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.