Study Guide

Antonina Żabińska in The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story

By Diane Ackerman

Antonina Żabińska

The Zoo's Keeper

If we were Antonina Żabińska—girl's name is totally pronounced ahn-toh-NEE-na zha-BIN-ska—we would take issue with this book's title. Although accurate—she is the wife of a zookeeper—she is a zookeeper in her own right.

Early on, she is presented to us as if she were a housewife. We're told "all the usual domestic chores awaited her each day, and she was clever with food, paintbrush, or needle" (1.2). But we soon learn about her "uncanny ability to calm unruly animals," which is a "strange and mysterious" gift (1.22).

We'll come back to that semi-psychic stuff in a bit.

The more we learn about Antonina, the more we see what her true role is. Newsflash: she's more than just the zookeeper's wife. For one thing, she has a motherly role around the villa. Her son has a nanny, so Antonina is more of a mother to the animals than to her own offspring.

That makes her a zookeeper, Diane Ackerman.

Just saying.

Anyway, Antonina takes care of young animals and knows the routines and personalities of all the larger animals in the zoo. When Jan is called away to war on multiple occasions, the responsibility falls on Antonina to watch over the zoo's animals. She scrambles through the zoo's wreckage to find injured animals and rescue them.

And what's her husband doing? Off fighting a war, that's what. We mean, hey, that's totally legit, and mad props and all, but taking this into consideration, you could argue that Antonina is more of a zookeeper than her husband. Right?

Animal Instincts

Antonina is a warm caretaker because she is a sensitive and compassionate person. The very concept of war horrifies her. She writes in her journal, "How can this barbarity be happening in the twentieth century?!!!!!!" (12.1). Those six exclamation points show us how upset she is. Either that, or she's insane.

Frankly, she might be the latter. Early on, we're told she possesses a kind of "shamanistic empathy" (1.23) that wouldn't be out of place in a fantasy novel. But even Hagrid didn't believe he could telepathically communicate with animals.

Antonina does. According to Jan, she "is able to emit waves of calm and understanding" (27.37). And when soldiers invade her home, Antonina believes she is able, with the power of her thoughts, to push them away.

This is a little bonkers, but hey, the war makes people desperate to make sense of their situation. Antonina might be an atheist, but she is still superstitious: she believes her second child is a "healthy baby [that] posed a good omen" (30.39). And then the baby is barely mentioned again.

Considering how strongly Antonina searches for meaning in a meaningless world, it's not surprising that she believes she is in control of a situation that, like the war, is entirely out of her control.

As a modern writer, Ackerman attempts to explain Antonina's beliefs scientifically. She references "the role of mirror neurons. […] The same neurons fire whether we do something or watch someone else do the same thing, and both summon similar feelings" (27.39). What do you think of her explanation? Can science explain what Antonina believes she can do?

On the hand, anybody who's lived with a dog or a cat or whatever knows that you communicate with the animal, and the animal communicates with you. You kind of work out a sort of language that isn't a language. So maybe Antonina's just upping the ante a bit. After all, she works in a zoo, full time. She probably does understand these creatures better than we do.

It Takes a Villa

We can't determine whether Antonina's brainwaves are stronger than your average bear's, but one thing is for sure: Antonina's motherly instincts are as strong as those of any of the female animals in her zoo. She's just as fierce as a mama bear defending her cub.

Antonina devotes her life to providing a safe environment for her son—which is impossible when bombs could fall without warning. Her strong instincts lead her, in fact, to her biggest personal conflict: how to deal with her son rapidly losing his innocence in a violent world? It's out of her control. Other than moving him to a safer home when absolutely necessary, Antonina physically can't do a thing about it.

What she can do is write about it in her journal and try to come to terms with it. Also, by taking in Jewish refugees, feeding them, and providing them shelter, Antonina allows herself to be a mother not just to her own children, but to the world.

Perhaps her mental struggle is why Antonina turns to writing children's books after the war. She wants to make sense of a chaotic world.

Note: In case you're confused, we'll break down Polish surnames for you. Antonina Żabińska is married to Jan Żabiński. Together, they're the Żabińskis, and their son is Ryszard Żabiński. Żabiński is the basic form of the last name, the form given to men. For women, the –is replaced with –a, sort of like way masculine Carl becomes feminine Carla. So for Antonina, the name Żabiński becomes Żabińska. In Polish, it's recognized as the same name. Pronunciation: zha-BIN-skee and zha-BIN-ska.

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