah's Arc in more than one way). They used the cover of "gathering food scraps for the animals" and other gutsy ruses as a means to transport food, information and documents in and out of the Ghetto. The book reads much as a series of short stories, many with life or death close calls. The book reminded me of Shindler's List except this story focuses on the activities of the Polish resistance outside the Ghetto and concentration camps.
Life as viewed by a mother raising a young child during a very dangerous time provides the combination of the human element and war to provide the suspense to make it a gripping story. And the situation becomes even more tense when she gives birth to a baby daughter just a few weeks before the Russians approach Warsaw. And we all know enough history to realize that the Russians didn't exactly bring peace and freedom. The Russian Army's advance stopped 10 miles outside of Warsaw and let the Nazis and Polish resistance fight it out. This resulted in the decimation of Polish resistance (85% of the buildings in Warsaw were destroyed). Did the family at the zoo survive this final show down? You'll need to read the book to learn how it ends.
Early in the book we learn that Antonina possessed the gift of calming animals (a la horse whisperer). Numerous times later in the story, when she found herself in the presence of hostile German or Russian solders, she was able to use this same gift to calm their evil intentions. Perhaps there was a bit of luck involved, but it's clear that a less controlled response in those same situations would have resulted in violence to her and her family. Her husband also had a cool and quick wit that got him out of some close calls. But, I was particularly impressed with Antonina's apparent God given ability to look into the souls of others and will them to relax and be calm. It's an amazing story.
During the first half of the book I thought I'd rate the book at three stars. It has a slow beginning. As I got closer to the end I decided perhaps I'd give it four. Now that I've finished I've decided to give it five.