Book Excerpt: ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’

Each morning, when zoo dawn arrived, a starling gushed a medley of stolen songs, distant wrens cranked up a few arpeggios, and cuckoos called monotonously like clocks stuck on the hour. Suddenly the gibbons began whooping bugle calls so crazy loud that the wolves and hunting dogs started howling, the hyenas gibbering, the lions roaring, the ravens croaking, the peacocks screeching, the rhino snorting, the foxes yelping, the hippos braying. Next the gibbons shifted into duets, with the males adding soft squealing sounds between their whoops and the females bellowing streams of long notes in their "great call." The zoo hosted several mated pairs, and gibbon couples yodel formal songs complete with overture, codas, interludes, duets and solos.

Antonina and Jan had learned to live on seasonal time, not mere chronicity. Like most humans, they did abide by clocks, but their routine was never quite routine, made up as it was of compatible realities, one attuned to animals, the other to humans. When timelines clashed, Jan returned home late, and Antonina woke in the night to help midwife an animal like a giraffe (always tricky because the mother gives birth standing up, the calf falls headfirst, and the mother doesn't want help anyway). This brought a slated novelty to each day, and though the problems might be taxing, it imprinted her life with small welcome moments of surprise.

A glass door in Antonina's bedroom opened onto a wide second story terrace at the back of the house, accessible from each of three bedrooms and a narrow storage room they called the attic. Standing on the terrace, she could peer into the spires of evergreens, and over lilacs planted near six tall living room windows to catch river breezes and waft scent indoors. On warm spring days, the lilacs' purple cones swung like censers and a sweet narcotic amber drifted in at intervals, allowing the nose to rest awhile between fragrant reveilles. Perched on that terrace, inhaling air at the level of ginkgo and spruce, one becomes a creature of the canopies. At dawn, a thousand moist prisms ornament the juniper as one glances over the heavily laden limbs of an oak tree, beyond the Pheasant House, down to the zoo's main gate about fifty yards away on Ratuszowa Street. Cross over and you enter Praski Park, as many Warsawians did on warm days, when the linden trees' creamy yellow tassels drugged the air with the numbing scent of honey and the rhumba of bees.

Traditionally, lindens capture the spirit of summer--lipa means linden, and Lipiec means July. Once sacred to the goddess of love, they became Mary's refuge when Christianity arrived, and at roadside shrines, under lindens, travelers still pray to her for good fortune. In Warsaw, lindens enliven parks and ring cemeteries and markets; rows of tall, leaf-helmeted lindens flank the boulevards. Revered as God's servants, the bees they lure provide mead and honey for the table and beeswax candles for church services, which is why many churches planted linden trees in their courtyards. The bee-church connection became so strong that once, at the turn of the fifteenth century, the villagers of Mazowsze passed a law condemning honey thieves and hive vandals to-­death.

In Antonina's day, Poles felt less violent but still zealous about bees, and Jan kept a few hives at the far edge of the zoo, clustered like tribal huts. Housewives used the honey to sweeten iced coffee, make krupnik, hot vodka with honey, and bake piernik, a semisweet honey-spice cake, or pierniczki, honey-spice cookies. They drank linden tea to brighten a cold or tame the nerves. In this season, whenever Antonina crossed the park on her way to the trolley stop, church or market, she walked through corridors thickly scented by linden flowers and abuzz with half-truths--in local slang, lipa also meant white lies.

Across the river, the skyline of Old Town rose from the early-morning mist like sentences written in invisible ink--first just the roofs, whose curved terra cotta tiles overlapped like pigeon feathers--then a story of sea-green, pink, yellow, red, copper, and beige row houses that lined cobblestone streets leading to Market Square. In the 1930s, an open-air market served the Praga district, too, near the vodka factory on Z˛abkowska (Tooth) Street designed to look like a squat castle. But it wasn't as festive as Old Town's, where dozens of vendors sold produce, crafts, and food below yellow and tan awnings, the shop windows displayed Baltic amber, and for a few groschen a trained parrot would pick your fortune from a small jug of paper scrolls.

Just beyond Old Town lay the large Jewish Quarter, full of mazy streets, women wearing wigs and men sideburn curls, religious dancing, a mix of dialects and aromas, tiny shops, dyed silks, and flat-roofed buildings where iron balconies, painted black or moss green, rose one above the other, like opera boxes filled not with people but with tomato pots and flowers. There one could also find a special kind of pierogi, large chewy kreplach: fist-sized dumplings filled with seasoned stew meat and onions before being boiled, baked, then fried, the last step glazing and toughening them like bagels.

The heartbeat of eastern European Jewish culture, the Quarter offered Jewish theater and film, newspapers and magazines, artists and publishing houses, political movements, sports and literary clubs. For centuries, Poland had granted asylum to Jews fleeing persecution in England, France, Germany, and Spain. Some twelfth century Polish coins even bear Hebrew inscriptions, and one legend has it that Jews found Poland attractive because the country's name sounded like the Hebrew imperative po lin ("rest here"). Yet anti-Semitism still percolated in twentieth century Warsaw, a city of 1.3 million people, a third of whom were Jewish. They mainly settled in the Quarter, but also lived in posher neighborhoods throughout the city, though for the most part they kept their distinctive garb, language, and culture, with some speaking no Polish at all.