Study Guide

The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story Setting

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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.

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