Study Guide

The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story Themes

By Diane Ackerman

  • Freedom and Confinement

    Some people believe that animals shouldn't be kept in zoos. Others believe that zoos are okay, as long as the animals feel like they're in their natural environment. And others just go see Zootopia and pretend they're in a world where animals act like humans.

    But this isn't Zootopia. We won't be thinking of animals acting like humans. Instead, we'll think of humans being treated like animals. In The Zookeeper's Wife, we focus on two sides. On one side, we've got Hitler and the Nazis, who treat humans worse than animals, experimenting on them and trying to exterminate those they see as unworthy.

    On the other side, we've got Jan and Antonina: Polish zookeepers above ground, resistance members underground. They use their zoo expertise to herd people to freedom, treating them more like beloved family pets than like cattle.

    It's okay to treat people like animals if you're nice to animals, right?

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. How does Jan and Antonina's experience as zookeepers come in handy when hiding Guests in the zoo?
    2. Is there freedom in confinement? How do the zookeepers grant freedom by keeping people in small spaces?
    3. How do the animals react when the zoo is destroyed? Do all the animals embrace their newfound freedom?

    Chew on This

    During times of war, people will accept different levels of confinement if it means they will ultimately regain their freedom in the end.

    Humans are animals, too, so in a way, the whole world becomes a zoo during the war. Everyone is confined, for various reasons.

  • Loyalty

    It's absurd to think about, but had Twitter existed back in the 1940s, the #TeamHitler hashtag would be trending. When the war comes to Poland, Jan and Antonina need to choose sides. It's not really a tough choice: Hitler treats people like animals. Actually, worse than that. He treats people the way even the worst among us would treat an animal, which is to say: Not good at all.

    Jan and Antonina in The Zookeeper's Wife decide to go with #TeamHumanity instead. They pledge their loyalty to the Allied powers and work with the Polish Underground to sabotage the Germans. Although their zoo houses exotic animals, they believe all people are exotic in their own ways. They'll do all they can to preserve human nature's purest elements.

    Questions About Loyalty

    1. What is the main reason Jan and Antonina decide to dedicate their lives to saving the Jews?
    2. In what ways is their loyalty tested? Do they ever consider switching sides?
    3. Jan and Antonina later divide their own houseguests. Why do most people side with Antonina during their marital dispute?

    Chew on This

    Antonina and Jan choose to side with the Allies not because it is what benefits them the most—in fact, their zoo is all but destroyed in the process—but because they believe it is right.

    Ironically, lies are often a part of loyalty, especially when it comes to Jan. He must pretend to work with the Germans in order to better sabotage them.

  • Warfare

    You don't usually think of wars when you think of zoos, unless the little-known chimpanzee vs. bonobo conflict at the Bronx Zoo in 1976 comes to mind. But in The Zookeeper's Wife, the Warsaw Zoo gets caught right at ground zero of World War II. Pretty much everyone and everything was caught in the middle of this war, which is why it's called a World War.

    Stories about World War II are often told from the point of view of soldiers and their families, so Antonina, a zookeeper's wife who lives in Poland, gives us unique insight into a war that's been written about to death.

    Now, if only one of those bonobos would write about the brutal conflict in the zoo that lasted for thirteen years…

    Questions About Warfare

    1. How does The Zookeeper's Wife compare to other war stories you have read or seen? How is it different?
    2. Do Jan and Antonina change the course of the war? How would things have been different if they had not taken the actions they did take?
    3. Why do you think Jan and Antonina's story went untold for so long?

    Chew on This

    War is a uniquely human concept (unless you're observing chimpanzees), so it's ironic that two zookeepers—who live in a world of animals that don't know war—who work the hardest to provide safe refuge for people hurt by war.

    Animals are adaptable when their environment changes. War changes the entire world, and the people need to learn to be as adaptable as the animals are.

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

    You can't spell "compassion" without "compass," as in "moral compass." Yeah, well, Antonina, The Zookeeper's Wife of the title, may be so in tune with nature that she doesn't even need an actual compass. She knows that the sun rises in the East, sets in the West, and that moss grows on the north side of trees.

    Her moral compass is just as acute as her internal directional one. During the war, Antonina dedicates her life to taking care of people and animals. Like a plant growing toward the sun, Antonina's moral compass is always pointed in the right direction.

    Questions About Compassion and Forgiveness

    1. Why is Antonina so driven to help others?
    2. How does Antonina feel when others try to take care of her, like when she is bedridden?
    3. Is Antonina compassionate toward humans in the same way she is compassionate toward animals, or does she put one group ahead of the other?

    Chew on This

    What sets Antonina and Jan apart from the Nazis is that they care about people who are different from them. The Nazis want everyone to be one big Aryan lump, while Antonina and Jan care for people of all different nationalities and religions.

    Antonina is so darn compassionate, she even tries to find goodness in the Nazi soldiers.

  • Courage

    Small dogs don't realize that they're small. This can cause them to stand up to bigger animals in stand-offs that seem like huge acts of bravery.

    In The Zookeeper's Wife, Jan and Antonina are small dogs stuck in a big war. What sets them apart from actual dogs—and makes them actually courageous instead of just foolish—is that Antonina and Jan know they are small. But that doesn't stop them from standing up to the Nazis, who are the big dogs in this dog fight.

    Questions About Courage

    1. Where does Jan get his courage from? What do you consider the bravest thing he does?
    2. How does Antonina demonstrate her courage?
    3. There are many courageous humans in this book, but are there courageous animals? Is it possible for animals to be brave and courageous?

    Chew on This

    Courage has different definitions at different times. During World War II, simply getting up and functioning, when bombs could fall or soldiers could attack at any moment, is a brave act.

    Running away is sometimes considered cowardly, but for the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, it's courageous to attempt an escape—and it's courageous to assist them. Failure means certain death.

  • Family

    During World War II, the Allied powers included the United States, Britain, France, and Poland, among many others. These countries became a temporary family, fighting against evil.

    Another group of allies, featured in The Zookeeper's Wife, is made up of Jan and Antonina, along with their son, Ryś, and their badgers, hamsters, dogs, cats, and elephants—not to mention their Guests. That's quite a family. As zookeepers, Antonina and Jan treat their animals as family, too. As an allied front against the Nazis, they believe that united they can stand, but divided, they will fall.

    And, of course, if they fall, their animals might eat them.

    Questions About Family

    1. Which animals become part of the family? How are they treated once they're welcomed into the house?
    2. What causes tension in Jan and Antonina's marriage?
    3. How does the war change the ways Antonina raises her son?
    4. Do Jan and Antonina treat their Guests as family, too?

    Chew on This

    Jan and Antonina are crucial allies for the Polish Underground during the war, and the fact that they are a strong family unit makes them an even better asset than if they were apart.

    As zookeepers, Jan and Antonina treat animals as part of the family. To them the bonds between a person and an animal can be just as strong as the bonds between people—maybe even stronger in a time of war, when people are killing each other all over the place.

  • The Home

    What is your dream home? A beach house on the Mediterranean? A micro-home where your bed folds out into a shower? A bubble on the moon? If you said "in a zoo," then you're either Matt Damon or Jan and Antonina from The Zookeeper's Wife.

    When these two crazy kids marry, they move into a zoo and make it a national attraction. But when war strikes, it all homes across the globe are threatened—even homes filled with exotic animals. Jan and Antonina don't close their gates and keep their polar bears to themselves, though; they open their home to refugees, making theirs a home not just for themselves and their animals but for anyone who needs a home during a dangerous time.

    Questions About The Home

    1. What forces Antonina and Jan to leave their home? How does this make them feel? Do they ever expect to return home?
    2. How does the war change Jan and Antonina's home over the years—both the house itself and the people welcomed within its walls?
    3. When Antonina is forced to move, how does she find the comforts of home? Who provides for her? How are the people she finds similar to the way she treats her own Guests? How are they different?

    Chew on This

    A zoo can be a home for displaced animals that cannot survive in the wild. Antonina's villa becomes a home for Jews who would be killed if they remained outside its confines.

    During a war, a home is both a physical place and a general feeling of safety. People must be able to find homes on the go—and to find safety and security wherever they can.

  • Fear

    War is scary. Do we really need to go into detail? Soldiers could bust up in your house at any minute and take control of it or shoot you. Bombs are falling from the sky. Friends and relatives are being killed. Entire towns could be wiped off the map.

    Are you trembling yet?

    During wartime, some people attempt to control other people through fear, the way some people try to intimidate their animals—or their children—at home. So it's fitting, and a little bit ironic, that in The Zookeeper's Wife, it's a pair of compassionate zookeepers who attempt to provide a place of calm in a sea of fear.

    Questions About Fear

    1. How do the animals react when the zoo is invaded? Is their behavior similar to or different from the way the humans react?
    2. Why does Antonina hide her fear, only expressing it in her private journals?
    3. Jan is often portrayed as insanely courageous. Is he ever scared? If so, what is he afraid of?
    4. What is childhood like for Ryś, who is growing up in a world of fear?

    Chew on This

    Fear exists on a spectrum, and living during World War II is about trying to find the places with the least amount of that fear. The zoo itself fluctuates along this spectrum, sometimes being a safe haven that people can flee to, while at other times, it is a target, and people must flee from it to a safer space.

    At the beginning of the war, Antonina and other people behave like the animals do: they are confused and scared by the initial attacks. But their fear lessens as the war continues; anxiety becomes the default emotion, and they become better able to live with their fears.