Study Guide

The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story Family

By Diane Ackerman

Family

Chapter 1

In the kitchen each morning, [Antonina] poured herself a cup of black tea and started sterilizing glass baby bottles and rubber nipples for the household's youngest. (1.23)

The Żabiński family isn't only made up of husband, wife, and son. To them, their animals are like family, too. You might think it would be weird growing up with a monkey as a brother, but hey, Ryś seems to turn out okay, so we're not gonna question it.

In 1931, they married and moved across the river to Praga, a tough industrial district with its own street slang, on the wrong side of the tracks, but only fifteen minutes by trolley from downtown. (1.5)

Like any young couple, Jan and Antonina move to a place where they think it will be nice to start a family. Unlike most young couples, they move into a zoo.

Chapter 5

Like other animal mothers, she grew desperate to find a safe hiding place for her young, "but unlike them," she wrote in her diary, "I can't carry Ryś in my jaws to a safe nest." (5.2)

Here we have a mother fearing that she can't help her family. It's kind of a tragic situation, but the image of her carrying her own son in her mouth is kind of too funny not to laugh at.

Chapter 10

If she couldn't protect the animals in her keeping, how could she protect her own son? (10.14)

As the title suggests, Antonina is defined by her relationship to her husband. She also places all her worth in her ability to take care of her son. An alternate title of this book might be The Zookeeper's Son's Mother.

Chapter 16

Lonia had watched Szymon die; her daughter had been discovered by the Gestapo in Krakòw and shot; only the dachshund survived as a family. (16.13)

Antonina is happy to have animals as part of the family because she still has a human family. Szymon Tenenbaum's wife, Lonia, doesn't have the luxury, so it's really sad that a dog is her family—and her only family.

Chapter 18

According to Jan, "The personality of animals will develop according to how you raise, train, educate them—you can't generalize about them. Just like people who own dogs and cats will tell you, no two are exactly alike. Who knew that a rabbit could learn to kiss a human, open doors, or give us reminders about dinnertime?" (18.8)

By treating animals as part of the family, the Żabińskis end up with nice, sweet animals. Does this mean animals without families are mean? Somewhere, is there a bunny with no family who tries to organize a mass extinction of all other bunnies?

Chapter 22

Years of war and curfews didn't alter that; he still anxiously awaited his father's return. Respecting this, Jan would go straight to Ryś's room, remove his backpack, and sit for a few minutes to talk about the day, often producing a little treasure tucked in a pocket. (22.2)

Jan tries to maintain a healthy relationship with his son, even in the middle of a war. This guy deserves all the Father's Day cards.

Chapter 23

Sharing a room, the hamster and Maurycy seemed to find amusement in each other, and Antonina noted how quickly the two became companions. (23.29)

It isn't only the Żabińskis who treat animals as family. Maurycy bunks with a hamster, which quickly becomes like a brother to him. Maybe these human-animal relationship are all the stronger because of how scary and uncertain everything is during wartime; it makes you look at things differently and appreciate what you have, even if that is just a hamster.

Chapter 26

"And, in this small way, our own private family Underground ceased to exist." (26.25)

Sadly, the war changes the Żabiński family dynamic. Antonina and Jan grow distant, and so do Ryś and his father after Ryś pulls a prank and Jan punishes him. However, odds are Ryś would have needed to be punished as he got older, anyway, war or not. So Antonina is maybe being a little dramatic here.

Chapter 31

"If felt words like mother, wife, sister, have the power to change a bastard's spirit and conquer his murderer's instincts, maybe there's some hope for the future of humanity after all." (31.62)

Antonina learns that the way to a Nazi's heart is by exploiting his sentimental feelings about his own family. Baking him swastika-shaped cookies is a close second. Antonina doesn't need to resort to hateful baking, though, because by reminding soldiers of their female relatives at home, she convinces them not to hurt her and her family.