By Brandon Griggs

The Salt Lake Tribune

In Nazi-occupied Warsaw during World War II, two resourceful keepers of the city's bombed-out zoo rescued Jews by smuggling them into empty animal enclosures. At a time when handing a thirsty Jew a cup of water was punishable by death, this brave Polish couple outwitted the surrounding Germans and spared the lives of some 300 people.

This remarkable true story is recounted in a new book, The Zookeeper's Wife, by naturalist, poet and essayist Diane Ackerman, author of the best-seller The Natural History of the Senses. Ackerman spent more than three years weaving this little-known chapter of history into an inspiring read that may join Schindler's List and Hotel Rwanda as popular accounts of heroism in the face of genocide.

"There's been so much written that it's hard to believe there are still little pockets of World War II history that are unknown," says Betsy Burton, owner of The King's English Bookshop in Salt Lake City. Burton believes The Zookeeper's Wife, crafted with Ackerman's trademark attention to sensory detail, may be her most accessible book yet. "I think it'll have a broad appeal," she says. "I couldn't put it down."

Ackerman will read from the book Monday night at The King's English to help celebrate the bookstore's 30th birthday. Burton and then-partner Ann Berman opened their shop in a cozy cottage on Sept. 10, 1977; in the three decades since, the store has survived by hand- selling favorites to loyal customers while hosting readings by everyone from John Irving to Sue Grafton to Nobel Prize-winning poets. Monday's event will mark Ackerman's first visit.

The author says she was led to Warsaw zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski while researching a unique breed of wild horses from a primeval forest in eastern Poland. When Ackerman stumbled upon the Zabinskis and their wartime story, she was riveted.

"I woke up one morning and discovered I was coming down with a book," she says by phone from her home in Ithaca, N.Y. "It was like a telegram had been slipped under the door of my subconscious."

Through her research, Ackerman learned that despite the loss of most of their zoo animals, the Zabinskis maintained a small but colorful menagerie in their wartime villa: a badger that slept atop the piano, a piglet who played with their young son and a carnivorous rabbit that swiped meat off dinner plates. These animals mingled with the dozens of Jews the Zabinskis sequestered in their home to create a bustling but welcome atmosphere of surprising innocence during a time of war.

The Zookeeper's Wife details how Jan Zabinski helped the Polish resistance by storing explosives in the elephant enclosure - a fact he even kept secret from his wife - and sneaking Jews from the Warsaw ghetto into the zoo, where he gave them animal code names and hid them successfully for years. His wife, Antonina, meanwhile, used her rare charm and intuitiveness to soothe their anxious guests and keep their war-torn household together. Thanks to her copious diaries, which Ackerman read in translation, Antonina emerges as the book's most compelling character.

"She was a woman of extraordinary empathy and who had a special gift for calming animals," says Ackerman, who considers Antonina a soulmate. "And they responded to her in an almost magical way."

Although Jan and Antonina Zabinski died in the 1970s, Ackerman was able to reconstruct their thoughts and feelings about their wartime experiences. She toured today's Warsaw zoo, interviewed the Zabinskis' surviving son and read accounts of their exploits in foreign newspapers. Thanks to this research and her narrative storytelling approach - a departure from Ackerman's previous books - The Zookeeper's Wife reads more like fiction than history.

"The true story is so powerful and poignant. It's a story of great compassion and great courage," says Ackerman, who was careful to stick to the facts as she knew them. "Yes, it does sound like a novel, because their life was like that. But if I had written it as a novel, people would have said, 'Oh, she's making this up.' "