Book Chronicles Warsaw Zoo as Refuge in WWII During World War II, Warsaw zoo director Jan Zabinski and his wife, Antonina, sheltered hundreds of Jews from Nazi forces on the grounds of the zoo and in their home. Diane Ackerman has documented the remarkable and unlikely story in her new book, The Zookeeper's Wife.
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Book Chronicles Warsaw Zoo as Refuge in WWII

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Book Chronicles Warsaw Zoo as Refuge in WWII

Book Chronicles Warsaw Zoo as Refuge in WWII

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You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

Up next, a World War II story that I'm betting you have not heard. It's the true story of how the zookeeper of the Warsaw Zoo and the zookeeper's wife came to harbor, to hide 300 Jewish refugees over the course of the war in their villa and in the zoo's empty animal cages right there in the middle of occupied Warsaw. It was a daring plan that succeeded in part because of the Nazis, because their goals of a master race extended beyond the humans to flora and fauna. They wanted to bring back extinct animals through back-breeding and the best specimens of their target animals? An ancient horse, a cow and a forest bison?

Well, they were right there in the zoo in Poland. So, in a strange twist of fate, the Warsaw Zoo and its keepers were allowed to remain there during the war. And there, lies the tale told in a terrific book called the "The Zookeeper's Wife" by Diane Ackerman, poet, writer and naturalist. And she's written several other natural history books I'm sure you're familiar with, including "A Natural History of the Senses." She joined us today from the campus of Cornell University in Ithaca.

Welcome back to the program, Diane.

Ms. DIANE ACKERMAN (Author, "The Zookeeper's Wife"): Well, thank you. It's a pleasure to be with you.

FLATOW: Tell us how you - how you came by the story, first of all?

Ms. ACKERMAN: I came to it by way of the animals. My grandparents came from Poland and they told me that there was a primeval forest and very strange animals running around in it, the kind that the cavemen painted on the walls at Lasko, and I was curious, I wanted to know how they got there and did some research and found that it wasn't just horses. It was bison, it was the cattle, and that the world's authority at that time on the bison happened to be the new director of the Warsaw Zoo that his wife, Antonina, was adopting orphaned animals and that somehow all of this had to do with Nazi perversity.

And then I managed to find Antonina's memoir, which I had translated and pursued it more from the testimonies of people who sheltered with them, and piece by piece was able to put the story together.

FLATOW: Wow. Well, and it's a continuing story. Tell us - yeah, go ahead. I'm sorry.

Ms. ACKERMAN: No, I'm just going to say it is a continuing story and I'm really hoping that people who did shelter at the zoo, they would have been very small children at the time will get in touch with me. I have heard from one person with a little bit of news. I like to find out what happened to their families.

FLATOW: well, let's get into that story for people who have not read "The Zookeeper's Wife" yet. You say that people were sheltered at the zoo. The zookeeper and his wife took in people - refugee - how did they do that?

Ms. ACKERMAN: Yes. Well, after their zoo was bombed and I should explain that these were Christian zoo keepers. They didn't have to do this. They could have survived the war, but they adored animals. They even named their son Rys, which was the Polish word for lynx. And after the - their zoo was bombed - they decided to use the devastated zoo to smuggle in people and hide them right inside the cages.

So, Jan smuggled them out of the Warsaw ghetto. He smuggled it them into the lion's cage. From there to the pheasants' cage and underground. Some of them stayed in the villa. Many of them were right in the animal habitats and they gave them the names of the animals that used to live in those places. And then, they could hand their son, who was five, six, seven at the time of the war, a bowl of soup and say, you know, I think maybe the lions are hungry or take this to the bears and nobody would be any the wiser.

FLATOW: This is all through occupied Nazi Germany - troops around everywhere.

Ms. ACKERMAN: Oh, absolutely. And there were Germans on the zoo grounds all the time. Among other things, there was a German warehouse there very close to them. And also, it was one of the few park-like areas left in Warsaw, which just had been decimated. And so Nazis very often came to stroll around. They lived in a house that was all windows and so they decided that nobody would suspect anything quite as obvious as this. They hid people in plain sight, and after dark, everybody came out and they had sit-down dinners, they had piano concerts and art and they filled the house with unbelievably eccentric orphaned animals that they raised, and so the people could enjoy the hijinx of the animals, too. Jan was very active.

FLATOW: Jan Zabinski was the name, right?

Ms. ACKERMAN: Jan Zabinski. Yeah.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. ACKERMAN: Very active in the Polish underground and he was active in the usual ways. He led a cell that specialized in blowing up trains and things like that. But his wife, Antonina, was heroic in another way. She decided that it was not enough for these people to survive the war. They would, they should survive but with their humanity intact. And so she arranged for them to come out in the darkness and have as normal a life as possible even though, of course, they knew about all the ambient dangers and horrors. Many of them had come from the ghetto.

FLATOW: Were they in disguise?

Ms. ACKERMAN: No they weren't. They were right there for anyone to see if they wanted to but they had signals. She would run to the piano and she would pound out some music and they knew that then, they had to hide. And they hid between the walls and underground and in the closets and under the bed, they hid every place.

FLATOW: Interesting.

I'm talking with Diane Ackerman, author of "The Zookeeper's Wife," subtitled "A War Story." A really interesting story about what happened at the Warsaw Zoo right after the bombing and the blitzkrieg as the Nazis coming through Poland.

What - tell us about what happened to the zoo itself and the Nazis coming in to take over some of the animals that they really wanted.

Ms. ACKERMAN: Well, when the zoo was bombed, of course, a lot of the animals were killed out right but many more ran across the bridge and downtown in Warsaw. And people who were brave enough to look out of their windows on that day saw what looked like a biblical scene unfolding, you know. You can picture this. There were lions and bears running alongside antelope and camels. It was a very strange scene.

A lot of the animals escaped into the countryside. But then on New Year's Eve, one of the high-ranking Nazis brought with him Gestapo members to have a hunting party right at the zoo and shoot whatever animals were left. Of course, the animals were right there in their habitats it was very easy to kill them. And this was horrifying to Antonina and to her young son as you can imagine.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And they were interested in certain prized animals in the zoo that were of special interest to them, correct?

Ms. ACKERMAN: Yes. The Nazis planned to control the genetic destiny of the planet extended to plants and animals. They wanted to breed back to what they thought of as pure Aryan animals. And in a thrill of romanticism, they decided that after the war, Hitler would need pure Aryan horses to ride, pure Aryan bison to hunt and of course, a primeval wilderness, of a Wagnerian sort. And all of these existed in Poland, only in Poland.

And the zoo was played a very central role in this. And so the head of the Berlin Zoo, Lutz Heck, came and persuaded the Zabinskis that he was going to look after them and their zoo that they could trust him. And of course, they couldn't trust him. But when they figured that out, they played all kinds of tricks on him to be able to just stay there so that they could continue using the zoo as a kind of underground railroad.

FLATOW: So they had a - they came up with this elaborate plan - how they were going to do this?

Ms. ACKERMAN: They did and everybody survived. All but two who died of illness survived the war. It was not easy, of course. How do you find food for 300 people? But they had all different kinds of ways of doing it and their success would not have been possible without the unwitting help of a couple of high-ranking Nazis, one of whom just happened to love insects. And he had heard that a very famous beetle collection was stored for safekeeping at the zoo and he came to see it. And Jan said, yes, that he would let him see it but he really needed to talk with the man whose collection it was. And this man happened to be in the ghetto.

And so he went with this Nazi to the ghetto to consult with the man about how to preserve this collection and he just became very chummy with the Nazi and in different devious ways was able to sneak in, sneak people out one by one.

FLATOW: So, Jan went into the Warsaw ghetto under false pretenses looking for…

Ms. ACKERMAN: Many times.

FLATOW: …to study things.

Ms. ACKERMAN: Oh, look - well, on one occasion, he persuaded the Nazis that the zoo should be used to raise pigs for the German army to eat. And, of course, he would have to go to the ghetto to collect scraps for the pigs to eat. There were no scraps in the ghetto. There was nothing left over. What he was really doing was taking food into the ghetto, to give to people. But that worked for a while.

And on another occasion, he persuaded them that the zoo needed to be used for small, like, market farms and gardens, for the people of Warsaw. And he would have to be declared the head of the Warsaw parks and he would need to go into the ghetto to study the parks in the ghetto. Of course, there were no parks, there were no trees. But nonetheless, these passes got him into the ghetto, where he could take food in and money in, and he could sneak people out.


Ms. ACKERMAN: People…

FLATOW: Yeah, go ahead.

Ms. ACKERMAN: I'm just going to say that most people don't realize how fierce, how compassionate the Polish underground really was, but it took easily, a hundred people for one refugee to survive.

FLATOW: Yeah, it was well organized.

Ms. ACKERMAN: It was very well organized. Yeah. It's not that there was not anti-Semitism there. There was like every place else, but there were tens of thousands of people who didn't need to risk their lives, but who chose to, because they felt it was the right thing to do.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Judith(ph) in Milwaukee. Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

JUDITH (Caller): Hi. The book sounds fascinating. I thought that anyone who is interested in this topic might want to know that the primeval forest is now known as Bialowieza National Park. It's in the northeastern corner of Poland, and I was there about 15 years ago, as part of an Earthwatch project. And it is open to tourism. In fact, they promote facilities for visitors there. There's a hiking trail and a cycling possibilities, and you can see herds of bison, other animals as well live in the park, like wild boar and wolves, and there's some very unusual flowers and some mushrooms that you might not see anywhere else.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

JUDITH: It's a fascinating place.

Ms. ACKERMAN: Yes, thank you. It is one of the most magical places on earth and it's the last remaining remnant of low-land primeval forest in all of Europe and it is so much worth a visit. If you're any place near that neck of the world, it is really quite extraordinary and they preserve it beautifully.

FLATOW: Thanks for…

JUDITH: Well, I don't know if Earthwatch is still doing projects there and sending volunteers, but if so, that would be a wonderful way to visit it.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling, Judith.


FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Since the book's publication, Diane, any reaction? You - it was mentioned at the top, you're looking for survivors to still approach you. Have you had anyone? Any people?

Ms. ACKERMAN: I did have one woman write to me and tell me that she had been in Jan Zabinski's geology class after the war. I didn't even know he taught that after the war, and that, of course, I knew that Antonina died in 1971 and Jan in 1974. But she pointed out that he became ill towards the end and he moved to Israel, which I didn't know. A lot of the people that he sheltered and became close to moved to Israel. And I think what must have happened is that they said to him, well, you looked after us and now we're going to look after you.

FLATOW: Hmm. Talking with Diane Ackerman, author of "The Zookeeper's Wife" on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

And talking about that story. Of course, Jan was endowed with the highest honor that Israel can give a non-Jew who saved Jews - Jewish lives during the holocaust and that's the Righteous among the Nations.

Ms. ACKERMAN: So was Antonina.

FLATOW: She was, because I was on that - I was on the Yad Vashem Web site and did not see her name there.

Ms. ACKERMAN: Both of them. And if you go to the holocaust museum in Washington, you will see that both of them are celebrated. And I think it's wonderful that she was too. He was away at work, much of the time and working for the underground, and she become solely responsible during that period…

FLATOW: Hmm. Rebecca(ph)…

Ms. ACKERMAN: …looking out for all these people.

FLATOW: Rebecca of Takoma Park, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

REBECCA (Caller): Hi, I was wondering why we've never heard this story before, it's so fascinating.

FLATOW: Diane?

Ms. ACKERMAN: Well, you know, I think it's because we tend to think of heroes only in terms of violent combat against enemies or natural disasters, but we don't think of them in terms of radical acts of compassion. We tend instead to highlight the worst of human nature. And so, the heroes from that era that we hear about are all very violent heroes. Also, the Soviets came in after war and then it was not at all popular to be a freedom fighter and it's really only recently that the Poles are getting in touch with their own history of that era.

FLATOW: Or is there any mention of Jan and Antonina in Poland? In Warsaw there?

Ms. ACKERMAN: Yes, there is, but not this story. And when I go to Poland next fall, because the book is coming out in Polish then, there are going to be events at the zoo, which is a wonderful zoo.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ACKERMAN: And there are especially going to have things for children, to teach the children the role of Warsaw during the war, and then I think they feel that'll be easier for the children to make the bridge through the animals.

FLATOW: And did the zoo itself, as it exists as it did before? For those of us who have not seen it.

Ms. ACKERMAN: The zoo is wonderful.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ACKERMAN: The zoo has had enormous success raising cheetahs. I adopted, you know, kind of, in quotes, I…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ACKERMAN: …I'm a fairy godmother to a baby cheetah named Tosca(ph) and they have that world wildlife…

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ACKERMAN: …thing going on where you can do that.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. ACKERMAN: But the zoo is very worthwhile visiting and the house that Antonina lived in is still there, so I was able to go and lie down in her bed, and stand on the terrace, and look out and hear the animals waking up in the morning, and so on. Unfortunately, I couldn't hear the actual animals that she raised inside of the house, and they were really extraordinary, even with all of these people that they were keeping safe. She still adopted dozens and dozens of strange animals.

FLATOW: We'll pick up your story, the story of "The Zookeeper's Wife" with Diane Ackerman here. Stay with us, we'll be right back after this break.

(Soundbite of music)


You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow talking with Diane Ackerman. You know her from her essays on nature and human nature, and from her writings. She's author of "A Natural History of the Senses," among her other books. And her latest book is "The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story" about the zoo that was destroyed and how the zookeeper and his wife tried to keep it going, right after the Nazi invasions in 1939, the blitzkrieg.

Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones. Let's go to Rochester, hi. Larry(ph) in Rochester, New York.

LARRY (Caller): Hi, thank you for taking my call. Yes, I have a question for Ms. Ackerman. You've mentioned the Warsaw ghetto and the heroics of the zookeeper and his wife, taking people out and smuggling food in, and I know it's hard to believe but I'm sure that there's some number of listeners, particularly younger listeners, who may not quite appreciate how heroic these acts were, and how - what exactly the Warsaw ghetto meant it was in those days. And I'm wondering if you could expand on this a bit to add some dimension to the story.

Ms. ACKERMAN: Sure, I'd be glad to. The racist Germans decided that they would corral all of the Jews into a very small part of town, which meant that there'd be like 15 people in one small apartment. The standards were very bad and they were allocated only 184 calories a day to exist on. And the whole point was that they were to starve to death, and many of them did, and got typhus and lots of other things. And they decided that they would exterminate all of the Jews and this was just one part of it.

And then at a certain point, they started taking them in trains, to concentration camps and killing them there. I think a lot of people may have heard that six million Jews were killed during the war, but they might not know that additionally, three million Catholics were killed too, and lots of gypsies, and other people as well. The Nazis were determined to have complete genetic control of the whole planet. But Jews, especially were the scapegoats and they did absolutely horrible things to them, very well documented. And anybody who even gave a thirsty Jew a cup of water was killed. Not only could you be killed for hiding a Jew, your whole family would be killed, everybody.

So, you can just imagine what this was like for their 7-year-old son, who was told that even with all of these dramatic things happening every day, all around him, he could not ever tell anyone anything or he would be killed, his parents would be killed, everyone he knew would be killed, and it would all be his fault. That is such a heavy burden for a child.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ACKERMAN: Or for a grownup, as far as that goes. And yet, despite that, there were enormous numbers of rescuers and people who decided that it was just the right thing to do, the moral thing to do.

FLATOW: Let's go to Peter(ph) in Hood River, Oregon. Hi, Peter.

PETER (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

PETER: Diane, first of all, I want to tell you, I read the book and it's just one of the most inspirational books I've ever read, so thank you for doing that.

Ms. ACKERMAN: Thank you. Thank you.

PETER: My question is, you've mentioned earlier in the program, there are some dates of events that you're going to be - being at in Poland and in Warsaw. Did you say this fall or the fall of 2009?

Ms. ACKERMAN: It's going to be in 2008…

PETER: Okay.

Ms. ACKERMAN: …I think it will be in September and I'll be in a few places in Poland. And I'm excited about sharing this story with the Poles.


Ms. ACKERMAN: I know it's part of their own history. A woman who helped me to translate a lot of the Polish and who is a Catholic woman who grew up in Warsaw and spent her first 26 years there, only found out in the process of working with me, that one of her own uncles was a vet at the zoo before the war; another uncle was a rescuer. It just hadn't come down in family lore. Everybody had to be so paranoid to survive.

PETER: Right. Diane, is there a Web site or some place where I can find out more about your travels going to Poland, because I'm Polish-American, I'm a landscape photographer and I'm really curious about maybe doing a book project on this primeval forest in Poland. So, I'd really like to communicate with you at some point. So…

Ms. ACKERMAN: Yes, I do have a Web site and it is not so imaginatively called

PETER: Okay. Thank you very much.

Ms. ACKERMAN: So, you can reach me there.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling. 1-800-989-8255.

Did the Poles seem eager to receptively follow you and welcome you to Poland?

Ms. ACKERMAN: Very - yeah. Every - in fact, everybody has been so open-hearted in their response to this story. You know, we think all of the stories have been told. And as I say, we hear such horrible violent stories on television, and we get convinced that genocide is something new. We don't realize that it's really been going on for a long time, and that even in times of genocide, there are people doing extraordinarily altruistic things.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. We'll go to the phones to Robert(ph) in St. Louis. Hi, Robert.

ROBERT (Caller): Hi, Ira, great show as usual. Ms. Ackerman, just a couple of quick questions on this fascinating topic of yours.


ROBERT: What is this list of weird animals that were preserved at the zoo? And I'm just very curious. And then - is there any - I understand this crazy Nazi plan is totally ludicrous - but is there any good science that comes out of this search for older genetic stocks? And I'll take my answer off the line. Thank you so much.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

Ms. ACKERMAN: Yeah, well, the animals that they raised in their house, they had a carnivorous predatory rabbit that would attack anybody eating sausage for some reason.


Ms. ACKERMAN: They had a cat whose newborn litters, for various reasons, were replaced with newborn foxes, which did confuse the cat because, after all, they barked. And so there were baby foxes all over the house. There was a muskrat who built a lodge in the kitchen stove pipe. There was a cockatoo with a nervous disorder. There were hyperactive baby otters. There was a mischievous badger. There was a drunken hamster, hyena pups. The badger would sleep in bed with the little boy. And one day, when Antonina was trying to find badger, she just happened to look under the boy's bed. And there was a badger pushing the boy's training potty out into the open and using it as it was intended. It was quite a crazy household, and so the underground gave it the codename of the house under a crazy star.


Ms. ACKERMAN: And as for good science that came out of it, yes, actually, ironically, the Nazis led the world in environmentalism. They created wonderful preserves and green areas, the Green Lungs of the country as they referred to it. But they were paradoxical in their attitude towards nature. So, on the one hand, they found animals noble, and mythic, and almost angelic. But on the other hand, they punished someone who experimented on a worm and didn't give him enough anesthesia. Yet the children in Auschwitz could be experimented on with no sedatives at all, no anesthesia. They had a very conflicting relationship towards nature. And the Zabinskis were able to capitalize on that paradox and use it.

FLATOW: Very interesting. 1-800-989-8255. Harvey(ph) in Oakland. Hi, Harvey.

HARVEY (Caller): Yes, I'd like to ask what happened to that 6 or 7-year-old son. Is he still alive? Were you able to talk to him? And I can take my answer on the air, if that's okay.


HARVEY: Thanks.

Ms. ACKERMAN: Yes, I was able to meet him. It was absolutely thrilling. He's in his 70s now. And he has no animals. He lives in an eight-story walk-up. And he says the dogs and cats wouldn't be able to make the stairs. And every second that I was with him, I saw him as a 7-year-old. It's very hard not to when you get to know him like that. He was kind enough to go with me to the zoo and to the house that he grew up in. And we walked through the different rooms so that he could tell me, oh, this was over there. The staircase was still here, but this wasn't there, and so on. He's very much alive.

FLATOW: You never got people saying to you, oh, let's not dredge up those old stories again, those old war stories?

Ms. ACKERMAN: No. No, and especially not in Poland because, you know, when you think about it, most people have the wrong idea about Poland. They think that the Poles made the gas chambers, which of course isn't true. The Germans did, but they built them in Poland. And a lot of the Poles died in them too. So, the Poles are happy to have the world know that there was this other side of resistance going on.

FLATOW: Did the Zabinskis rebuild the zoo after the war was over?

Ms. ACKERMAN: They did rebuild the zoo, and the citizens of Warsaw contributed 300 animals. And I would like to think that that was 300 for the 300 people they saved. And they got the zoo going again, but Jan only stayed a zookeeper for three more years. And then he retired I think because the Soviets came in, and he didn't care for them as bosses. But he didn't stop being a zoologist. Most people in Poland know Jan Zabinski as a man who was like a Science Friday person, on the air every week talking about the behavior of animals and writing lots…

FLATOW: My ancestors are Polish also. Maybe…

Ms. ACKERMAN: Hey, maybe.

FLATOW: He - and Jan, you say he wrote 50 books, but nothing about this experience?

Ms. ACKERMAN: No, he didn't.

FLATOW: That's interesting.

Ms. ACKERMAN: Yeah, and she wrote many children's books. She always wrote them from the perspective of the animals. She had an, like a telepathic relationship with animals. And she loved to get rid of her human skin and imagine herself as a mother lynx or a mother bear or something like that. They have not been translated into English.

FLATOW: Could there be writings of his, since he was such a prolific writer, that have not been discovered that he might have written? That, you know…

Ms. ACKERMAN: That's possible. That's very possible.

FLATOW: It's quite interesting. 1-800-989-8255. Let's see if we can get a couple of phone calls in here. Susan(ph) in Alameda, California. Hi, Susan.

SUSAN (Caller): Hi, how you doing?

FLATOW: Hi, there.

SUSAN: Diane, first of all, I want to say thank you so much for writing this wonderful book. I've never read it, but I am planning on going to the library and getting it, and possibly even buying it. It sounds fantastic.

FLATOW: Well, what a high concept.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SUSAN: There is - what I wanted to know was, well, first of all, two things. I know that parts of Poland used to be Germany as early as the end of the First World War. And one of the World War I heroes, Manfred von Richthofen, was actually born in Warsaw. And so I thought it was kind of ironic that the Nazis are trying attack Poland, and take it over, and things like that. And I think the primeval forest you were talking about may have been an area that he was hunting in at different times. And I was just wondering, the animals that you said were there, like the bison and things like that, are they still allowed to roam free or are they in cages? I was wondering what kind of situation the animals are in in that forest area now.

FLATOW: Let me just remind everybody that I'm talking with Diane Ackerman, author of "The Zookeeper's Wife" on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. Glad you took a breath, Diane. It's like a…

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: …go ahead.

Ms. ACKERMAN: Yes, I did take a breath.

Well, yes, the borders of Poland have changed many, many times. So many times that my grandfather, who was a farm boy in southern Poland, had to learn five foreign languages just to be able to talk with his neighbors. The - they had the bad fortune of being perfectly located in Europe. And Germans did hunt in that forest very often. It was famous for its hunting. And one of the Polish kings even decided to move his court there at one point. What was the other question?

FLATOW: Oh, she - are the animals still running wild?

Ms. ACKERMAN: Oh, yes.


Ms. ACKERMAN: The animals are not running wild in Bialowieski, but they do have a very large enclosure that they're in, so you can see them there. And there are various other animals close to Bialowieski areas, rather, forest, close to the Bialowieski where the animals are running wild.

FLATOW: Maybe you should have - you should start a tour of this. You know, you could…

Ms. ACKERMAN: Oh, my. I'm looking forward to going back.

FLATOW: Yeah? Where will you visit when you go back?

Ms. ACKERMAN: Well, I definitely want to go back to the forest. As I say, the forest is a kind of lost-in-time preserve. Also, Warsaw after the war was rebuilt according to 17th century architectural drawings. So, it's absolutely perfect and very, very beautiful, lovely architectural city. I'd like to go to Krakow and some of the other places too that I haven't seen.

FLATOW: There's not much mention of the ghetto, is there, in Warsaw?

Ms. ACKERMAN: No. They're - the ghetto was destroyed. It was burned absolutely.

FLATOW: There was an uprising. There was a rebellion in the ghetto.

Ms. ACKERMAN: There was an uprising, and people fought ferociously. And we know a great deal about what the lives of these people was like and who they were because they left letters and diary entries. And these things were stored, were hidden in milk churns and buried, and they were found after the war.

FLATOW: Is that how these letters were found, the memoirs of Antonina?

Ms. ACKERMAN: No, not so. She wrote a lot of things after the war. And I came upon them because the woman I mentioned, whose uncle was a vet at the zoo, vaguely remembered that Antonina had kept a memoir of some sort. And so we sent him around to the used bookshops in Warsaw until he found it.

FLATOW: So, did you go to Poland knowing you wanted to write this story or did you stumble on this story?

Ms. ACKERMAN: I came upon the story first and started piecing it together through different books, including testimonies of all kinds of people, and interviews in Yiddish, and Hebrew, and Polish. And more and more, I felt so close to Antonina. She was just a tower of empathy. She was so heartful(ph) when it came to people and animals. I wanted to know more about her. She was an orphan because her own parents were murdered in the early days of the Russian Revolution. And I think, as a result, she adopted all of nature as her family.

FLATOW: And if you want to know more about Antonina, she is the namesake of "The Zookeeper's Wife." She is "The Zookeeper's Wife," a new book out by Diane Ackerman. Very well written as only Diane can do, I highly recommend it.

Ms. ACKERMAN: Oh, thank you.

FLATOW: And we look forward to your visit to Poland. And we'll see how - I hope that works out well. I wish you good luck, and come back and visit us. Visit us…

Ms. ACKERMAN: Oh, I'd be delighted to.

FLATOW: …on your next book. Take care.

Ms. ACKERMAN: Okay. Bye now.

FLATOW: Diane Ackerman, "The Zookeeper's Wife," it's available in bookstores and - online anytime you'd like to get it. That's the end of our show for today. We'd like to thank Greg Smith who composed our theme music. And we had help today from NPR librarian Kee Malesky.

Surf over to our Web site, it's, and leave us some e-mail. Or you can write to us the old, classic way. Here's our address, SCIENCE FRIDAY, 4 West 43rd Street, Room 306, New York, New York 10036. Or surf over to our Web site, it's You can leave us some e-mail there. Or you can watch some of the new videos we have up. We have a video of a terrific - of that heart - that heart structure, rebuilding of the rat heart up there. It's a terrific video. Also, you can get some older editions of SCIENCE FRIDAY's Kids' Connection. And we're blogging and all kinds of stuff, looking for your videos, and learn how you can submit your videos to us. Have a great weekend. We'll see you next week.

I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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