Study Guide

The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story Compassion and Forgiveness

By Diane Ackerman

Compassion and Forgiveness

Chapter 1

"It's not enough to do research from a distance. It's by living beside animals that you learn their behavior and psychology." (1.18)

This is Jan's research philosophy. By replacing the word "animals" with "humans," you get Antonina's philosophy in observing the people who stay with them over the course of the war. If only she were roommates with Hitler, maybe she would have understood him, too. Or maybe not.

Antonina loved to slip out of her human skin for a while and spy on the world through each animal's eyes, and she often wrote from that outlook, in which she intuited their concerns and know-how, including what they might be seeing, feeling, fearing, sensing, remembering. (1.21)

Early on in the book, it feels like Antonina has extraordinary compassion for animals, as a zookeeper should. But later on, we start to wonder if Antonina actually feels she can communicate with animals telepathically. What do you think, is she compassionate or crazy? Maybe that kind of telepathic communication is real?

Chapter 2

Antonina felt convinced that people needed to connect more with their animal nature, but also that animals "long for human company, reach out for human attention," with a yearning that's somehow reciprocal. (2.14)

During the war, Antonina finds a way to combine her love for animals with her keen observation of human psychology. By doing this, she is able to communicate effectively with almost anyone—and to help many people along the way.

Chapter 4

"At least humans can pack their essentials, keep moving, keep improvising. […] The zoo animals are in a much worse situation than we are," she lamented, "because they're totally dependent on us." (4.31)

Antonina still feels for the animals, even during the violence of war. Nevertheless, she never puts their safety above the safety of humans.

Chapter 13

"I don't understand all the fuss. If any creature is in danger, you save it, human or animal." (13.7)

Don't forget plants. Antonina is also upset when the Germans eradicate many plants in the zoo. We think she's basically anti-destruction, in general. Not a bad position to take, if you ask us.

"I had a moral indebtedness to the Jews," Jan once told a reporter. (13.2)

Jan explains that his compassion for the Jews is partly the result of going to a Jewish school. We'd have thought "being a decent person" would be explanation enough. Does this mean that if Jan didn't go to a mostly Jewish school, he wouldn't care for them at all? Probably not, but it does show that even otherwise good people at the time were biased against the Jews living with them. The Holocaust didn't happen in a vacuum.

Chapter 15

"What a horrible pity," his wife lamented. "I love roses so much!" (15.11)

Speaking of plants, some people, like this official's wife, seem to care about plants more than about humans or animals. Dead elephants? Who cares. The Holocaust? So what? But don't you touch those roses.

Chapter 27

A toddler again after so many years, [Antonina] felt cosseted by Magdalena and the others, who allowed her to be a sick little girl, fussed over by family, but she also scolded herself and "felt so embarrassed and useless." (27.2)

Like many caretakers, Antonina loves taking care of other people, but she herself hates being taken care of.

Chapter 32

Over the next few days, Mrs. Kokot provided bread and butter, and brought a small wooden bathtub for Teresa and hot water. (32.17)

Without the presence of kindly old ladies—and not-so-old ladies like Antonina—the world would be a much more horrible place. That's one lesson we've totally learned from The Zookeeper's Wife.

Chapter 36

It's a chimera I think Antonina would have identified with: a defender half woman, half animal. On both sides of the pillar, a bearded god spills water from his mouth, and it's easy to picture Antonina setting down her basket, angling a jug under a spout, and waiting as life gurgled up from the earth. (36.17)

The book ends with the author attempting to identify with Antonina. Do you agree with what she thinks, that Antonina would identify with this statue? Why or why not?

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