Study Guide

Ryszard "Ryś" Żabiński in The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story

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Ryszard "Ryś" Żabiński

The Zookeeper's Son

Have you ever watched a Winnie-the-Pooh cartoon and wondered where all the other humans are? Why is Christopher Robin the only boy in the Hundred Acre Wood?

Maybe it's because everyone else has been killed during the war.

Sorry to shatter your childhood, but little Ryś—that's pronounced "Reesh"—in The Zookeeper's Wife is basically a World War II-era Christopher Robin. Everyone his family meets is either on the run or killed during the war, which means his only friends are the animals in the zoo. He is friends with a badger, a hamster, and a pig named Moryś. Even his nickname, Ryś, means "lynx" in Polish (1.31).

Even the animals aren't permanent playmates for poor Ryś. Badger disappears. Hamster drinks himself to death. And Moryś becomes bacon.

It's so bad that Antonina often frets about the psychological effects all this violence and loss will have on her son. She wonders, "How do you retain a spirit of affection and humor in a crazed, homicidal, unpredictable society?" (11.12).

We're not exactly sure. Ackerman doesn't explore how Ryś adapts to life after the war, instead leaving it up to our imagination. Do you think he grows up to be a well-adjusted adult, or is he a crazy man with an apartment full of cats? Or are those two things not mutually exclusive?

War Games

As a young boy of about seven (when World War II begins in Poland) who is being raised by a spy in a home that houses refugees, Ryś is both afraid of the serious consequences of war and unable to fully grasp them. Ackerman writes that Ryś is "Warned not to breathe a word of the Guests to anyone, ever, no matter whom. He knew that if she slipped up, he, his parents, and everyone in the house would be murdered. What a heavy burden for a small child!" (14.23).

That's the author's interjection at the end. Do you agree with her?

Ryś is definitely affected by the horrors of war, but he seems to cope pretty well. He cries for days when his pet pig is killed, but what child wouldn't? He is upset when two spies who are only a little older than he is flee in the middle of the night, but wouldn't you be upset if a friend you made moved without telling you?

The kid is careful to never talk about the refugees, but he almost gives everyone away when he makes an anti-Hitler flag which says "Hitler kaput!" (26.16). Maybe he thinks he can be like his father and fight the Führer. Or maybe because everything seems to work out for his family, against all odds, he thinks this will work out, too. Or maybe he's just a kid and doesn't really know better.

What we are sure of is that Ryś shows us how adaptable children can be. He is so young that a life during wartime is all he knows. Like the animals in the zoo that adapt to their new habitat, Ryś smoothly adapts to the changing political landscape.

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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