A Conversation with “THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE” author Diane Ackerman

Focus Feature

Focus Features, The Zookeeper’s Wife is based upon the book by Diane Ackerman about Jan and Antonina Żabiński, two Christian zookeepers who risked their lives to save and shelter over 300 Jews from the Nazis in Poland during World War II.
 Paula K. Parker had the opportunity to speak with Ackerman, who also co-wrote the screenplay. During the phone interview, Ackerman spoke about the Zabiniskis, the movie and the strength of good to stand against evil.

Paula K. Parker: This story is haunting; it has stayed with me every day since I saw the movie.

Diane Ackerman: One of the questions that continues to haunt me is that, in that situation, whether I would be able to find the courage, the strength, to do what Antonina did?

PKP: I agree. How did you first learn about Jan and Antonina Żabiński?

Diane Ackerman: I was writing about endangered animals and I had heard that there were rare horses that lived in a forest in Poland. I wanted to go see them. I couldn’t email the people who lived in the forest, because I didn’t speak Polish. I asked my neighbor—who had grown up in Poland—and she said, “Coincidentally, one of my uncles was a vet at the Warsaw Zoo, before the war.”

We got in touch with him. He said that the zookeeper’s wife was adopting orphaned animals from that forest. He remembered that she kept a diary. We asked him to find the diary. He did and sent it to us. I had it translated and, suddenly, I discovered this extraordinary woman who adored animals, who felt compassion for both humans and animals, and was kind of an animal whisperer. That fascinated me. The more that I got into it, the more I began to see that it wasn’t just adopting and looking after orphaned, endangered animals in her house; she was nurturing endangered humans as well. She was risking her life every day. At that point, I realized I really had to write this story.

“The Zookeeper’s Wife” author and co-screenwriter, Diane Ackerman

PKP: Have you met Jan and Antonina’s children?

Diane Ackerman: I have. I met them as adults in their seventies [laughs] but I still see them as the children that I carried around in my mind for so many years. I first met the son and asked his permission to write about his parents. I met the daughter recently on the set in Prague. What a thrill that was.

PKP: Have you been to the Warsaw Zoo?

Diane Ackerman: Yes, I visited the Zoo in 2005 and met the then zookeeper and zookeeper’s wife, [laughs] which was wonderful. The zoo itself is a world-class zoo; it was rebuilt soon after the war. The villa is still in the heart of the zoo. Since the book came out, they have turned the villa into a museum. Recently they have remodeled the villa to look the way it looked when the Żabińskis lived there. Now people can go to the zoo and go to the villa and learn the story of what took place there.

PKP: How do you feel the Żabińskis’ Christian faith inspired their conviction and their ability to save 300 Jews from the Polish ghetto?

Diane Ackerman: I’ve read the testimony of all the Polish rescuers. The interesting thing is that they all say exactly the same thing: They weren’t heroes. It was the moral, right, decent thing to do. That anyone in their situation would have done that.

I know that Antonina continued wearing a Christian medal around her neck throughout the war, and she had her children baptized. I think that probably her faith inspired her actions and gave her a sense of decency, of keeping alive what was the best qualities in humanity. That it was part of her responsibility as a Christian to do that.

PKP: The girl Urszula who was raped by the Nazi soldiers; was she a real person or a composite character who represented the children and women who faced atrocities faced from the Nazis?

Diane Ackerman: She was a composite character, but the accounts were legion; that just happened all the time, unfortunately. I think that the actress who played Urszula was astonishing; she was magnificent.

PKP: Was there something you learned in your research that didn’t make it into the movie?

Diane Ackerman: An awful lot that happened in the book did not make it into the movie. It’s a different art form and you had to compress it into two hours. I had the luxury of writing about the interior lives of the people and what transpired at the zoo over four years. There are many different elements that can’t make it into a movie; but the soul of the book and the spirit of the Żabiński and the plot stays very close to the book.

When people go to see the movie, they will come away with a sense of what these people were like. If they are inspired and want to learn more, they will go to the book and become more deeply acquainted with the events and the history. I think that few people realize how involved the Polish underground was. It took hundreds of thousands of Christians to make it possible for these Jews to escape. The rescuers were one large group of people, but there were also a great number of people who helped in other ways.

PKP: The State of Israel honored the Żabińskis as “Righteous Among the Nations.” Would you please explain what that means? 

Diane Ackerman: Jan and Antonina were celebrated after the war as “Righteous Christians;” people who, in the midst of inferno were not inferno themselves. They sacrificed their lives; they put their lives—and the lives of their families—at risk every day to do the righteous thing and help these innocent people. It reminds us that there is great evil in the world, but there is also great kindness and compassion.

“The Zookeeper’s Wife” opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, March 31.

Click here to learn more about Diane Ackerman.

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