Study Guide

The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story Analysis

By Diane Ackerman

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Whose Zoo Is It, Anyway?

    The title makes it seem like Jan is the zookeeper and Antonina is simply is wife, as if she has little to do with the zoo or its animals. But in face, Antonina appears to be closer to the animals than Jan is, and once Jan goes to war, she spends more time at the zoo than he does.

    But we can't rename the thing The Zookeeper's Husband, because that would mislead people into thinking the book was about Jan. The story mostly focuses on Antonina, although even that is a little misleading, since two chapters don't feature Antonina or Jan at all. The book is more about Poland during World War II, with Antonina as the central point on which the rest of the story pivots.

    Putting aside the focus of the book and returning to the title, what's up with it? Really? The book falls into the questionable 21st-century tradition of naming a book after a female character's relationship to a man. The Time Traveler's Wife. Ahab's Wife. The Memory Keeper's Daughter. The Aviator's Wife.

    The idea is generally to present a familiar story from a woman's perspective—but that not's actually what's going on here, exactly. In those books, the time traveler's wife is not a time traveler. The aviator's wife is not an aviator. Ahab isn't married to himself. But in this book, Antonina takes care of the zoo more than her husband does. Why not just title it The Zookeeper or The Zookeepers and leave it at that?

    Maybe the point is that we expect the story to be about the male zookeeper, when really, it's his wife who does most of the zookeeping. But still.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Where Are They Now?

    Because this is a nonfiction book, the final chapter serves as a "Where are they now?" of sorts. Well, not exactly, because the true answer to this would be "dead." So it's more like a "where did they all go after the war finally ended?" type of chapter—but that's a mouthful.

    In 1945, wedding bells ring-a-ding-ding for Magdalena and Maurycy. Jan, however, is in a POW camp. After miraculously surviving after being shot through the neck, Jan returns to Antonina and his children in 1946 and begins repairing the zoo—and their spirits—in 1947. Some of the original animals, like the badger, are even found and rescued.

    But the war is over, and not everyone needs rescuing now. One significant event is a small one: Ryś finds Balbina the cat in the woods, but Balbina doesn't want to go with him. She is like any of the Guests who lived in the zoo: they don't want to stay at the villa anymore, not because they don't like it there, but because once it is safe, everyone wants to find a home of his or her own.

    That doesn't mean that Jan and Antonina lose touch with everyone. Jan commissions animal sculptures from Magdalena to stand at the zoo, reminding them of her calming presence there during more troubled times.

    Jan retires in 1951. He and Antonina focus on their writing, providing many of the sources for this book.

    In the final chapter, set in 2005, Diane Ackerman, who is searching for sources, visits Warsaw and remembers everyone she includes in her book while she looks at a fountain. The inspiration flows through her. She realizes that, by telling this story, all of these people's memories live on.

  • Setting

    The Warsaw Zoo, Poland, 1935-45


    Zoos were once known as sanctuaries of conservation, and conservation is the main focus of the Warsaw Zoo in the 1930s. Before World War II breaks out, the zoo is, well, a zoo. It features many animals, including Tuzinka, "one of only twelve elephants ever born in captivity" (2.11). In the early 1940s, before the Internet and TV, zoos were one of the only places to see wild animals move around in their natural environments, or at least in facsimiles of those natural environments.

    As The Zookeeper's Wife, Antonina of course supports the zoo's mission. "She believed that meeting [animals] at the zoo widened a visitor's view of nature, personalized it, gave it habits and names. Here lived the wild, that fierce beautiful monster, caged and befriended" (1.7). Antonina sees the animals' presence as a learning opportunity, a way to get in touch with her animal instincts and to better herself.

    The animals don't just live in cages, either. Antonina often welcomes (smaller, tamer) animals into her home, showing us how she freely blends human life with animal life.

    However, the zoo isn't a permanent safe haven. The Germans, who do animal testing in a weird attempt to build purebred animals, confiscate or kill most of the animals at the zoo. Antonina—or maybe it's Ackerman—seems to equate the destruction of the zoo with the destruction of the world as a whole, since she uses the word "liquidation" when referring to both the extermination of zoo animals and the Holocaust (7.15, 20.5). Do you think this word choice planned or coincidence, and does it mean anything?

    Whatever the intention of that word, one thing is sure: without any animals, the zoo has no purpose. Antonina and Jan need to fill it. Being skilled zookeepers enables them to hide Jewish refugees when World War II goes into full swing. At the zoo, "Guests in flight from the Ghetto found villa life a small Eden, complete with garden, animals, and motherly bread maker" (14.12).

    By welcoming refugees into their home, Antonina and Jan allow the zoo to still be a sanctuary, albeit a safe haven to animals of the human persuasion. In this case, the proverbial bars aren't intended to keep the Guests in, but to keep the Nazis out.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (4) Base Camp

    Breaking out of a zoo is harder than the animals in Madagascar make it out to be. But breaking into a zoo? Who would want to do that? We can think of only three reasons to break into a zoo: 1) to kidnap animals, 2) to take unobstructed selfies with sloths, and 3) to hide there.

    That's why people sneak into the zoo in The Zookeeper's Wife: they're hiding from the Nazis. That's scary, to put it mildly. The book? Not nearly as scary or difficult as evading genocide.

    However, although Ackerman most often uses simple, easy-to-understand language, her writing style can be a little obtuse, and she tends to use big words when smaller ones will do. The book is also filled with many Polish and German names, which can be hard to pronounce, and Ackerman has a tendency to jump between different people and different timelines with little notice, leaving you a little dizzy, like when you've taken a deep breath at the elephant cage after feeding time.

    Because this is a true story, the book is still understandable, even if it is a bit scattered. Chaos can be fun, like watching animals scamper and play. Reading this book is less like trying to avoid a stampede of rhinos and more like enjoying the Puppy Bowl.

  • People as Animals

    What would a zoo be without animals? PETA might argue "paradise." But whatever your opinion, it would be a sad—and maybe a little creepy—series of empty cages. All that space should be used for something, right?

    Jan and Antonina decide that is Hitler if going to treat people like animals, then these people might as well hide them in the empty zoo habitats. As Ackerman writes, "The great apes (including us) have been staging clever deceits, lying on purpose […] for at least 12 million years" (16.1). By hiding refugees in the zoo, Jan and Antonina are using their animal instincts against the nastiest animal of them all.

    To complete the deceit, Jan and Antonina create code names for all their zoo Guests, naming the visiting humans after animals. The Kenigsweins, for example are known as the "sables" (24.12), and Antonina dyes their hair blonde to help them escape. She messes up, of course, turning their hair orange. (Don't quit your day job, Antonina.) From then on, the Kenigsweins are called "Squirrels" (25.4).

    This craziness leads the Fox Man to complain that the zookeepers "use animal names for people and people's names for animals!" (24.11). Well, yeah: the code names provide an additional buffer of protection for the Guests. Because "the Nazis were ardent animal lovers and environmentalists" (8.16), they usually look the other way from the zoo. They have no problem exterminating people, but they wouldn't hurt a sable or a squirrel.

    By getting in touch with their animal sides, the Guests and the zookeepers are able to do what animals have done best for millions and billions of years: survive.

  • The Mermaid Statue

    Part of Your World

    The not-so-little mermaid known as Syrenka is a the real-life symbol of Warsaw. Diane Ackerman draws a comparison between Antonina and the mermaid once, at the very beginning of the book, saying, "[Antonina] reigned as mammal mother herself and protectress of many others. Not an outlandish image in a city whose age-old symbol was half woman, half animal: a mermaid brandishing a sword" (1.31).

    This is Ackerman's way of showing us early on that she sees Antonina as someone who is half woman, half animal, in a way. Antonina, as the zookeeper's wife, blends both her human nature and her animal instincts together in order to survive the war.

    We would just leave it at that, but Ackerman revisits—literally—the mermaid statue in the book's final chapter. We say "literally" because Ackerman herself treks to Warsaw and lays her own eyeballs on the statue of Syrenka.

    Symbolism can be hard to find in real life, but in Warsaw, Ackerman basically brings a big neon arrow that says "SYMBOL ALERT! SYMBOL ALERT!" and points it at that statue. She's both reaffirming her earlier description of Antonina as half woman and half animal, and she is imagining Antonina herself visiting the statue and seeing it as a symbol of herself.

    It is likely Antonina saw the statue, but do you think Antonina would see herself in the statue? If so, what aspects of herself would she see in it? The fierceness? The independence? The layer of pigeon poop? Or would she think Nice statue, bro, and move along?

  • Food

    Please Feed the Animals

    Certain foods remind us of home. People from India might love a delicious samosa. Japanese people might love some nice sashimi. And people from Mississippi get all misty eyed over a plate of Spam with Velveeta melted all over it. Just like Mom used to make.

    Early on in The Zookeeper's Wife, Diane Ackerman lists some traditional Polish and Jewish foods. She tells us that "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" (1.12).

    Yes, please invite us over for breakfast.

    And in the Jewish Quarter, "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" (1.14).

    Okay, we'll take two breakfasts.

    But these descriptions soon disappear. Is Ackerman no longer hungry?

    Nope. Ackerman can't describe the food from here on out, because the food itself is impossible to find. As World War II intensifies, everyone goes hungry. Their homes are destroyed, and so are their comfort foods. The only food people can get sometimes is stale bread and dry oatmeal.

    No one will be nostalgic for that.

    We imagine that as soon as the war was over and food was available again, the first thing Antonina did was to cook a huge delicious dinner and dig in.

    • Allusions

      Literary and Philosophical References

      • Charles Darwin (15.38)
      • Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (15.49) (21.7)

      Historical References

      • Adolf Hitler (throughout) 
      • World War II (throughout)
      • The Holocaust (throughout)

      Art and Music References

      • Glenn Miller (5.1)
      • Marc Chagall (19.5)
      • Auguste Rodin (19.13)
      • Frederic Chopin (21.8) (29.3) (35.17)
      • Sergei Rachmaninoff (21.8)
      • Johann Sebastian Bach (31.68)
      • "The Star-Spangled Banner" (31.75)
      • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (35.17)
      • Gioachino Rossini (35.17)

      Pop Culture References

      • Greta Garbo, Ninotchka (5.1)
      • The Rules of the Game (5.1)
      • Judy Garland, The Wizard of Oz (5.1)