The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story Summary
Antonia and Jan are zookeepers. They keep a zoo. It has animals in it. It's in Poland. But when Germany invades Poland in 1939, things start to change. The Germans confiscate some of the zoo's animals, and they kill the rest. Now, the zoo is still in Poland, but it has no animals in it. Can it still be called a zoo? Can its keepers be called zookeepers if they have no zoo to keep?
This dilemma is the makings of either an existential crisis or a children's nursery rhyme (how many zoos can a zookeeper keep if a zookeeper can't keep zoo?)—or both.
With their animals either dead or undergoing Nazi testing, Jan and Antonina have a zoo to fill. They fill it with people.
In a nice way. We swear.
Jan and Antonina help sneak people from the Warsaw Ghetto and into the zoo, hiding them has helpers or relatives, or sticking them in abandoned animal habitats to keep them concealed from the Nazis, who want them dead. Jan is the sneaker (as in he sneaks, not as in he was made by Adidas), while Antonina is the caretaker who feeds these people, and entertains them, and tries to make their life as normal as possible.
Basically, Antonina does exactly what she did with the zoo animals: she creates a reasonable facsimile of these people's natural habitat. Our zoo cage would include a computer, a TV, the complete series of Gilmore Girls on Netflix, and a lot of chocolate. We wouldn't be able to tell the difference between that and home.
During the war years, a variety of Guests filter through the zoo. Artist Magdalena Gross becomes close friends with Antonina. A man named the Fox Man raises foxes on the zoo grounds for furs for German officers. And Antonina's son, Ryś, makes a menagerie of animal friends. Pigs, badgers, and hamsters—oh, my.
Antonina feeds her animals and guests, plays piano for them, and does her best to make them feel at home. In exchange, when she is bedridden from a leg infection, they do their best to take care of her, just like a family would, even if that family includes cats, rabbits, and dogs.
Meanwhile, as a member of a Polish underground group, Jan sneaks into the Ghetto and rescues as many people as he can. As a zookeeper, he has a variety of methods to distract guards. For a while, he brings meat from a pig farm onto the zoo grounds. Later, he befriends a German officer who really likes beetles. Jan brings beetle collections to him, and sneaks Jews from the Ghetto while the officer is occupied. Remember, "Look over there!" is a valid espionage tactic.
Eventually, Jan must battle the Germans as part of the Resistance. He is taken hostage, leaving Antonina to care for the house and the zoo on her own—with the Guests' help, of course. When German soldiers come into the house and threaten her family, Antonina believes she develops super-persuasive mind powers. By mentally telling soldiers to put down their guns, they do.
Hey, you do you, girl.
The war comes to an end, Jan returns from a POW camp, and he and Antonina work to rebuild the zoo. Their Guests move on to rebuild their lives as well, but their stories will always be a part of Jan and Antonina's memories. Artist Magdalena Gross makes two sculptures for the Warsaw Zoo, giving them a memento of their time together.
Although you can't go to the Warsaw Zoo and see humans in cages (though just wait until our inevitable alien invasion), you can go today and see the animals in the zoo Antonina and Jan cared for. Tell the badger we said hi.
- It's the summer of 1935, when Antonina, the zookeeper's wife, wakes up.
- Some people wake up to make the donuts; Antonina wakes up to take care of the gibbons.
- Not Leeza Gibbons. These gibbons.
- As far as plot, that's literally it for this chapter. If you were expecting action, you're reading the wrong book.
- For a few pages, Ackerman tells us a bit of Antonina and her husband's history. He became zoo director in 1929. They married in 1931.
- Antonina thinks she has a "strange and mysterious" (1.22) gift that allows her to talk to animals.
- They had a son, Ryś, in 1932. Antonina and Jan, we mean; not Antonina and the animals.
- Jan has a dilemma: "Adolf has to be stopped" (2.1).
- No, not Hitler, but a rhesus monkey named Adolf.
- Hitler will be stopped before the monkey is, because this is literally never mentioned again.
- Antonina wanders the zoo and observes the animals, like Tuzinka, "one of only twelve elephants ever born in captivity" (2.11).
- Antonina longs for people to connect more with their animal natures, and she often invites artists to the zoo to "uncage their imaginations" (2.15).
- If a zoo is looking for an ad slogan, snag that one. You can pay us in free zoo tickets.
- Riding his bicycle around the zoo, Jan encounters a woman talking to a parrot. Polly want a straightjacket?
- The woman is Magdalena Gross, a sculptor.
- Jan suggests that Magdalena stay in the zoo and sculpt animals.
- Magdalena and Antonina form "an important friendship" (3.3), but we won't see Mags again until Chapter 18.
- In the summer of 1939, young Ryś befriends a badger and leads him around the zoo by a leash. Or he plays with his friends.
- However, a war is brewing, and these little games of "build[ing] fortifications for war" (3.13) don't seem all that innocent anymore to Antonina.
- On September 1, 1939, airplanes buzz over the zoo.
- Antonina and Jan, relieved that Ryś is staying in another town, decide to leave the zoo for a nearby village.
- However, on the way, a bomb hits the street in front of our heroes. They decide to turn back.
- Good idea.
- Back at the zoo, Antonina and Jan try to find a place to go. One where hopefully the road hasn't been bombed to oblivion.
- Jan sends Antonina to a resort village. When the bombs fall, go soak at a spa.
- But on the way, German aircraft attack again.
- Antonina survives and makes it to the resort, which is now "a ghost town" (4.18). Who is going to give her a massage?
- Jan arrives a few days later and tells Antonina it's probably safe to go back.
- So the two go back to the zoo.
- Sadly, Jan was totally wrong about it being safe. The zoo has been damaged in attacks, ruining buildings and hurting many animals.
- Jan and Antonina do the best they can to care for the animals remaining, but on September 7, they are forced to evacuate. Bye, zoo.
- Jan joins the army, while Antonina and Ryś move into a small apartment in the city.
- Antonina depends on the kindness of strangers—i.e., the old ladies downstairs—to help her with food and other necessities.
- Occasionally, Antonia leaves the apartment and wanders the city, looking at wreckage. She worries that "the teenage boys left in charge" won't look after the animals.
- We worry that since all civilians are supposed to evacuate, that these teenage boys are either a) imaginary or b) vulnerable to be bombed to death.
- But Antonina doesn't worry about such small details. She only thinks of the animals, and she herself feels like "a hunted animal" (5.14).
- Nazi bombers bomb Warsaw, including the zoo.
- Antonina appears to be back there, trying to rescue animals.
- Some animals survive, but Antonina can't find Ryś's pet badger, Badger.
- Soon, Warsaw surrenders. Good thing Badger got out while he still could.
- One night, Jan arrives at Antonina's little apartment. His arrival is unexpected.
- Jan had bumped into a German officer, who turned out to be Dr. Müller, a fellow member of the International Association of Zoo Directors.
- Müller helped Jan escape by "arresting" him and bringing him to Warsaw as a prisoner, then releasing him.
- Antonina and Jan go back to the zoo to find wounded animals; then they return to the apartment.
- After Warsaw officially surrenders and Germans take over, Antonina and Jan return to the zoo for good.
- However, a Polish Resistance is forming, and Jan is interested in being a part of it.
- Antonina and Jan are visited by a representative for Lutz Heck.
- Lutz Heck is the director of the Berlin Zoo, and he wants all of the Warsaw Zoo's animals.
- Because the zoo is in danger of being liquidated, Antonina and Jan wonder if they should accept the offer.
- Some crazy Nazi zookeeper might literally turn the animals into liquid. Or he might not.
- This chapter is a brief biography of Lutz Heck and an overview of Nazi ideologies regarding eugenics and so-called animal purity.
- We suggest the title "What the Heck?"
- Heck is obsessed with resurrecting three "pure-blooded extinct species": tarpans, aurochsen, and the European bison.
- This obsession with animal purity starts seeping over into human races later on.
- Strangely, the Nazis are also "ardent animal lovers" (8.16), and a biologist "was once punished for not giving worms enough anesthesia during an experiment" (8.16).
- Have a heart, man. Earthworms have three.
- Antonina wakes in darkness.
- Because of the blackout, bedroom windows have been sealed with plywood.
- Antonina must get ready for Lutz Heck's visit.
- Heck arrives, and he's friendly. He promises to persuade German high command to be lenient toward the zoo.
- In the meantime, Heck asks for the zoo's animals.
- "Please think of your animals as a loan" (9.10), Heck says. Can they charge interest? Loan him an elephant and get both it and a hippo back in return?
- Antonina feels they have no choice to comply.
- Heck isn't as nice as he seems.
- Heck soon returns to the zoo with high-ranking SS friends to take them on a big game hunt.
- It's like shooting animals in cages, which is hardly much of a hunt.
- Antonina is shocked by Heck's betrayal (again: "What the Heck?"), and she worries how many people will be hunted in the coming months.
- Sadly, Antonina can't count that high.
- Not because we're making a bad Polish joke, but because the number is so huge.
- The zoo is turned into a pig farm. Babe 3: Pigs of War.
- Jan gives Ryś a pet piglet he names Moryś. Place your bets now on how many chapters before this little piggy becomes sausage.
- Until then, Antonina is happy her son has something resembling a normal happy childhood, if having a pig as your best friend counts as normal.
- Antonina is upset as German hostilities continue, and the Nazis lock away over 400,000 Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto.
- Two of Antonina and Jan's friends, Adam and Wanda Englert, stage a fake divorce so that Wanda can flee. But before she runs away, they throw a farewell party.
- Antonina and Jan head to the party, but their trip is interrupted by a bombing. Way to kill their buzz, Nazis.
- Antonina and Jan are only saved because they stopped to have a smoke. Smoking can save lives, we guess.
- Antonina and Jan don't have time to rejoice in their luck, because the bombs appear to have fallen near Ryś's school.
- Luckily, all the kids are safe.
- Wanda ends up disappearing, but she shows up in the zoo "in the guise of Ryś's non-Jewish tutor" (12.22). Quite a magic act.
- Jan feels "a moral indebtedness to the Jews" (13.2) because he went to a school that was primarily Jewish.
- To repay this debt, Jan secretly uses the zoo to hide refugees.
- Working as part of the Underground, Jan assumes the code name "Francis," after Francis of Assisi, "patron saint of animals" (13.7).
- We'd have gone with "Koala," after the cutest of all the animals, but whatever works.
- To camouflage their secret "Guests" (14.1), Antonina and Jan keep the zoo populated with many legal visitors. Their strategy is to hide people in plain sight.
- Antonina takes on the role of hostess, doing all the added chores and finding a way to provide extra food.
- Jan, meanwhile, hides material for bombs underground.
- The biggest challenge is dealing with Ryś.
- Antonina teaches Ryś never to talk about the Guests to anyone, because if he does, everyone in the house will be murdered.
- We've played the Quiet Game before, but never under penalty of death if we lost.
- Remember back in Chapter 11, when we said to place your bets for when Ryś's pig would be slaughtered?
- That happens now. German soldiers drag Moryś away to be butchered. He's some pig.
- The Germans shut down the pig farm at the zoo.
- Antonina is baffled, because that means less meat for everyone, even the Nazis.
- Jan is angry, because the pig farm was his big excuse for sneaking into the Ghetto for supplies. Now he has to find a new way into the Ghetto.
- Meanwhile, not content to destroy only the zoo's animals, the Nazis also cut down many of the plants and trees and replace them with German ones.
- Jan soon meets with Warsaw's Polish vice-president, who hooks Jan up with a Ghetto pass. It's a job linked to Warsaw's Parks and Gardens Department, giving Jan access to the Ghetto under the guise of inspecting its flora.
- This job introduces Jan and Antonina to famous entomologist (two words we never thought would go together), Dr. Szymon Tenenbaum.
- Tenenbaum leaves his insect collection to Jan for safekeeping.
- Later, Tenenbaum allegedly authorizes a German named Ziegler to inspect his collection.
- Ziegler is simply Ziegler, like Madonna. No need for more than one name.
- Jan worries that Tenenbaum has turned him and Antonina in to the Nazis.
- But no, Ziegler just really loves beetles.
- Ziegler wants Jan to be a liaison between him and Tenenbaum, an arrangement that would grant Jan unprecedented access to the Ghetto.
- Entering the Ghetto under the guise of being a beetle expert gives Jan the ability to sneak many people out.
- In the winter, Tenenbaum dies, and Ziegler leaves his dog, Zarka, in Antonina's care.
- Jan begins to plot an escape for Tenenbaum's widow.
- Jan attempts to smuggle Lonia Tenenbaum—the lost member of the royal Tenenbaums—out of the Ghetto.
- But Jan and Lonia are stopped, because the guard who normally is on duty isn't. His wife is.
- Jan yells at the wife, and she agrees to open the gate and let him and Lonia through.
- Lonia stays at the zoo as a Guest for a couple of weeks before moving to safer lodgings in the countryside.
- Lonia leaves the dog, Zarka, behind. Poor puppy.
- We interrupt our regularly scheduled summary of The Zookeeper's Wife for this chapter on Nazi doctrine.
- Basically, everything the Nazis did to the zoo—like kill its plants and animals and replace them with German ones—the Nazis start doing… to the world.
- We now rejoin The Zookeeper's Wife, already in progress.
- It's 1941, and summer passes into autumn.
- Then, on the next page, autumn passes into winter.
- "All the Guests were spirited away to other winter safe houses" (18.4).
- Keeping Antonina and Ryś company are a rabbit named Wicek (Vincent, in English) and a chicken named Kuba (Jacob).
- The rambunctious rabbit terrorizes the house like a real-life Bugs Bunny.
- In Spring 1942, Guests arrive at the zoo once more.
- One of the Guests is Antonina's BFF from Chapter 3, Magdalena Gross.
- Magdalena tries to avoid staying at the zoo for as long as she can, not because she doesn't like the zoo, but because she wants to live some semblance of a normal life.
- That's impossible in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, so Magdalena eventually flees for the zoo.
- Antonia kneads dough in the kitchen because the Guests knead—er, need bread.
- Magdalena helps Antonina make croissants. "I may not be able to sculpt in clay now, but I can still sculpt in flour!" (19.8).
- We would like a buttery little statue of David for breakfast, please.
- Whenever the Guests need to hide, Antonina plays a song on the piano: Offenbach's "Go, go, go to Crete!"
- That means go, go, go into hiding.
- Magdalena wonders if she'll ever be able to enjoy this music again.
- In Autumn 1942, Antonina is stricken with a sickness that leaves her legs inflamed. She must stay in bed.
- The author speculates that this may have been the result of Antonina's pregnancy.
- Then we jump back to June 1942, when the Polish Underground receives a letter warning them of a mass execution of Jews.
- Before the Ghetto is liquidated, which Antonina feared would happen at the zoo, we jump back again to 1940.
- A pediatrician names Henryk Goldszmit starts an orphanage.
- Then, in August 1942, Goldszmit and all the orphans are put on a train to Treblinka.
- Next, we fast-forward to 1971, when Russians name an asteroid after Goldszmit.
- We feel like we've been to that asteroid and back.
- We're back (from outer space) to Autumn 1942.
- A new Underground group named Żegota is formed.
- These people are dedicated to "rescue, not sabotage or fighting, and, as such, it was the only organization of its kind in occupied Europe during the war" (21.3).
- As part of Żegota, Jan and Antonina help save many Jews. Their zoo floweth over with tenants.
- Continuing the trend of hiding people in plain sight, the zoo soon becomes home to a Nazi fur farm.
- In charge of it is Witold Wróblewski, a Pole nicknamed the "Fox Man."
- Wróblewski raises foxes and other animals for fur. He is assisted by his cat, Balbina, who will never be anyone's fur coat.
- The Fox Man actually uses Balbina as a wet nurse to feed young foxes.
- Meanwhile, Antonina starts to care for a large muskrat named Szczurcio. She puts it in a cage on the porch, gives it a little swimming pool in a glass, and watches it bathe every day.
- One day, the muskrat escapes, and our heroes find it in the chimney.
- And another night, after soup is somehow spilled on the Fox Man's head, he lets birds eat noodles from his hair. Yum yum.
- In Winter 1942, Jan brings Ryś a new pet: a hamster.
- Noting all the animals in their midst, as if this were a new thing at a zoo, Antonina calls her house a "Noah's Ark," and she says this the beginning of "the Hamster Era" (22.18).
- A new guest arrives: Maurycy Fraenkel.
- Bethenny Frankel is Skinny Girl; Maurycy Fraenkel is Skinny Guy.
- Maurycy is pale, sickly, a "husk or a shell" (23.4).
- A classical musician, Maurycy pretends to be Antonina's doctor, because Antonina is afraid the housekeeper will give him away.
- Maurycy soon becomes best friends with…the hamster.
- In Spring 1943, Heinrich Himmler wants to give Hitler a birthday present.
- What is it? A cake? Balloons? A drone?
- No: the death of all the Jews.
- We jump to December 10—we're assuming this is 1942—when Jewish family friends of Antonina show up for refuge.
- Then we're in the summer of 1942, when Jews are being transported to concentration camps.
- Regina Kenigswein and her husband, Samuel, flee and end up on Antonina's doorstep.
- Antonina hides the Kenigsweins in the Pheasant House, where they stay for two months. Nothing to see here but the chickens, right?
- In December 1943, Antonina bleaches the Kenigsweins' hair to make them appear more Aryan.
- This leads us down a tangent about a woman named Dr. Mada Walter, who opened an institute to help Jews "pass" as Aryans.
- It's spring. What year? We have no idea. Considering it was December 1943 in the last chapter, we assume it's 1944.
- Older children from the Underground arrive at the zoo, and Ryś makes friends with them.
- One day, the mother of one of Ryś's friends comes to Antonina. She overhead the boys plotting to hang a flag that says "Hitler kaput!" on it.
- What is a childish game to these kids could mean death for everyone.
- Jan and Antonina foil the boys' plot.
- Jan asks Ryś how he should be punished.
- Maybe by eating a whole bunch of chocolate? That would just be awful…
- But Ryś says, "You can spank me" (26.24), and his father does so. Hopefully there is chocolate after.
- Now it's Spring 1943, and Antonina recovers from her leg infection. However, her marriage seems infected.
- The more Jan leaves the house to work for the Underground, the tenser their marriage grows. He picks at her, and she feels like she never does anything right.
- However, one day, German soldiers come to the door and accuse Antonina of purposefully starting a fire on zoo grounds.
- Antonina says that the soldiers themselves probably did it.
- The barn is on fire, and Antonina suggests that a German sneaking away with his girlfriend was enjoying a smoke and set the place ablaze.
- Bam, mic drop.
- Jan admires Antonina's resolve and compliments her at dinner.
- Antonina is thrilled. Her husband has never praised her in public before.
- Antonina believes the real reason she was able to dissuade the soldier is due to her "telepathic waves" (27.45).
- A member of Żegota helps Jan and Antonina secure false documents for their Guests and relocate them.
- Magdalena, being famous, is a special risk, so she is soon relocated.
- More Guests arrive, and the cycle continues. This is the zoo that never ends…
- In May 1943, Jan and Antonina hide young Underground members in the Pheasant House.
- Young Ryś makes friends with them.
- The Undergrounders think it's funny that his name, Ryś, means "lynx" (29.18), while they are code-named Pheasants.
- The visit doesn't last long, and soon the Underground people leave the zoo.
- Ryś is sad that his new friends have abandoned him. The Pheasants have flown the coop.
- In Winter 1943, Ryś is hospitalized for pneumonia. He returns as the snow melts in the spring.
- We're told it's Spring 1943, not Spring 1944, when the president of Warsaw tells Jan he wants to rebuild and restore the zoo.
- Jan is thrilled.
- But the director of the Parks and Gardens opposes this for some reason and tells the Germans to fire Jan.
- Nevertheless, the Polish vice-president intercepts the complaint and instead transfers Jan to the Pedagogic Museum, so that he won't lose all his income and his house.
- One day, while Jan is at work, Antonina visits a friend's house for a bath. While she is there, German soldiers inspect the house and wonder why Antonina, an undocumented visitor, is in this house.
- It's a tense moment, but the soldiers don't do anything to Antonina.
- In June, Antonina gives birth to a daughter, Teresa.
- Teresa's christening is celebrated on July 10.
- Maurycy's hamster drinks too much honeyed vodka and dies. But the new baby evens out the population.
- Allegedly, it's now 1944.
- "Nothing had changed" (31.1).
- R.I.P. Hamster, you don't count.
- Even though we're told nothing had changed, we're then told that "most Guests has already left to join the army or escape" (31.4). Okay.
- Jan and Antonina get word that the Polish Uprising could happen at any minute.
- That minute is now, and Jan leaves to fight.
- Antonina stays home, like Nicole Kidman in Cold Mountain, waiting for Jan to return.
- "For twenty-three nights she forced herself to stay awake" (31.19).
- Randy Gardner's 11-day record without sleep has nothing on that.
- One day, a waking nightmare occurs.
- Germans invade the house and pull guns on Antonina and her baby.
- As punishment for the Uprising, Hitler has ordered his soldiers to kill Poles.
- Antonina is about to become one of them.
- First, the soldiers lead Ryś and his friends away and shoot them.
- Antonina and the baby are next.
- But Antonina uses her magic mind powers to say, "Calm down! Put the guns down!" (31.36).
- Soon, the soldiers call back Ryś and his friends. They didn't shoot them, after all.
- It was a joke.
- Ha ha ha. Oh, Nazi humor.
- Another day, soldiers arrive to loot the house.
- But again, Antonina uses her magic mind powers to snap the leader out of it.
- Antonina places her hand on the soldier's shoulder (say that five times fast) and says, "Not allowed! Your mother! Your wife! Your sister! Do you understand?" (31.52).
- Like a dog whacked in the nose with a newspaper, the soldier stops stealing furniture. And he never pees on the carpet again.
- Not only that—the solider also gives Antonina a ring that likely came from a dead Polish soldier.
- Later, a German officer enters the house while Antonina is playing the piano. He asks her to play "the Star-Spangled Banner" of all things, and she complies. He sings along, and then he leaves. Weird.
- The zoo should be renamed "Home of the Brave."
- In the fall, Fox Man is ordered to leave the zoo and take his fur farm to Germany.
- Afraid to stay in the villa as bombs are falling, Antonina and Ryś hide in his truck, and he smuggles them to a nearby village.
- There, Antonina and Ryś live in an abandoned schoolhouse. The local teacher, Mrs. Kokot, helps them with food and hot water.
- Breakfast: bread and butter. Lunch: bread and butter. Dinner: bread and butter.
- Hey, it's still better than Arby's.
- While eating her bread and butter, Antonia frets about whether Jan is still alive or not. We're told he is, miraculously.
- Even though he was shot through the neck, Jan is alive in a POW camp.
- In December 1944, Antonina gets a letter from Jan.
- It's just a simple drawing, but it lets Antonina know Jan's still alive.
- Jan forgot to draw the bullet wound through his neck, though.
- In 1945, the Germans flee Warsaw, and Antonina returns to the zoo.
- Surprisingly, the house has survived, although not whole.
- A lot of the home's wood was taken and used for firewood.
- Surprisingly, Ryś finds a cat in the woods. Who is it? Garfield? Stimpy? Hello Kitty?
- No, it's Balbina.
- Balbina survived.
- However, Balbina doesn't want to go with Ryś to their temporary home. He releases her into the woods.
- This is like the "Where Are They Now?" chapter of the book.
- The cold, hard truth: they're dead.
- But before that, here's what happened after the war.
- Magdalena marries Maurycy.
- Jan returns in 1946 and begins rebuilding the zoo in 1947.
- The zoo reopens in 1949, complete with sculptures from Magdalena decorating it.
- Lutz Heck actually returns thirty bison he "borrowed."
- Antonina writes children's books.
- Antonina dies in 1971; Jan dies three years later.
- In this chapter, Ackerman tells us that the Nazis never quite succeeded in recreating the animals of the past.
- Ironically, though, the Nazis "helped to save scores of rare plants and endangered animals" (36.9).
- Ackerman visits Warsaw in 2005. She wanders the street and stares at a statue of a mermaid holding a sword (a.k.a., Ariel Gets Real).
- Ackerman imagines that Antonina would have identified with the statue, "a defender half woman, half animal" (36.17).
- The end.