This book is so much more than just what the title and description let on. It's a foray into the deepest fears, inhibitions and risks felt by Jews and their rescuers as well as the beliefs and systems of thinking of the Nazis attempting to overtake Warsaw's heart and soul in 1940's Poland.
The novel starts off by giving a brief history of Jan and his wife Antonina's lives as zookeepers. Jan was the zoo director, who arranged for rare and exotic animals to be bred and kept at the zoo, including the 12th elephant born into captivity, (Tuzinka) and Antonina took the place of the peacekeeper and the gentle midwife who would often bring newborn and baby animals into her house, including two lynxes, who became household pets. Antonina had a special gift for communicating with animals, which she would use to calm and speak with them, almost to the point, her husband said, of becoming an animal herself.
Enter Hitler and WWII. Poland was one of, if not the hardest hit of the European nations during the war, especially Warsaw, with it's tens of thousands of Jews, and the Nazi's plan to make the Polish people slaves for their future Aryan society. After the bombing and eventual occupation of Warsaw early on in the war, the Jews were rounded up and placed in the Ghetto, with little food, water, or medical supplies.
Jan and Antonina worked closely with the Underground movements throughout the occupation, which involved smuggling medical supplies and food into the ghetto, and especially in keeping Jews hidden in their now-empty animal cages (especially the pheasant cages). All of Jan and Antonina's precious animals had either been rounded up to be shipped back to Germany to 'back-breed' various species of animals in an effort to eventually re-create the then extinct pre-historic 'auroch' or giant breed of bulls. The Nazis didn't just want a perfect breed of man, they wanted perfect 'Aryan' breeds of animals for the perfect man to hunt. They also wanted to be able to ride the Przywalski horse, a horse that somewhat resembles what the pre-historic horse probably looked like. (Explain to me why, if we believe in evolution, we want to go backwards. I don't get it...)
Any animals that weren't shipped away to Germany or various other zoos to be used in this plan were shot by the Nazi officers in the Warsaw zoo in a drunken hunting spree, while the Zablinski family was forced to remain in the house and listen to the gunshots of these men killing off their animal friends.
The rest of the war was filled with sniper shootings, bombings, the uprising of the ghetto (which didn't succeed), several close-calls in which either Jan's resourcefulness or Antonina's calming presence were all that kept the family from being shipped to a work camp.
This book, while often desparingly sad, was filled with information on not just the herioc Zabinskis, but the people that surrounded them during this time, including Lutz Heck, the Nazi at the head of the 'back-breeding' project, the Zabinski's 'guest' and close friend of Antonina, Magdalena Gross, a sculptor who used the zoo's various birds for her designs before and after the war, and Rys, the son of Antonina and Jan, whom the author was able to meet.
Not a fast-paced book, but one to slowly take in and absorb, and remember.