Diane Ackerman on "The Zookeeper's Wife"

04/02/2017 02:20 pm ET

Diane Ackerman is a poet and a writer of nonfiction whose work has a deep sensitivity to the natural world. Her books include An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain, Moon By Whale Light: And Other Adventures Among Bats, Penguins, Crocodilians, and Whales, and the book that has now been made into a movie starring Jessica Chastain, The Zookeeper’s Wife. The film, now in theaters, is the story of Jan and Antonina Żabiński, Polish zookeepers, who saved the lives of hundreds of Jews during the Holocaust. In an interview, Ackerman talked about the connections she finds — between her love for animals and Antonina’s, and between her love for poetry, prose, and nature.

I love discovering that I shared a kinship with Antonina when it came to her love and respect for animals, well humans and other animals, all of life really. Antonina had a lot of trauma in her life early on. She was an orphan and her father was murdered in the early days of the Russian revolution. Her mom died and then she was raised by her grandmother and as very often happens with kids in situations like that she became very sensitive to the motives and behaviors of the people around her. I think she applied that to the animals also because from very early days on she was regarded as an animal whisperer. She realized that she could trust animals in a way that maybe she couldn't be quite so certain about with humans. And she developed such a bond with them and with Mother Nature itself. That also is something psychologically that just happens very often.
Later on it stood her in good stead when it came to the war because she could apply those experiences, those insights, to the behavior of the people in her care, in the house. She could nurture them as much as a family member or a social worker, not just as somebody who is physically protecting them. And she was able to look after all of the animals that she was also raising in her house at the same time. She referred to both the animals and the Jews who were hiding there and any other family visitors that she had as guests. They were all the same emotionally for her; she felt empathy, compassion, love for all of them. When the German soldiers visited the house, as they often did, and her life was suddenly at stake and the lives of everybody around her, she could also reach deep inside of her and commune with them, remember her observations of how animals behaved to help her handle the soldiers really well. That comes through in the film especially well, too.

In contrast is German zookeeper turned Nazi officer named Lutz Heck (played by Daniel Brühl), who looks at animals as trophies or science experiments.

He was a man with a paradoxical attitude about animals but so were the Nazis. They loved and revered animals. To Heck animals were virtually angelic including humans but not all of them and not all animals either. They had this lunacy about wanting to breed a pure ancient form of animal and of human. They believed that they were descended from people in Atlantis. Heck certain knew about hybrid vigor and knew that if you wanted strong animals then you bred together animals that were not related, if you inbred animals you ended up with weaker animals but clearly nobody was brave enough to tell Hitler this. So on the one hand Heck was very ambitious and he wanted to try to breed back to these ideal animals. He loved animals and shared that with Antonina and with Jan and lots of other people and wrote books about it and yet he was fully able to go out and shoot perfect beautiful specimens of animals and bring in the Nazis on New Year's Eve to murder the animals in their pens at the zoo. All of the characters in the saga had very complex inner lives as people do.

Ackerman was able to read the personal accounts of Jews who were sent to the Warsaw ghetto as part of her research.

They wrote what it was like to be living in the ghetto, to be smuggled into the zoo, to be living at the zoo. I was able to find books that were written but mainly interviews and testimonies that were recorded after the war. And those were in Hebrew newspapers, in Yiddish newspapers and in Polish newspapers. And sometimes they would speak to people who would then go on and write autobiographies and so I would come upon them in an indirect way. So, I just kept layering information and accounts into the book until they begun to merge. Only a few weeks ago I heard from a woman who had been a child at the zoo, now in her 80s and living in Israel. She was very happy that someone had written about it, she read the book and was happy with it and that there was going to be a movie and people would come to know more about the rescuers.

“A poet for as long as can remember,” Ackerman says that she “never felt that the universe was knowable from just one perspective. At a certain point I needed a little bit more elbow room and so I learned to write prose. I've never made a distinction between what we call nature and what we call science. So, I'm just a nature writer except that nature for me includes amino acids and quasars as much as it includes wildflowers and sunsets for me. It's all nature, it's all part of the whole and my great challenge is to try to find a way to leave a sense of what it was like to once be alive on the planet.”

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