Study Guide

Jan Żabiński in The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story

By Diane Ackerman

Jan Żabiński

We Bought a Zoo

Jan Żabiński—that's pronounced Yahn, folks—is the Zookeeper in the title, and although the apostrophe-S implies possession of his wife, he doesn't own her. She is her own woman, and she's able to survive when he is away at war. However, he does have great influence over her life. In fact, if she had never married him, her life would have been much different.

When Jan and Antonina marry in 1931, it's Jan who decides to accept a job and move into the Warsaw Zoo. Before they married, Jan studied zoology. He didn't do this out of any particular love for animals; he did it "to spite [his] father, who didn't like or appreciate animals" (13.2).

Spite is usually a bad motivation or choosing a life path, but in this case, it worked. Jan is attuned to animal psychology, and he applies what he learns about animal behavior to his human relationships. "The connections he fostered were between people and animals, and always between people and their animal nature" (1.3). War is all about animal nature. Men in battle must act like animals to survive. And vicious ones, too, like koalas.

Tinker Keeper Husband Spy

Jan's skills come in handy when he starts working in secret for the Polish Underground. He disappears for long sections of the book, toiling away against the Nazis while Antonina keeps the villa together the best she can.

In fact, Jan's psychological skills—learned from his work with animals—enable him to trick German soldiers and sneak numerous Jews out of the Warsaw Ghetto. His zookeeper skills allow him to hide these people safely until they are able to flee even further away from Nazi-occupied Poland. And his skills at being spiteful make him a ruthless enemy to deal with.

You do not want to be on Jan's bad side.

Jan cozies up to the Germans, letting them use his zoo, and then he turns on them as soon as he can. Sure, you can use the zoo as a pig farm, he says. Then he poisons the pork and feeds it to German soldiers. Sure, take all our animals, he says. Then he hides Jewish refugees in the now-empty animal habitats.

He's a brilliant strategist, motivated both by his sense of right and by his urge to stick it to people who unfairly exercise their power over others. At the end of the book, Jan appears to live on pure spite. As a POW, for example, he is shot through the neck, and yet he lives, almost as if to say, through the bloody hole in his neck, You'll never kill me, Adolf.

Animal Husbandry

Unfortunately for Antonina, Jan's volatile nature sometimes extends to their marriage. As Ackerman tells us, "Jan apparently made daily life tense by often yelling at Antonina, despite her efforts to please him" (27.6).

Antonina already feels inadequate as a mother, and she begins to feel useless as a wife. Ackerman elaborates, writing, "Nothing she did ever seemed good enough, nothing made him proud of her, and perpetually disappointing him felt wretched" (27.7). Considering she seems to let him do whatever he wants, without making him tell her about any of his secret doings, and still manages to shelter, feed, and clothe every single refugee he brings to the villa, perhaps Jan should cool it.

For someone with so much anger at his own father, Jan seems to have little or no respect for feminine traits like warmth, mothering, and caretaking. The only time he compliments Antonina is when she manages to scare away a German soldier—a distinctly "masculine" act, in his mind. Antonina is elated, and she writes in her journal, "He was talking about my talents, praising me in the presence of other people. It never happened before!" (27.34).

Being the wife of a zookeeper might not be all it's cracked up to be.

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.