Former Shows & Episodes

Word Patriots

Mark Seinfelt

Word Patriots – Diane Ackerman’s “The Zookeeper’s Wife”

Among the many named and unnamed heroes of World War Two, when the Nazis sought to control the genome of the entire planet and to eliminate a race of people from the face of the earth, were the rescuers who provided a safe haven for those being methodically herded, in Antonina Zabinski’s words, to the entrance of crematoriums and the thresholds of the gas chambers. There were many hundreds of such rescuers. A number of these have been properly recognized and lionized. Others have fallen between the seams of history. Had it not been for my guest, poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman, the story of Polish and Christian zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski would have remained largely unsung and unknown to American and English-speaking readers. While there were hundreds of such intrepid rescuers, many more Europeans collaborated with Hitler or looked the other way while six million died. Drawing on Antonina’s diary and other sources, Diane vividly recounts Antonina’s life as “the zookeeper’s wife” responsible for her own family, the zoo animals and the Zabinskis’ “guests”—Resistance activists and refugee Jews, many of who Jan, while leading a cell of saboteurs, had smuggled to the zoo from the Warsaw Ghetto. Ironically, the empty animal cages helped to hide scores of doomed people, who were code-named after the animals whose cages they occupied. Others hid in the nooks and crannies of the house itself. The Warsaw Zoo, whose code name among the Resistance fighters, was The House Under A Crazy Star, became a sort of Noah’s arc, for in addition to carrying for the human guests, Antonina also tended an eccentric array of stray creatures—pigs, hare, muskrat, foxes, and more. Dava Sobel writes that “Rarely does one read a book in which the author and heroine are so magically matched.” On this episode of Word Patriots, Diane relates not only Antonina and Jan’s heroism but also details for our listeners the very personal route by which she came to this story and her own love for endangered species. If you would like to know more about my books, please visit my website: See also the Amazon page for “The Zookeeper’s Wife”: