Study Guide

The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story

By Diane Ackerman

The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story Introduction

Zoos get a bad rap these days. Some critics believe that zoo animals belong in the wild, or in a sanctuary. Other critics say zoos aren't as dedicated to conservation as they should be as they should be. And a small number believe that simply visiting a zoo is unethical.

And when your bedroom is a total mess, someone is liable to comment "this place is a zoo," meaning if you don't restore order to it immediately, then PETA is liable to throw paint on you and your bedspread.

Zoos weren't always synonymous with ethical dilemmas, bad press, and overzealous animal rights activists. Many zoos began with a mission to conserve wildlife and give people a safe environment to view animals in as close to their natural habitat as possible. Strangely, the Nazis (yes, those goose-stepping, swastika-wearing jerks) loved animals. They loved them so much that they thought they could bring back extinct "pure" animals to roam the world once again.

This sounds like bad sci-fi, but stick with us.

Things got really problematic when the Nazis extended their ethnic cleansing attitude toward humans—trying to breed a "pure" race at the expense of others. That's when a little something called World War II broke out. It's a tragic, scary, upsetting bit of history we all know about. But what you may not know is how two heroic Polish zookeepers stepped up and did their part to rescue as many Jews as they could from Nazi-occupied Poland.

Published in 2007, Diane Ackerman's The Zookeeper's Wife tells the true story of Jan and Antonia Żabiński, two real-life zookeepers who risked their lives as part of an underground resistance to Hitler. When all the animals are taken from their zoo, they use their free space to hide refugees until they can find a safe home. It's like an Underground Railroad with Peppa Pig as the conductor.

Nazi Germany occupied Poland from 1939 to 1945. The Zookeeper's Wife details not just the goings-on in the zoo, but life in Warsaw, Poland's capital. Bombs fall. An underground resistance forms. Jews are segregated into a terrible ghetto. And food is scarce: there isn't a single pierogi to be found.

The Zookeeper's Wife won the Orion Award in 2008 for "deepen[ing] our connection to the natural world" (source). Diane Ackerman does it all: she's a poet and Pulitzer Prize-nominated author who writes about a variety of subjects. One Hundred Names for Love is about her relationship with her husband as he recovers from a debilitating stroke. And in A Natural History of the Senses she writes about what quicksand sounds like and that one time she cried because a particular color of yellow was just so freaking yellow (source). We don't want to know how she reacts when she looks at Big Bird.

The Zookeeper's Wife was a huge hit upon publication, becoming a New York Times bestseller. In 2016, it was developed into a film starring Jessica Chastain and directed by Niki Caro, who also directed Whale Rider. Now we just need a movie about refugees been hidden in an abandoned Sea World, right? Although it would be hard for the refugees to hold their breath that long underwater.

What is The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story About and Why Should I Care?

If we have to tell you why you should care about World War II, a war which claimed over 72 million lives worldwide (source) and ruined Charlie Chaplin's mustache for all future generations, you might need more help than we can offer. Looking up the definition of "compassion" isn't going to cut it.

But every time you turn around, you bump into a story about World War II. You've hit your head on Schindler's List. Stubbed a toe on Elie Wiesel's Night. And smacked your knee on War Horse. Not only are you crazy clumsy, but you're probably sick of World War II stories.

So we want to tell you why should care about this particular World War II story.

Although it has elements of all the tales we mentioned above, The Zookeeper's Wife is different. This book is the true story of unsung heroes. Jan and Antonia Żabiński are normal people caught up in an extraordinary war, but their story combines all the best elements of classic WWII stories. It's nonfiction like Night. The two zookeepers save innocent lives like Schindler. And there are cute animals, like in War Horse. What else could you want in a war story?

Risking their lives to selflessly help Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied Warsaw, Jan and Antonina are as heroic as we hope we could be in a similar situation. In an interview, Jan is quoted as saying "I only did my duty—if you can save somebody's life, it's your duty to try" (35.23).

He makes it sound so easy.

World War II was a time when many people did the wrong thing, so we still need all the inspiration we can get that humanity isn't totally awful and worthless. Jan and Antonina's heroic behavior shows us that people are capable of good things during evil times. If saving lives were as easy as Jan makes it out to be, and if everyone behaved the way he and his wife did, there would be no war, which means we'd have a lot more time to look at cute animals.

The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story Resources

Websites

We Feel the Earth Move under Our Feet
If you're looking for "prose so rich and evocative that one can feel the earth turning beneath one's feet as one reads," then look no further than Diane Ackerman's website. That's how she describes her own writing.

Movie or TV Productions

The Zookeeper's Wife: The Movie
The film stars Jessica Chastain as Antonina. No word yet on who will play the Badger.

Articles and Interviews

Super Cows
One of the weirder bits of Nazi behavior that Ackerman alludes to is their desire to resurrect an extinct species of cow. Here's a moo-ving article that reveals more about that mission.

What's That Smell?
Although this interview is 95% about The Zookeeper's Wife, the other 5% is about how Diane Ackerman has a reptilian sex pheromone named after her.

Video

Wascally Wabbit
Where else will you hear an author call a rabbit a "fat, furry thug"?

Radical Acts of Compassion
In this interview, Ackerman shows her passion for compassion.

Audio

Calling All Guests
Ackerman hopes any Guests from the zoo will contact her and tell her their stories.

Creeping to Crete
The piano song Antonina plays—"Go, go, go to Crete"—comes from Offenbach's opera La belle Hélène. Go, go, go to YouTube and watch it.

Images

Llama Llama Llama, She Made You Out of Clay
Magdalena Gross's sculptures aren't gross at all. They're a little smaller than you might expect, but they're charming nonetheless.

Little Eden
The villa was a save haven from villa-nous activity.